Next up on my looks on regular season opponents of the Saints focuses on the defending NFC South champions – the Carolina Panthers. In this piece, I intend to grade (out of 5) the positional units of the Panthers to give you a better idea of the opponent. It’s important to note that this isn’t a preview, as many things can change between now and gameday. Also, the grades I give are entirely subjective. However, I’ll try to justify them as best as I can.
Previous Saints opponent breakdowns: Atlanta Falcons
Quarterback – Cam Newton. (3/5)
Newton is a much better fantasy quarterback than he is one in reality. However, the promise he’s shown and the improvements he’s made since entering the league firmly place him as an above-average QB. While his NFL QB rating (88.8) is outside the top 10, his dual-threat ability – which netted him 587 yards last year – is a dangerous weapon that often forces defences to play a QB spy. However, the Saints clearly have an advantage at the position.
Running Backs – DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert. (3/5)
While they individually may be considered to be average, injuries and inconsistency have led to Newton being the most feared rushing weapon for the Panthers. Jonathan Stewart has constant injury woes and DeAngelo Williams has proven to be an unspectacular back in his stead. Mike Tolbert provides a bowling ball-like punch in short-yardage situations which is useful. What swayed me to a grade of 3 instead of 2 was the pass-protection of Williams – only 3 RBs managed a better pass-blocking efficiency than him last year. The Saints backfield is largely on the same level as the Panthers one.
Wide Receivers – Kelvin Benjamin, Jericho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood. (1/5)
I’ve been defending the Panthers receiving core as not being the worst in the NFL. Cotchery proved himself a reliable red zone threat for the Steelers and Benjamin has the frame to make a contribution to the offence similar to what Colston does for New Orleans. However, I’ve never been a big fan of Benjamin and his inability to use his size effectively in college (to say nothing about his concentration lapses). Avant and Underwood are far from game-changers. The receiving corps isn’t the worst in the NFL, but it’s still poor. The Saints receivers are much better.
Tight End – Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson. (4/5)
I like Olsen. He’s an effective run blocker (which is useful in such a run-heavy offence), and an above-average receiver too. He’s definitely amongst the top 10 TEs in the league, but only Gronkowski can truly compare with Graham. Thus, the Saints have a clear advantage at this position.
Offensive Line – Byron Bell, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Garry Williams, Nate Chandler. (2/5)
The interior of this line – anchored by the excellent Ryan Kalil – is impressive to say the least. However, both tackle spots are manned by below-average guys. What’s worse is the depth behind them – it’s non-existent. The loss of Steve Smith has been well documented through the offseason, but it’s the loss of LT Jordan Gross that hurts this team more in my opinion. Compared to the Saints offensive line, the Panthers one falls short.
Defensive Line – Charles Johnson, Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Greg Hardy. (5/5)
There’s incredible talent all across this line, making it arguably the best defensive line in the NFL. Greg Hardy and his 14 sacks is the highlight of the unit, but don’t ignore Star Lotulelei and his 12.9% run stop percentage (a Pro Football Statistic, in which he was the second best DT in the NFL last year). Star’s partner in the middle – Kawann Short – complemented him perfectly by ranking in the top 10 DTs last year in pass rush productivity (another Pro Football Focus statistic). Add in the depth behind the starters in the form of Dwan Edwards (interior) and rookie 2nd rounder Kony Ealy (end), and this is as fearsome a unit as any the Saints will face this year. While New Orleans can field an impressive D-line, it’s not quite as good as the Panthers one.
Linebackers – Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, A.J. Klein. (4/5)
This unit would have been a 5, if it were not for the doubts I harbour over Klein’s ability. He’s relatively new to the starter role, although there’s not much he’s done wrong in the spot duties he’s had last season. Kuechly – the reigning defensive MVP (although I don’t think he deserved it) – is one of the best inside linebackers in the league, and Thomas Davis is similarly good playing the strong side. Compared to the Saints linebackers, Carolina’s unit is definitely superior.
Secondary – Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Charles Godfrey, Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud. (1/5)
Mediocrity would be a kind word to describe this unit. With each and every player in the secondary being average at best and terrible at worst, it’s no surprise that they’re collectively bad. Last year’s unit lost two decent players in Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn; they were replaced by castaways of the Roman Harper kind. Needless to say, the Saints secondary far exceeds this one in talent and ability.
Special Teams – Graham Gano, Brad Nortman, Kenjon Barner. (4/5)
All three special teamers are solid at their respective positions. Gano isn’t the best field goal kicker, but he’s good overall as a place kicker considering only one in five of his kickoffs are returnable. Nortman had the sixth-highest net yards per punt in the league. Ted Ginn Jr. was in the top 10 in average punt return yardage last year, and if Barner can start in his place, it’ll indicate an upgrade at the position. Overall, the specialist position group of the Panthers is better than that of the Saints.
Another NFC South opponent that fails to match up to the Saints roster, the Carolina Panthers only field better linebackers, a defensive line and special teams positions than New Orleans. We should defeat them fairly easily at home, but the key battle will be the return fixture in North Carolina; with a short week between the Green Bay game and the trip to Charlotte, it won’t be easy picking up the double over the Panthers this year.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know by commenting below. You can find me on Twitter at @neershah9 – I’m more than happy to talk Saints football.