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Don’t Expect the Panthers to be a Serious Contender in 2017

It was fair to expect a bit of regression from the Carolina Panthers in 2016 after their 15-1 NFC championship run in 2015, but things fell apart much worse than anyone expected, leading to a 6-10 record and a last-place finish in the NFC South. Their defense went from allowing 19.5 points per game in 2015 to 25.1 points per game in 2016, bad enough for 26th in the NFL. The offense sputtered too, scoring eight fewer points per game. As a result, they were on the receiving end of multiple beatdowns and they went just 2-6 in games decided by three points or less.

Perhaps their most notable drop-off and the cause of their failures on offense and defense from one year to the next was going from a No. 1-ranked +20 turnover differential in 2015 all the way down to 21st with a -2 turnover differential last season. Cam Newton threw the most interceptions since his rookie season and had the worst quarterback rating of his career. On the other side of the ball, their defensive leader, Luke Kuechly, had his season cut short after suffering a season-ending concussion in Week 11.

So, everything unraveled in 2016, but will they be able to put it back together in 2017? Health is key for every single team in the league, but the beatings Newton has taken over the years are finally starting to build up. Perhaps in an effort to alleviate his do-it-all approach to playing football, the Panthers are providing him with an ultimate do-it-all weapon in Christian McCaffrey, whom they selected eighth overall in the draft. Newton proved he can get it done with his arm in his 2015 MVP season when he threw for 35 touchdown passes, so hopefully the addition of McCaffrey will keep him in the pocket where he won’t have to risk further injuring his surgically repaired shoulder.

I think they can bounce back on offense, but the defense is another story as they did very little to upgrade a secondary that allowed 4,291 passing yards — fourth-worst in the NFL. Clearly, they missed Josh Norman and they’ve done a poor job of trying to replace him. They added cornerback Corn Elder in the fifth round of the draft, but he’s not expected to be an immediate difference-maker.

Despite the lack of personnel turnover on defense, oddsmakers are looking favorably upon the Panthers entering the 2017 season. Here’s my thoughts on their futures odds:

Super Bowl +2500

The Panthers have the best Super Bowl odds among teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season and are tied for the ninth-best odds overall. I think this is a fair price if you’re a Panthers fan and are looking to place a futures bet on your team, but it’s not a bet I’m making. For me, it comes down to the fact that I don’t think they’ll be able to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. The NFC South looks like a buzzsaw of a division this season, plus they’d need a minimum of at least 11 wins to nail down a top-two seed, and I can’t see them getting there.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that they came out of nowhere in 2015 when they clinched the top seed in the conference. The year they made the Super Bowl, they opened the season with odds in the ballpark of +6000 to win the whole damn thing. A similar run isn’t 100 percent unrealistic, but they’d likely need their divisional counterparts to take a complete nosedive and that’s a lot to ask for.

Finally, only one team since division realignment in 2002 — the 2008 Saints — finished last in their division, then won the Super Bowl the following year. I don’t see the Panthers adding their name to that list.

NFC South +225

Carolina has the second-best odds to win the division, behind the defending NFC South champion Falcons, whose odds are +170. A major concern here is that they went just 1-5 in divisional games and finished dead last in the division. For them to win the NFC South this year would mean they went from first in 2015 to last in 2016 and then back to first for 2017. Bouncing from first to last then to first again may not seem very plausible, but it’s a feat the Dallas Cowboys just completed from 2014 to 2016.

Another obvious concern is that there might be two teams in the division that are just flat out better than them in Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Falcons are expected to pick up where they left off before they blew that 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, while the Buccaneers are a sexy pick to become a contender this season after showing growth the past two seasons. Not only did the Bucs beat the Panthers twice last season, but they also had wins over the Falcons, Chiefs and Seahawks, proving they can hang with playoff-caliber clubs.

I think there’s too much of an uphill battle for them in the NFC South. They should improve, but not enough to win the division.

O/U win total 8.5

Speaking of improving, to top their O/U win total this year, they’ll need to improve on last year’s 6-10 disappointment by three games, which is a feat I think they’ll accomplish.

Breaking down their schedule, I think they’ll improve to 3-3 in their divisional games, go 2-2 vs the AFC East teams, 2-2 vs the NFC North teams, then beat the 49ers in Week 1 and the Eagles at home in Week 6. This is a realistic expectation for a team that’s a year removed from a 15-1 season, so I’d advise bettors to take a gamble on the OVER.

McCaffrey for Offensive Rookie of the Year +400

Player prop bettors and fantasy football players alike should expect a high usage rate out of McCaffrey in his rookie season. We know he has the talent and it appears as if he’ll have every opportunity for lots of production this season as the Panthers offense is desperate for a new toy. I’m not totally in love with the +400 price tag that has him tied with Leonard Fournette as the favorite in this category, but it looks like he’ll get lots of touches at different positions, potentially making him the most versatile player in the league.

The fear in this bet is one of the rookie quarterbacks — Watson, Trubisky or Kizer — becoming “the man” much earlier than expected, but McCaffrey is guaranteed to see game action as long as he’s healthy, while the others might not even play until later in the season.

2017 Carolina Panthers Futures Odds
Super Bowl+2500
NFC Championship+140
NFC South+225
Win Total8.5

Odds as of August 25 at Bovada