The Eye of the Panther is a strategic summary that looks beyond the next game to analyze the Carolina Panthers in the wider context of their season schedule and evaluate how they stand in relation to the rest of the league.

Evaluating the Panthers going into the first week of the 2019 season, there are significant questions about the team to consider itself as well as the quality of their opponents.

The first question is with the most important position in football – the quarterback. Has Cam Newton not only healed completely from the shoulder injury that took him out of the 2018 season, but has he gotten over the foot injury he suffered in Week 3 of the preseason? He was not listed on the injury report for Week 1, but in the past five seasons, Newton has played a full set of sixteen games only twice, so injuries remain a lingering concern.

There are two significant questions about Carolina’s offense besides Newton’s health. The first is whether the team can broaden its offense beyond running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey was both the leading running back and pass catcher for the Panthers last season, and by wide margins in both categories. McCaffrey was on the field for over 90% of the team’s offensive snaps in 2018, and while he executed effectively, that rate doesn’t seem advisable or sustainable. Fortunately, DJ Moore looked good last year, Carolina added reliable veteran Chris Hogan, Curtis Samuel could take a step forward, and they liked what they saw in 2018 from rookie tight end Ian Thomas. The other question on offense is the offensive line. The line was a key weakness last season as it was hit heavily by injury, and it has seen a lot of change this offseason with linemen departing and arriving in different ways. The effectiveness of the offensive line will be crucial to the Panthers performing well in 2019.

Carolina would also be helped by a marked improvement in its defense in 2019, which was middling in 2018. Last season the Panthers’ defense ranked 15th in the league in yards allowed and 19th by points allowed. It was better against the run than against the pass – 12th in the NFL in rush defense compared to 18th against the pass – which might be influenced by the philosophy of Carolina’s coaches of focusing their defense on the line and then building from there. The effectiveness of that approach, however, is unclear. In 2018 the Panthers ranked 15th in the league in interceptions with thirteen picks but ranked all the way down at 27th for sacks with 35. Pass rushing remains a concern for the team going into 2019, although they sought to address that by drafting defensive end Brian Burns with their first round pick in this year’s draft.

In evaluating the potentialities for Carolina’s 2019 season, the home team is only half of the equation. The road to the playoffs goes through the division, and there the Panthers face a big obstacle in the New Orleans Saints. The reigning division champions were very close to being the conference representatives in last year’s Super Bowl. The Saints go into 2019 without having lost any key pieces, aside from perhaps running back Mark Ingram, and they are smarting from two painful playoff exits in the past two seasons.

The rest of the NFC South division is an unknown and a non-factor. The Atlanta Falcons continued a downward trend in 2018. Part of that was injuries – the Falcons lost seven starters to injured reserve and dealt with limitations to other key players – but Atlanta always seems to hit a ceiling below what could be expected of their accumulated talent. In 2018, Atlanta only beat teams with losing records but they finished above the Panthers in division standings despite having the same record because they beat Carolina twice. They have a talented roster, however, so they could readily bounce back from an underwhelming 2018. As for the fourth team in the division, despite a new head coach in Bruce Arians, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rank as a non-factor until proven otherwise. The Buccaneers have posted losing records in eight of the last ten seasons. This is a reflection of Tampa Bay’s dysfunction, with uneven coaching, questionable behavior by their quarterback and other players, and a general inability to execute effectively either on the field or off it.

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In terms of the Panthers’ schedule, they could have a relatively easy start to the season after facing a big challenge in Week 1. Carolina welcomes the reigning conference champions, the Los Angeles Rams, in the first week of the season. While the Rams present a potentially daunting challenge, the Panthers may be facing them at the best time. The first week of the NFL season is always the most unpredictable, as teams face each other without the benefit of game film on their opponents with their new additions and schemes. It also helps that Carolina will play them at home. Additionally, although the Rams in 2018 were aggressive in the offseason and dynamic in the regular season, they just scraped by the Saints to make it to the Super Bowl and the New England Patriots might have revealed some big vulnerabilities in their offense in the title game, particularly with regards to nullifying Rams quarterback Jared Goff. What’s more, judging by Rams head coach Sean McVay’s comments in the offseason and the big extension the team just gave to Goff, it appears that the Rams have not effectively grappled with the flaws that saw them score only three points in last season’s big game. Those flaws could be exploited by other teams. During the offseason, the Rams also lost talent on defense, a unit which was only good enough to rank in the bottom half of the league last season.

After the Rams, the Panthers face a relatively easy slate of games in the early portion of the season. They face the Buccaneers at home in Week 2, then the Cardinals in Arizona in Week 3. The Cardinals were the worst team in the NFL in 2018, and new Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and new quarterback Kyler Murray would have to pull off something spectacular to present much of a challenge in 2019.

The Panthers travel to Houston to face the Texans in Week 4. The Texans on paper present as a substantial team but in reality they have been the AFC’s equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons – a team with a lot of talent that hasn’t produced to its potential. The Texans went on a nine-game winning streak to finish 2018 on top of the AFC South. They couldn’t carry that form into the playoffs, however, where they lost by a large margin at home in the Wild Card round. There were some curious decisions by the Texans front office in the offseason, yet while there continue to be doubts about the Texans, playing them in Houston is not something Carolina can take lightly.

In Week 5, the Panthers host the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL last season. The Jaguars almost beat the Patriots in New England in the AFC Championship Game after the 2017 season, but then fell apart in 2018. Although they retained a lot of their talent from the previous season, personalities overrode that potential in 2018, and the Jaguars’ lack of discipline resulted in failures and fights on the field. The team finally moved on from Blake Bortles as their starting quarterback, as they signed free agent Nick Foles. Foles has distinguished himself as a back-up, especially when he came on in place of an injured Carson Wentz and led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title. Foles is by all accounts a high character person, but it remains to be seen if Jacksonville has solved its discipline issues and how successful they will be in 2019.

Given these factors, Carolina could be 5-1 or 4-2 going into their bye in Week 7. The latter part of their schedule is far tougher, however, as they play the Saints and the Falcons twice, the Packers in Green Bay, and a few teams that could be difficult, like the Titans, the Seahawks and the Colts. The Panthers’ schedule ranks right in the middle of the NFL for difficulty in 2019 – tied for sixteenth – and given their capabilities compared to those of their opponents, analysis based on the 2018 results and the 2019 offseason, Carolina can be reasonable expected to finish with middle-of-the-road results with a 8-8 or 7-9 record for this NFL season. That said, there’s a reason they play the games and NFL teams can’t be judged entirely by how they look on paper. The best evaluation of the Carolina Panthers will be how they play on the field.

The Eye of the Panther will be watching.

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