It would be hard to give anything but glowing praise to Cam Newton this season after he not only led his team to a 15-1 record, a franchise best, but did so with the style, poise and production of a league MVP. The Panthers’ quarterback led arguably the biggest surprise team this season to new heights and was the key cog in leading the number one scoring offense in the league. He shattered his career high in passing touchdowns (35) and led the league in total touchdowns (45) while also gaining 4,473-total yards of offense and throwing a career low 10 interceptions, all while being surrounded by Greg Olsen and a makeshift receiving corps. Adding to the tremendous season was that Newton threw for five touchdowns three times this season, was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week five times and broke two quarterback rushing records. Beyond the stats though, what Newton was able to do with his pre-snap reads and audibles was where he really shined and his calm, clutch performances put a stamp on what was a truly remarkable year for the Panthers’ quarterback; one certainly worthy of an MVP trophy.
The Panthers entered this season with a relatively big change in the backfield as they saw DeAngelo Williams leave and Jonathan Stewart take over in the lead role. And did it ever work. Stewart responded by having one his best years as a pro, and provided balance to the only team in the league who had an even mix of run to pass plays. A foot sprain caused Stewart to miss the final three games but he still managed to rush for 989-yards, good for eight in the league, and scored seven times, while also carrying the ball 20+ times in eight straight games as the true workhorse back. Mike Tolbert, Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker also contributed throughout the season. Tolbert provided the offense with a valuable pass catcher and short-yardage runner and scored four times, Artis-Payne came on strong in place of Stewart and picked up right where he left off finishing with 241-total yards and a score in his rookie campaign while Whittaker worked primarily on third down and special teams with limited opportunity. As a whole, the backs and Newton combined to keep the Panthers streak of games rushing for over 100-yards going ending the year at 27 straight.
All eyes were on Newton and this receiving corps as many wondered how they would perform after losing Kelvin Benjamin and needless to say, they exceeded expectations. A ragtag group of underperformers and unknowns stepped up big and overachieved mightily. Ted Ginn Jr., the de facto number one receiver, racked up 44 receptions for 739-yards and 10 touchdowns proving not only that he can produce in the passing game but also that he should stick around with the Panthers. Although Ginn couldn’t quite rid himself of the dropsies as he saw countless would-be touchdowns slip through his hands. Second-year wideout Philly Brown put his preseason drop issues behind him and put together a solid 31 catches, 447-yard, 4 score season as a reliable target downfield. Second round rookie Devin Funchess saw limited opportunities early on but came on strong in the latter half of the season as a dynamic passing threat and grabbed 31 receptions for 473-yards and five scores while also improving with his own drop issues. The unsung hero of the bunch though was veteran Jerricho Cotchery who became Newton’s go-to guy in key third-down situation while earning the nickname Jerricho “Clutchery.” His final stat line tallied 39 catches for 485-yards and three scores but his leadership and clutch performing meant more than what was in the box score. The drop issues were plenty and to be expected but all in all it was a solid season from a group that many deemed had little faith in.
The lone saving grace in the weaponry for Newton was tight end Greg Olsen who had a terrific year in a number of categories. He finished with the second highest reception (77) and touchdown (7) total of his career to go with a career best in yardage (1,104). The veteran go-to target was instrumental in the success of this offense and once again, gave Newton a reliable weapon capable of lining up all over and making the tough catches when it was needed, most notably in the team’s Week 13 shootout in New Orleans where he made a shoestring grab on fourth down to keep the eventual game-winning drive alive. Backup Ed Dickson had another modest year behind Olsen as he caught 17 passes for 121-yards and two scores.
It could be argued that the Panthers’ offensive line was the most scrutinized position on the entire team and to say they outdid themselves would be an understatement. With Michael Oher being the massive question mark at left tackle, he and this group turned themselves into a well above average group and statistically, one of the league’s best. Together, they gave up just 33 sacks on the year, tied for sixth best in the NFL and just 61 quarterback hits and were key in giving Newton time in the pocket to find his targets. They were also instrumental in the number two ranked rushing attack that was responsible for 2,282 yards. With Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner, undrafted castoffs Andrew Norwell and Mike Remmers and the journeyman veteran Oher at left tackle, this bunch clearly stepped it up big time this season.
This season was a bag of mixed results for the Carolina defensive line. The production this season in terms of pressure was inconsistent at best coming in a flurry or not at all. The leader of the bunch was defensive tackle Kawann Short who broke out this season to the tune of 11 sacks and 55 total tackles, providing the only consistent pass rushing presence and tying Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins for the most among their position. Second year defensive end Kony Ealy had a much improved campaign in 2015 with 32 tackles and a five game stretch that saw five straight sacks and Mario Addison tallied six sacks on the year while limited to pass rushing downs. Veterans Charles Johnson and Jared Allen were somewhat disappointing combining for just three sacks and players like Star Lotulelei and Ryan Delaire had their moments but were relatively inconsistent overall. Short and Ealy salvaged this season but overall work needs to be done in the pass rushing department.
The league’s best linebacker duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis had another top notch year and even got some solid help from a few of their teammates at the position. Kuechly led the team in tackles with 118 but did some truly notable damage in the turnover game with four interceptions (one for a score) and two forced fumbles. What makes it even more impressive is that all of this came in just 13 games. Davis had another great season that may be even more remarkable with 105 tackles, five and a half sacks, four interceptions and four forced fumbles, all culminating in a well-deserved Pro Bowl nod. Rookie Shaq Thompson showed promise in the limited opportunities that came his way showing the speed and quickness he was known for in college and A.J. Klein stepped in admirably in Kuechly’s absence as a consistent tackling force as an integral contributor to the Panthers fourth ranked rushing defense.
This season, the Panthers’ secondary turned from a weakness to a strength. The most notable contributor from this group was fourth-year cornerback Josh Norman who burst onto the scene with four picks and two pick-sixes in his first four games and emerged as one of the premiere shutdown corners in the league, consistently locking down opposing number one receivers. One of the more surprising contributions came from journeyman Kurt Coleman who forced his way into the starting lineup and never looked back, racking up 90 tackles and seven interceptions on the year as one of the key components of the Carolina defense that led the league in turnovers (39). At corner opposite Norman, veteran Charles Tillman and second-year player Bene Benwikere combined for a solid year but unfortunately were both lost for the season. The injuries have forced newcomers Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain into key roles and both have done well. And veteran safety Roman Harper quietly had a 73 tackle year for a Panthers defense that ranked 11th against the pass giving up just over 230-yards per game. The later portion of the season hasn’t been the best for this group but overall they stepped it up in 2015.
Graham Gano highlighted a solid season from the special teams unit as the Panthers’ kicker broke the single season scoring record with 146 points and made 30 of 36 field goals while also logging 69 touchbacks according to Rotoworld.com. Punter Brad Nortman had a decent year ranking in the middle of the pack in average net yardage. In the return game there wasn’t much going aside from a handful of big gains from Ginn and punt and kick coverage accounted for just one turnover which came in Week 17. The negatives came in field goal blocking which saw a league-high four of Gano’s kicks get blocked.