The core of any defense is without a doubt the linebacker unit. The guys in charge of controlling the defense and picking apart the opposing quarterback's brain. The Carolina Panthers are lucky to have arguably the best linebacker core in the league. Led by 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and First-Team All-Pro Thomas Davis, the linebacker group is glad to be returning all of its members for the 2016 season.
Looking to have a heavier load this season is second-year linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson, who was only a rookie last season, had shown numerous flashes of greatness throughout the season. The Panthers will look to un-tap that potential to add another force to their starting trio of linebackers.
The talent doesn’t stop at its starters. The Panthers have exceptional depth at the linebacker position. Four-year pro A.J. Klein has shown on a number of occasions that he can step in and play any of the three linebacker positions. Klein filled in during Kuechly’s absence last season and showed that he was more than capable of being a starter in this league.
Along with Klein, the Panthers have added David Mayo for depth and brought back Ben Jacobs, who was a special team’s ace last season. This is one group that while the best on the Panthers in terms of depth still has plenty of room to grow.
2. Defensive Tackle
A very close second is the defensive tackle position. The Panthers arguably had the best defensive tackle in the league last season in First-Team All-Pro Kawann Short. In his third season in the league, he tallied 11 sacks last season which is quite impressive coming from the defensive tackle position.
Short’s running mate is none other than Star Lotulelei. While missing Short’s stat line, Lotuleiei is just as impressive because he does his best work as a run-stuffer rather than a pass rusher. The combination of these two and the skill set they bring to the table helps each excel in the middle of this defensive line.
Joining Short and Lotuleiei this season is Kyle Love, who was re-signed earlier this offseason, former Atlanta Falcon Paul Soliai and the team's first round draft pick Vernon Butler. These trio of players will look to cause havoc within the defensive tackle rotation.
The most important position on the team, usually commanded by one player is the quarterback position. The Panthers are lucky to have reigning league MVP Cam Newton as their franchise quarterback. Arguably the best dual threat quarterback in league history and at only 27 years of age, Newton will look to finish what he started last season and lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.
Helping Newton behind the scenes are backup quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Joe Webb. Anderson who was once a Pro Bowler is about as good as a backup a team can have. In the rare occurrence that Anderson has needed to fill in he has been more than capable and has yet to lose as a game as a starter for this team.
Webb is the team's jack of all trades and we have seen him at what seems like every position on the field. Webb normally plays on special teams but has also lined up at wide receiver. His dynamic ability and importance to the team is what really boost this quarterback unit up these rankings.
4. Running Backs
Coming up behind the quarterbacks is the running back unit. Led by Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert this position group is very underrated. After the releasing of DeAngelo Williams in the 2015 offseason it was time for Stewart to step into the starting role. He played well as the featured running back, carrying the ball 242 times for 989 yards and six touchdowns.
Paving the way for Stewart is fullback Mike Tolbert. Tolbert is a train once he gets his hands on the ball and it usually takes several defenders to bring him down. Don’t let his size fool you though and we have seen on several occasions Tolbert dance around defenders to pick up the extra yardage.
This season the Panthers will more than likely look to find a second option to running back Jonathan Stewart. After an impressive first season as the Panthers starter, I’m sure that it would be nice to have fresh legs come in and consistently contribute to the offense. Carolina have the options to do this with running backs Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, and Brandon Wegher all returning this year. Each talented with their own unique skill set, these three guys will look to battle during training camp for that backup role.