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Which Carolina Panthers are Poised to Breakout in 2016?

This past season players like Kawann Short and Josh Norman elevated their play and became known as premier players at their position. This improvement helped the Carolina Panthers reach Super Bowl 50. Which players are ready to take that next step in their career in 2016? Publisher Brandon Croce takes a look at the five likeliest candidates on the Carolina Panthers to breakout next year.

Kony Ealy

The list for the Carolina Panthers starts with a player who had the best game of his career on the biggest stage. Defensive end Kony Ealy almost singlehandedly kept the Panthers in the game against the Denver Broncos with three sacks, which tied a Super Bowl record, one interception and one forced fumble and recover.

The second year defensive end has been in and out of the starting lineup for the past two years as he was asked to play a bigger role his rookie season with Greg Hardy suspended and then this past season the defense dealing with a number of injuries at the position.

The one thing that is apparent while watching Ealy is that he certainly has the talent to be a dominant pass rusher however he needs to find some consistency in his play. He finished his rookie season with four sacks and finished the regular season with three straight games with a sack.

Then this past season, Ealy had five straight games with a sack but then didn't get another one until Super Bowl 50, a stretch of seven straight games. If the former second-round pick is able to develop consistency over a full season, he could be in line for a breakout year.

Tre Boston

Safety Tre Boston, similar to Ealy, entered this season with high hopes because he finished the previous season as one of the two starting safeties. However, during training camp he was passed by Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper for the starting safety positions and was relegated to a backup role.

Boston though made the most of the playing time he got and made a big impact in the NFC Conference Championship Game when he replaced the injured Harper. He finished the game with an interception and a fumble recovery.

There is some uncertainty about whether or not Harper will be back next year as he be 33 years of age entering next year. If Harper does decide to retire, this presents a great opportunity for Boston and one that he should capitalize on.

Shaq Thompson

Shaq Thompson was the Panthers' first round pick this past draft and after a slow start to his rookie season, played well down the stretch and into the playoffs. The slow transition was to be expected though as Thompson never had a set position in college as he bounced between safety and linebacker, and even played running back at times.

The transition can be done and players can become excellent players at their position and fans need not look any further than Thomas Davis, who played safety primarily in college at the University of Georgia.

Over the first 11 games of the season, Thompson averaged 2.9 tackles per game, and had three total tackles for a loss. However, the final six games of the year, including the three playoff games, Thompson saw his numbers jump to 4.8 tackles per game and had three tackles for a loss.

In addition to the improved play, and the experience at the position, Thompson plays alongside two of the best linebackers in the game today. This should help Thompson take that next step in 2016.

Devin Funchess

Another rookie who will benefit from the players around him is wide receiver Devin Funchess. The Panthers are expected to get their 2014 first round pick, Kelvin Benjamin, back next year who missed the entire season due to a knee injury. Benjamin played very well his rookie season and showed he has the potential to be a number one wide receiver.

The presence of Benjamin back on the field, helps the other wide receivers on the Panthers because defenses have to dedicate so much to slowing him down. This extra room should help Funchess who started his rookie season slow but finished the year with six touchdown catches in the final 12 games.

Funchess has the physical traits to be a dominant wide receiver with his size and speed. The combination of Benjamin and Funchess on the outside creates matchup nightmares for opposing cornerbacks. If Funchess can get into the flow of the offense early next year, he could easily finish the year with 10 plus touchdown receptions.

Daryl Williams

Of all the players on this list, Daryl Williams doesn't have a clear path to a starting job. The Panthers' tackles, Michael Oher and Mike Remmers, did a good job for a majority of the season before getting beat easily, and repeatedly, by the Broncos' pass rushers. Now Remmers is a restricted free agent and if the Panthers are able to work out a reasonable contract with him, he should be back with the Panthers.

If for some reason the two sides can't come to an agreement, Williams is ready to step in and solidify the right tackle position. The former Oklahoma Sooner is a big tackle who excels in run blocking and he helped the Sooners' offense to be one of the top rushing attacks at the collegiate level two years ago.

He could be a great fit for this offense, who lean on the run to move the ball. He did get some time the second half of the year when the Panthers would utilize their big formation and bring Williams in as an extra blocker on the line.

Now his pass protection may still need some work, he will be protecting a mobile quarterback in Cam Newton which certainly helps him because he won't have to hold his block as long. This is a player worth watching next year and could step in and help shore up the offensive line.

Twitter @BrandonCroce.

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