By DJ Siddiqi @DJSiddiqi on July 2, 2014
The Carolina Panthers will look to clinch their second consecutive NFC South title for the first time in franchise history in 2014. The Panthers surprisingly went 11-5 in 2013, aided by the efficient play of QB Cam Newton and a ferocious pass rush which led the NFL in total sacks. If the Panthers are to remain the favorites in a loaded division, these five Panthers have to excel at a high level.
Antoine Cason was signed by the Panthers in the offseason to take over the No. 1 cornerback spot left over by Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn. Four of the Panthers' top five defensive backs from last season are no longer with the team, which means Cason - who formerly played under Ron Rivera when he was defensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers - will have to play at a high level for the secondary to remain stable.
Greg Hardy led the team with 15 sacks last season, which tied a franchise single-season record. Hardy was slapped with the $ 13 million franchise tag in the offseason, and if he wants a long-term deal done in Carolina, he'll have to continue that success in 2014.
Jonathan Stewart has been with the team for what feels like forever. Since being drafted by Carolina in 2008, Stewart has established himself as a playmaker at running back when healthy. The issue is, he's rarely healthy. Since signing a $ 36.5 million extension in 2012, ankle injuries have limited Stewart to just 15 games. He was the Panthers' fourth-leading rushing in 2013, with just 48 carries on 180 yards.
Rookie wide receivers rarely excel in the NFL, but Kelvin Benjamin will be expected to be the No. 1 receiver in Carolina immediately. The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from 2013 in the offseason, and Benjamin will team up with veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery to make up for those losses. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Benjamin will be a frequent red-zone target of QB Cam Newton.
Although Newton did excel in 2013 when he contributed 30 overall touchdowns in comparison to just 13 interceptions, he still has yet to perform at a high level in back-to-back seasons. Many QBs in the past have excelled for single seasons, but the mark of a true elite quarterback is consistency. If Newton excels yet again in 2014, he will place himself on the elite list of quarterbacks in the NFL.
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