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Which Carolina Panthers Improved the Most This Season?

The Carolina Panthers had an incredible season winning 17 of 19 games as well as the NFC Conference Championship. The team wouldn't have been able to accomplish such a feat if it weren't for the improvement by these players this past season.

Cam Newton

Any list for most improved has to start with quarterback Cam Newton, who earned his first career league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year award in 2015. The Carolina Panthers' quarterback was coming off his worst season in the NFL, a season that was riddled with injuries, in 2014 and finished with career lows in passing yards (3,127), rushing yards (539), passing touchdowns (18) and rushing touchdowns (5).

Newton had much more success this year as he was the catalyst to the highest scoring offense during the regular season, averaging 31.3 points per game. He finished the regular season with 3,179 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, 10 interceptions as well as 636 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. The 45 total touchdowns were the highest of any player in the league.

The fact that Newton was able to stay healthy the entire season was one of the reasons he was able to improve as much as he did from 2014. He also had time in the offseason to work on his game rather than spending it rehabbing like he was the previous year, working his way back from ankle surgery.

Now Super Bowl 50 is obviously a blemish on what was an excellent season, however it was one game. Cam Newton had an exceptional season leading this offense and there is no reason not to think he won't be able to play at this level next year.

Kawann Short

The third-year defensive tackle exploded onto the scene and became one of the best pass rushers from his position. He finished the year with 11 sacks, which was tied for first among defensive tackles. Kawann Short's performance this year earned him two NFC Defensive Player of the Month awards, one NFC Defensive Player of the Week award, and his first selection to the Pro Bowl.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott talked about Short's development, saying: “This is another step in his development, really. He went from his first year when we got him we knew he had the talent but weren’t sure if he had the motor. Then within that first year (Defensive Line Coach) Eric Washington continued to work with him with Kawann and really took ownership of it and so that’s not been an issue. And then from year one to year two he continued to develop in the system and now he’s made a huge jump in year three as everyone has seen. I credit to Kawann for really taking ownership of it.”

"He’s not just a one-phase player. He’s not just a pass-rusher. He defends the run extremely well."

Short may not have been the first defensive tackle taken by the Panthers when he was drafted but he will be entering next season as the team's best player at the position.

Luke Kuechly

Luke Kuechly was considered one of the best linebackers in the league entering this past season and only got better as the season went on.

The one weakness that the starting linebacker believed he had was his ability to defend the pass. Well, he improved to the point that Pro Football Focus gave him the Dick “Night Train” Lane Award, an award given to the best defender against the pass. 

He finished the regular season with four interceptions, including his first career touchdown, when he intercepted Tony Romo on Thanksgiving and returned it for a touchdown. He wasn't done there as he went on to force an interception in each of the two playoff games before the Super Bowl, returning both for touchdowns.

While it is hard to imagine how the fourth-year linebacker could improve, it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see him end up on this list again.

Josh Norman

The secondary was hit hard by injuries this year but still were able to perform at a high level due to Josh Norman cementing his name as a shutdown corner and one of the top players at his position. He started the year off with a bang that included four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and one fumble recovery.

Now the turnovers dropped off after the first four weeks, he only had two forced fumbled over the final 15 games. That certainly didn't mean his play dropped off though as he went up against some of the best in the league, like Julio JonesOdell Beckham Jr.Dez Bryant and Mike Evans. More times than not, he won those individual matchups.

The ability of Norman allows the defense to be more aggressive, allowing them to bring more players on blitzes instead of having to worry about dropping extra defenders to slow down these top wide receivers. 

With the season over though, Norman is set to become a free agent. That doesn't guarantee Norman will be leaving the Panthers as the organization could sign him to a long-term deal or use the franchise tag. One thing is certain though, Norman has earned himself a big paycheck with his play this year.

Twitter @BrandonCroce.

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