WELCOME BACK: NORV TURNER, the venerated offensive coordinator who was out of football in 2017. Turner's star pupils have included Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers, but the 66-year-old has never worked with a mobile quarterback like CAM NEWTON. While Turner's downfield attack would seem a perfect match for Newton's power arm, the QB's erratic mechanics can cause him to miss—often wildly—on routine throws, and that won't change eight years into his NFL career. That's why Turner must use Newton's legs to stabilize the offense. Not only is Newton an effective runner, but the threat of his rushing forces defenders to move closer to the line, and to read and react a beat slower.
Even with Newton and the signing of running back C.J. ANDERSON from Denver, the ground game won't prosper if Carolina's O-line doesn't generate more push, and that is going to be a challenge. Center RYAN KALIL is 33 and coming off an injury-plagued season, while last year's top blocker, left guard ANDREW NORWELL, left for the Jaguars in free agency. Pass protection is also a concern. Kalil's brother Matt must get stronger at left tackle. So must fifth-year right guard TRAI TURNER, who lately has floundered against quality bull rushers.
Middle linebacker LUKE KUECHLY, entering his seventh season, is football's best defensive player. His speed and play recognition confound run blockers, and he has developed into the best 'backer in vertical coverage. That was the area that Kuechly felt he most needed to improve early in his career.
The Panthers blitzed more than any NFC team last year (42.7%). But with longtime D-line coach ERIC WASHINGTON taking over after defensive coordinator Steve Wilks left to coach the Cardinals, expect a return to traditional zone coverage behind a straight four-man rush. Carolina's line improved last year as the season went on, but in the offseason tackle Star Lotulelei left for Buffalo. Washington needs 2016 first-round pick VERNON BUTLER to blossom like MARIO ADDISON, whose athleticism now shines through regularly at end thanks to improved technique.
2017 RECORD 11W 5L
SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 7W 9L
8th @STEELERS [Thursday]
17th SAINTS [Monday]
THE GOOD news is that new defensive coordinator ERIC WASHINGTON'S zone scheme places minimal stress on corners and safeties. A team can't invest heavily at every position, and Carolina believes its front seven can mask a low-cost secondary.