The Panthers have an incredibly talented quarterback, an offense with a good number of playmakers, and a defensive front seven that stacks up with almost any in the league.
But for several reasons, few think of them as a playoff contender, primarily for the things they don’t have.
The parts of their roster that are thin are painfully thin, and if Cam Newton fails to take the next step and become a guy that can lead a playoff team (whether he’s a team captain or not), the whole thing’s probably going to collapse and be rebuilt.
They brought in a new General Manager this offseason in Dave Gettleman, but the core of the team is the one built by the old G.M. (Marty Hurney), and it’s not an untalented group.
But they have enough questions, and live in a tough enough neighborhood, that nothing is certain.
The Panthers are better than advertised in a few areas, and their defensive front seven could be quite good.
With the double-dip drafting of defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, along with re-signing Dwan Edwards, the previous gaping hole in the middle of the defense has been filled, which could make their edge rushers even better.
While Charles Johnson’s still overpaid, he’s at least productive. Over the past three seasons, the only seven players in the league have more sacks than his 33.0. Greg Hardy’s coming off an 11.0-sack season and is looking for a contract, and they have a promising third in Frank Alexander.
Along with a fast trio of linebackers, it’s an imposing front.
Luke Kuechly came in as a rookie and made the middle his own, necessitating Jon Beason’s move outside. With Thomas Davis bouncing back from three torn ACLs to have a productive season, it’s a mobile group.
They’re also deep at running back (if sometimes to a fault), and any passing game that includes Steve Smith and Greg Olsen is only going to be so bad, as Brandon LaFell has been an acceptable second.
The secondary, to put it politely, is a real mess.
The best player, free safety Charles Godfrey, is kind of average. And he stands out among his peers.
Who starts next to him in the middle remains to be seen. They have an odd cast of spare parts (Haruki Nakamura, Mike Mitchell, D.J. Campbell), and have expressed interest in free agent Quintin Mikell, who would walk in the door as the best defensive back on the roster.
The news is worse at cornerback, where they have a sack full of nickels, but no one you really trust starting outside and matching up with a Roddy White or a Julio Jones (or a Vincent Jackson, or a Marques Colston, etc.).
Captain Munnerlyn is probably the best of the lot, an undersized competitor (which means he tries hard but people routinely throw over the top of him). They brought in Drayton Florence to shepherd a young group, and former Bears cast-off D.J. Moore could easily make a run at a starting job.
The good news is the Panthers have a good pass rush. The bad news is that pass rush will have to be better than just good to cover up the problems in the back.
They’re also not particularly deep on the offensive line, and are a year away from having needs for a pair of tackles.
The upheaval was relatively mild, considering new General Manager Dave Gettleman inherited a significant salary cap pinch.
He was able to restructure and keep left tackle Jordan Gross, running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and others, keeping together a core of players which have closed strong in recent years.
Of course, the biggest change was the one the Panthers didn’t make, as coach Ron Rivera held onto a job despite a 13-19 record, which includes a sparkling 2-12 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Rivera essentially applied for his own job in an offseason meeting with owner Jerry Richardson (prior to Gettleman being hired), and talked the owner into letting him stay.
Finishing strong both seasons has given Rivera a certain momentum, and his honesty and straightforward approach with players makes him popular in the locker room.
But he’s opened both his seasons 2-8, and he probably won’t survive another such start. If he’s learned how to adjust on the fly and avoid the early hole, he has a chance to grow into an NFL head coach, because his ability to draw Xs and Os is respected.
Again, between now and the opener, three of the four jobs in the secondary will be won by someone, and it’s possible that it’s by someone not there at the moment.
But they do have jobs contested by people on the current roster.
Fourth-rounder Edmund Kugbila got off to a slow start because of some minor injuries, but could push right guard Geoff Hangartner for a job, now or in the future.
They’re looking for a reliable third receiver, and brought in Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon to go along with a cast of leftovers including Armanti Edwards, David Gettis and Kealoha Pilares.
But the majority of the jobs are claimed, for better or for worse.
The Panthers are such that anything between five and 10 wins could be achieved with minimal surprise.
They’re changing offensive coordinators (with Mike Shula replacing Rob Chudzinski), but they’re going to lean toward the stuff that worked in the second half of last year, and away from the over-tinkering that made them a hesitant mess last September and October.
They played the Falcons as well as anyone last year, beating them once and tripping over their own shoes to lose the other in the last seconds.
If Rivera matures as a coach, and Newton matures as a passer, there’s a reasonably high ceiling for this team.
If neither happens, the floor could fall out from beneath them.
Richardson’s not getting more patient as he ages, and doesn’t seem inclined to offer many more chances like the olive branch he extended Rivera this offseason.
Being mediocre again will likely trigger a mass exodus, but the Panthers have the potential to be better than that.