2019 NFL preview: Do the Panthers have another run left with Cam Newton?

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

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In a Week 15 Monday night game last season, the Carolina Panthers got the ball back with 1:44 left, trailing the New Orleans Saints 12-9. It’s a situation Cam Newton has thrived in before.

The guy wearing No. 1 in black didn’t resemble Newton once he wound up to throw. Every pass was a struggle. Each throw looked painful for him. Some missed badly. Newton looked like he was tossing a shot put. The Panthers didn’t get past midfield and took another loss. Even though they had a small chance to make the playoffs after that loss, they smartly shut down Newton for the season. He had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January.

Quarterbacks get hurt, even get surgery on their throwing arms and bounce back. Maybe this is a normal part of Newton’s football journey and in September we’ll see the same cannon-arm, bulldozer-running former MVP.

It’s also impossible to act like Newton is a normal quarterback.

Newton is a unicorn, whose gifts as a passer and runner make him arguably the greatest dual-threat quarterback in NFL history. Ignoring his skill as a runner would cut into his value, and the Panthers have used him a lot in the running game. His career low in rushing attempts for a season is 90, and that is tied for 42nd all-time among quarterbacks in a single season. On that all-time list of rushing attempts in a season by a quarterback, Newton ranks third, fourth, fifth, sixth, 14th, tied for 21st, tied for 24th and tied for 42nd. No quarterback has ever moonlighted as a running back as frequently as Newton.

So when Newton turned 30 in May, it might have been a more significant milestone for him than any other quarterback. Do we treat him more like a running back, whose careers are generally deep on the back nine when they hit 30? It’s tough to say because there’s never been anyone like Newton in the NFL.

Watching him labor through last season with a bum shoulder — he was replaced for a Hail Mary during a game last October, which was alarming considering his prodigious arm strength — was tough. Credit him for playing almost all season through the injury, but now it’s fair to wonder if he’ll lose a few miles an hour on his fastball. It’s also fair to wonder if he and the Panthers will ever have another year like 2015.

The Panthers went 15-1 that season, Newton won an MVP but they lost Super Bowl 50. They’ve made it back to the playoffs just once, and lost in the wild-card round. It’s hard to put together a season like the 2015 Panthers and it’s nearly impossible to stay even close to that level. It’s even harder when your quarterback is hurting.

The Panthers looked great to start last season. They started 6-2. Then they were demolished by the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Thursday night, but that happens. Then they lost 20-19 at Detroit when a two-point conversion fell short. Then another loss. And another. They went from 6-2 to 6-9 before winning Week 17 against a Saints team playing for nothing.

The Panthers were unlucky last season. They lost close games. They had bad injury luck, ranking seventh in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost injury metric. If Newton bounces back and looks like his old self all season, the Panthers are in for a nice positive regression.

The part about Newton is key. The news to this point on his recovery from surgery has been good. Maybe he can bounce back to his MVP form. The clock is ticking, probably a little louder than for any other 30-year-old quarterback we’ve seen.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's 2018 season ended early due to a shoulder injury. (AP)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's 2018 season ended early due to a shoulder injury. (AP)

The Panthers had a rare May signing that changed their offseason outlook. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers cut defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and the Panthers won a battle royal to sign him. He might not be the player he was a few years ago, but he’s a motivated six-time Pro Bowler. The Panthers lost center Ryan Kalil, who retired, but signing Matt Paradis from the Broncos was a nice recovery. They re-signed tackle Daryl Williams to a one-year deal, and it was surprising Williams couldn’t get more. Williams’ return was an unexpected bonus for Carolina. In the draft the Panthers got a fantastic value with Florida State pass rusher Brian Burns at No. 16 overall. Offensive tackle Greg Little, the team’s second-round pick out of Ole Miss, can help protect Newton.

GRADE: B

The Panthers might have a nice group of pass catchers. D.J. Moore showed last season why he was a first-round pick; the next step is consistency. A healthy quarterback would help. Curtis Samuel is a big X factor, a former second-round pick who has exciting playmaking ability and a chance for a nice role with Devin Funchess having moved on. The Panthers found creative ways to use Samuel and Moore last season. At tight end, Greg Olsen is still around and while he isn’t the Pro Bowl player he was, he can contribute and up-and-coming Ian Thomas looks like a good find. Add in Christian McCaffrey’s versatility out of the backfield and Cam Newton has a lot to work with.

Perhaps Christian McCaffrey is indestructible. Before the Panthers rested him for most of a meaningless Week 17 game, McCaffrey played an amazing 97 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps last season. You don’t see that in the NFL anymore. Why even carry a backup running back, right? Well, the Panthers certainly haven’t invested much in the position. Cameron Artis-Payne and rookies Jordan Scarlett (fifth round) and Elijah Holyfield (undrafted) are vying for the handful of snaps behind McCaffrey. If McCaffrey isn’t a superhero and actually misses some time this season, the Panthers are in a bind. There might not be a bigger drop from tailback starter to backup in the NFL (forgive us if you hear that line again in Dallas Cowboys preview). The Panthers offense would totally change without McCaffrey.

