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Four Carolina Panthers Who Will Set Career Highs in 2016

The Carolina Panthers had a number of players set career highs in 2015 including Cam Newton in touchdowns with 45 and Kawann Short in sacks with 11. We take a look at four players who could potentially set career highs in the upcoming season.

Kony Ealy (Sacks)

Career High: 5.0 sacks (2015)

After two seasons of Kony Ealy bouncing in and out of the starting lineup, the third-year defensive end is expected to be the primary starting defensive end opposite Charles Johnson. The combination of the increase of playing time and how he finished the season are signs that all point to a breakout year for Ealy.

The first two years in the league, Ealy has shown to be a streaky player. In his rookie season, Ealy only had one sack in the first 13 games but finished the regular season with three straight games with a sack. Then last year he started the year without a sack in the first six games but then had a streak of five straight games with a sack. He then finished the regular season without a sack over the final five games.

The biggest positive from last year though came in Super Bowl 50 when Ealy had three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. 

If Ealy can develop some consistency this year, he should be able to surpass his career high in sacks of five.

Devin Funchess (Receiving Touchdowns)

Career High: 6 Touchdowns (2015)

The former Michigan Wolverine had a slow start to his rookie season with only seven receptions and 90 receiving yards through the first seven games of last season. However, Funchess finished the year strong with 29 receptions, 456 receiving yards and six touchdowns over the final 12 games, which included the three playoff games.

This year though Funchess could have a breakout season for a number of reasons. The main reason is how strong he has looked this offseason and head coach Ron Rivera has taken notice of that. 

"I think his overall presence. He walks on the field and he has a lot of confidence. He is running good routes and he is making good catches," Rivera said after Panthers' minicamp earlier this month.

The other factor that should help Funchess set a career high is the return of Kelvin Benjamin, who should command plenty of attention from the opposing defenses. With the former first round pick on the field, it should create more winnable match-ups for Funchess, especially in the red zone.

The combination of his improvement and the return of Benjamin should help him have a career season in touchdowns this upcoming season.

Bene Benwikere (Interceptions)

Career High: 1 Interception (2014)

Now that Josh Norman is no longer with the Panthers, the logical choice to replace him would be Bene Benwikere. The third-year cornerback has bounced around from nickel to the outside corner his first two years in the league but now is expected to play outside full-time in 2016.

Similar to what happened to Norman last year, opposing quarterbacks are sure to target him early and often as he will be going up against the opposing team's top wide receiver regularly. Benwikere will have plenty of opportunities to make game changing plays and should be able to surpass his previous career high in interceptions of one.

The Panthers' defense enters this season with plenty of question marks about the secondary with Norman and Charles Tillman gone and the team likely to rely on one, possibly two rookies. However, a strong year from Benwikere will go a long way to solidify this defense's pass defense.

Jonathan Stewart (Rushing Yards)

Career High: 1,133 rushing yards (2009)

The last one could be a bit of a surprise but Jonathan Stewart should be in line for a big 2016, as long as he stays healthy. The former Oregon Duck has battled with injuries for a majority of his career and even missed three games last year due to a foot injury.

Stewart, being a year older, the coaching staff may try to limit his workload in hopes to keep him fresh and healthy over the course of the entire season. The veteran running back dominated the carries last year but the offensive coaching staff may try to find ways to work backs like Cameron Artis-Payne into the game plan in hopes to lighten the load for Stewart.

Last year, Stewart finished with 989 rushing yards and missed his career high by only 144 rushing yards. However, had he been able to play all 16 games he would have run for 1,217, which would have broken his career high by almost 100 rushing yards.

Stewart has one more season before he reaches the dreaded 30-year old mark for running backs and 2016 has the potential to be the best of his career.

Twitter @BrandonCroce

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