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Bold Predictions for the Carolina Panthers in 2016

The regular season is quickly approaching and with only one preseason game remaining, it means it is prediction time. These are four bold predictions for the Carolina Panthers for the 2016 season.

Kelvin Benjamin Will Not Surpass His Rookie Stats

The big storyline for the Carolina Panthers offense is the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who looked like a number one wide receiver as a rookie but missed all of last year due to an ACL injury during training camp. The return of Benjamin, and his presence on the field, should provide a big boost for this offense. However, that doesn't mean it will equate to more touchdowns or receiving yards.

There are a number of factors that is working against the former first round pick with the biggest being that he is coming back from a pretty severe injury. An ACL injury takes time to fully heal and allow a player to return to his abilities prior to that injury. The coaching staff has been fairly cautious with Benjamin so far and have limited his snaps during preseason. This is a trend that should carry over into the regular season and could keep his stats down this year.

The second reason is that this offense has much more talent at the wide receiver position than during Benjamin's rookie season. That was the first season without Steve Smith and aside from Benjamin, Cam Newton had Philly Brown and Jerricho Cotchery as his top wide receivers. This upcoming season not only is Brown still here, but Devin Funchess looks improved and Ted Ginn Jr. is coming off a 10 touchdown season.

The last reason is that Benjamin's stats from his rookie season are a bit deceiving. The 2014 season was a struggle for the Panthers, especially during a stretch where they won only one game over a 10 week period (1-8-1) and a majority of the time, the Panthers were losing big. As a rookie, Benjamin caught nine touchdowns, five of which came in the fourth quarter. Of those touchdowns, all were caught with the Panthers down by double digits and four of them happened with the Panthers down by 24 or more points.

Week Quarter Time Score At Time of TD Final Score of Game
1 4th 14:53 Panthers up 10-0 Panthers Win (20-14)
3 4th 3:53 Panthers down 37-13 Panthers Loss (37-19)
4 2nd 8:53 Panthers down 7-0 Panthers Loss (38-10)
6 1st 5:45 Tied 0-0 Tie (37-37)
7 4th 9:39 Panthers down 38-3 Panthers Loss (38-17)
10 4th 9:05 Panthers down 45-7 Panthers Loss (45-21)
10 4th 5:30 Panthers down 45-14 Panthers Loss (45-21)
11 4th 9:12 Panthers down 16-3 Panthers Loss (19-17)
13 1st 11:42 Tied 0-0 Panthers Win (41-10)

Benjamin is going to have to prove in 2016 that he can have more of an impact when the game is still in the balance. This upcoming season may be tough for him though as he works his way back from an injury and with Newton expected to move the ball around to his different weapons.

Cam Newton Will Repeat as League MVP

This is not an easy task as only four players in the history of the league have been able to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award in consecutive seasons (Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Brett Farve and Peyton Manning). However, Newton is in an excellent position to join this elite group of players.

Newton is coming off a career year, one that included 35 passing touchdowns, as well as 10 rushing, and was the key to the highest scoring offense in the league last year. The entire offense is back from a season ago and this includes their offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, which is one of the reasons Newton has an excellent chance to repeat. Shula has built an offense that highlights Newton's strengths and puts him in position to make plays.

The exciting part is that the Panthers offense could be even better thanks to the addition of Benjamin and while he may not have been individual stats, he will help to make the group as a whole better. This has the potential to be another special year for Cam Newton and one that should end with some hardware.

Charles Johnson Will Lead the Panthers in Sacks

Charles Johnson is coming off an incredibly disappointing season last year, one that included a trip to the IR and only one sack in the regular season. It was clear that Johnson just didn't look like the pass rusher he was a few seasons ago. However, at age 30 he still has good football left and he should have a bounce back year.

This is the first time in three years that Johnson has not dealt with some kind of injury during training camp and this should set him up for a fast start to the 2016 season. The last time Johnson didn't have to deal with an injury was 2012 and that year he had 11 sacks. He also came into camp in excellent shape and said he has dropped about 10 pounds from his playing weight last year.

The other reason is that Johnson will be motivated to prove that he can still be a game-changing pass rusher. The Panthers released Johnson after the season to help their cap situation but the veteran decided to return on a one-year deal. This is a prove-it type deal and with a strong year could lead to another multi-year deal for him after the season.

James Bradberry Will Lead the Panthers in Interceptions

The Panthers are going to rely on a few rookies in their secondary in the upcoming season and the one player who has stood out so far is James Bradberry. The second round pick has looked very good from the offseason through training camp and into the preseason.

The Panthers have an excellent front seven and with the inexperience in the secondary, the gameplan most weeks for the opponents will be to try and beat this defense through the air. This should present plenty of opportunities for these cornerbacks to make plays and hopefully take advantage of mistakes.

Bradberry is the one player among the rookies who has the best chance to start every game this season. The fact that he will be on the field the most is one of the reasons I believe he will lead this team in interceptions.

The other reason is that last year's leader in this category, Kurt Coleman is making a position change with the addition of Tre Boston. Coleman will now be expected to play a more traditional strong safety position in this defense and replace Roman Harper. This won't present as many chances for him.

When the Panthers announced Bradberry's name in the second round of the NFL Draft, it raised some eyebrows. This rookie should justify being drafted that high in 2016.

Twitter @BrandonCroce

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