The Panthers either couldn’t pass up the value on West Virginia quarterback Will Grier in the third round, they wanted insurance this season in case Cam Newton’s shoulder has a setback, or they are a bit concerned over how many prime years Newton has left. Spending the 100th overall pick on a quarterback was a little unusual for a team with a 30-year-old former MVP. Of course, the Panthers were never going to say they took Grier because they’re concerned about Newton.

“Cam Newton is our franchise quarterback,” general manager Marty Hurney said, according to the team’s site. “This is about developing a young guy and improving depth at the most important position.”

Maybe Grier was simply the best player available, and at the most valuable position in sports. Newton didn’t mind the move. The Panthers would be quite happy if Grier never plays meaningful snaps in a regular-season game.

When the Carolina Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey eighth overall, it was a bit curious. Not because McCaffrey didn’t have monster talent, but it seemed he’d be a committee back. He didn’t have the size of a traditional workhorse NFL running back. Looks can be deceiving. McCaffrey played nearly every down and had 326 touches last season. He averaged 5 yards per carry. He had 107 catches. He can run it tough inside and is devastating in space. And heading into this season, he has a Superman physique. He is a complete, remarkable football player and he might make a run at NFL offensive player of the year someday.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “I see the case for liking D.J. Moore, and I’m not dismissing him out of hand. He’s not a staple of my early portfolio, but I have at least one share. After the Panthers moved Moore into the starting lineup around the middle of his rookie year, he produced at a pace that would equal 67 catches and 960 yards in a full season. He’s also a good candidate to lead all wideouts in rushing yards; a versatile, athletic gadget player. And with Devin Funchess out of Carolina (albeit, a different kind of receiver), more target opportunity awaits.

“But early ADP suggests that Moore is expensive, to the point that you can’t hope he breaks out at his price, you absolutely need him to make a leap to justify your cost. You have to buy him like the blossoming has already happened. Moore is drafted as the WR25 in Yahoo leagues, and he’s up to WR20 (and inside the Top 50 overall) in recent NFFC action. The room is buzzing for Moore.

“So I’m going into this with some trepidation. I am generally leery of buying any player who needs to make a production leap to justify the investment. Again, it’s not like I won’t draft Moore, but he goes into the reactive file, not the proactive file. In certain spots, I might feel cornered into a Moore pick, but that’s not my initial objective entering a draft.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Carolina Panthers]

When a team has an extreme record in close games, it’s due in large part to luck. One-possession NFL games often turn on a bounce or two out of anyone’s control. There wasn’t a more unlucky team in 2018 than the Panthers. Carolina was a ridiculous 2-7 in games decided by seven points or less. They led the NFL in losses in games decided by seven points or less. They lost five close games in a row as their season spun out of control. It’s not like Cam Newton and Ron Rivera can’t win close games — the 2015 Panthers went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer and had another eight-point win — so you have to assume the luck evens out a bit in 2019.

HOW WILL PANTHERS’ CHANGE TO A 3-4 SCHEME AFFECT THE DEFENSE?

There will be some adjustments as the Panthers move to a 3-4 scheme after years in a 4-3 (though these changes are often overstated because most teams use multiple fronts). Everyone in Carolina seems to think it’s for the better.

“What we can we do to help ourselves?” inside linebacker Luke Kuechly said, according to the team’s site. “And I think this gives us that opportunity, especially with the new guys that we have and all the speed.

“Guys are adjusting well. There is a lot new stuff we have going in. It’s been fun. I think it’s going to be good for us.”

There’s always some concern about how players will adjust to new positions, like Kawann Short shifting a bit from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 end. But it can help the Panthers get more speed on the field, and perhaps new roles allow players like Kuechly, Short and inside linebacker Shaq Thompson to thrive. This seems like a change that can help, as long as the adjustment doesn’t take too long.

There are many reasons to like the Panthers. Cam Newton is an amazing player if shoulder surgery gets him back to new. He has some good players around him too. The defense has talent, and maybe a scheme change can energize that unit. There are many reasons why an NFL team succeeds or fails, but sometimes you can simplify things: If Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Luke Kuechly stay healthy for all or most of the season, the Panthers could be really good. They were 6-2 at one point last season and then got buried by close losses in the second half. It’s not out of the question the Panthers could challenge for the NFC South if the Saints slip.

This whole section could just be a picture of Cam Newton’s right shoulder, but it’s probably more complicated than that. Another losing season would make three in four years for Carolina. NFL teams typically react to a stretch like that by firing the coach. Ron Rivera is a good coach, and the Panthers might not have an easy time replacing him, but Rivera shouldn’t feel too comfortable. And another losing season is possible, considering the Panthers will play a tough schedule and don’t have a ton of depth if injuries hit.

I can see the Panthers climbing much higher than this. They were a clear playoff contender last season before their luck went really bad in close games. This ranking is a bit of a hedge due to Cam Newton’s shoulder. If we see before the regular season that his arm strength is entirely back, obviously the outlook is a lot more optimistic. Let’s see if Newton plays in the preseason and how he looks, then reassess before the regular season begins, shall we?

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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