Most Valuable Player
Winner: Luke Kuechly
This certainly was a tough choice and it came down to Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton. Both players are key to the success of their side of the football. The deciding factor came down to the fact that Kuechly was much more consistent week in and week out than Newton in 2014.
The Panthers middle linebacker finished first in the NFL in total tackles and this was thanks to the fact that he didn’t have fewer than six tackles in any game this year. Kuechly continued to be a leader on this defense, even when they struggled, and did his best to lead by example. The best part is that Kuechly is only in his third season and at 23 years of age still has a lot of great football ahead of him.
Offensive Player of the Year
Winner: Greg Olsen
Once again this is a tough decision as it came down to Newton and Olsen but the Panthers’ tight end gets the slight edge. Olsen finished the year leading the team in receptions, yards and second on the team in touchdowns. The case could be made that Olsen would not have been as successful this year without Newton under center however in the two games back-up quarterback Derek Anderson started Olsen had nine receptions, 104 yards and one touchdown.
The NFL has a number of talented tight ends right now in the league including players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas. Olsen doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves when some of these great players are mentioned. The league wide opinion may be changing a bit though with Olsen’s selection to the Pro Bowl this year. Over Olsen’s four seasons with the Panthers, he has improved the key stats (receptions, yards, touchdowns) every year. The hope is that trend will continue in 2015.
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Thomas Davis
Even though Kuechly did win the team’s MVP award, no player can win multiple awards so he is ineligible for Defensive Player of the Year. Luckily for the Panthers they have another player who is equally as deserving and that is outside linebacker Thomas Davis.
The 10-year veteran finished the year with 116 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. This was the third consecutive season that Davis finished with 100 or more total tackles. The combination of Kuechly and Davis at linebacker is what makes this defense as tough as it is. Both players have the speed and quickness to play sideline to sideline. When the defense needs a big play it is usually one of these two players making it.
Rookie of the Year
Winner: Kelvin Benjamin
This was probably the most competitive award considering there was so many contenders. Cornerback Bene Benwikere and safety Tre Boston helped turn around the secondary and become a shutdown defense down the stretch. Guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner provided stability to the offensive line and helped keep Newton upright and give Jonathan Stewart running room to work. Even second-round pick Kony Ealy finished the year strong with a sack in each of the final three regular season games.
There was one rookie though that contributed all year and that was rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The former Florida State Seminole went from Panthers’ first-round pick to No. 1 wide receiver in a short matter of time. He finished the year first in touchdown catches (9), tied with Olsen for the team lead in receiving yards (1,008) and second in receptions with 73.
The best part is that Benjamin was able to put up these stats relying primarily on his physical gifts. As he gains experience and learns the nuances of playing the position, he is going to be that much tougher to stop.
Most Improved Player
Winner: Josh Norman
One player who improved leaps and bounds from the start of the season was cornerback Josh Norman. He only started one game in the first seven weeks of the season and was forced to miss three of those games due to injury.
Once he came back from injury in Week 8 against Seattle, he looked like a completely different player. He became the shutdown cornerback the Panthers desperately needed. He faced off against one some of the better wide receivers in the game like Jeremy Maclin, Julio Jones (twice) and Josh Gordon and was able to keep all of them out of the end zone.
The Panthers secondary is young and has the potential to be an excellent group. Their success is going to hinge on the level that Norman can play at. If he can be that shutdown corner over a full season, the sky’s the limit for the Panthers’ secondary.
Game of the Year
Winner: Week 17 at Atlanta
There wasn’t a game with higher stakes this year than the final game of the regular season in Atlanta. The winner of that game would win the NFC South and go onto the playoffs. It certainly looked like the cards were stacked against the Panthers going on the road to play a team that they lost to only six weeks ago.
This team rose to the challenge and played the most complete game of football they had all season. They went on to win 34-3 and earn their second consecutive division title. The defense was the story of the game; forcing three turnovers and was able to return two of them for touchdowns.
This took pressure off the offense and they were able to do what they do best and that is run the ball and control the clock. The Panthers finished the game with 194 rushing yards and only had to throw the ball 16 times. More importantly than that, they didn’t turn the ball over once, which has been one of the team’s Achilles heels this year.