(WITH FANTASY OVERVIEW)
This year is going to be the first without players that have anchored the team's offense for the better part of a decade. Steve Smith took his mouth along with his production to Baltimore while Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross retired. Last year the defense had a youth movement led by Luke Kuechly and standout DT Star Lotulelei.
The impressive defensive front should pick up where they left off with the league's top running D. They will be looking to improve the already top 5 secondary and hope that adding former Pro-Bowl safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud can help get the D off the field during 3rd downs and passing situations. Since the hiring of secondary coach/passing defense coordinator Steve Wilks in 2011 the passing D rankings improved from 24th in 2011, 13th in 2012 and 6th during the 2013 campaign. The team will have to find a new player to cause turnovers due to the departure of Captain Munnerlyn, who led the team in interceptions.
The Panthers' secondary will have to face Megatron in week 2, but will have time to get things figured out facing relativity pedestrian passing attacks with Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore in the first four games. While the D may have time to tweak and prod, the offense needs to have a very productive training camp.
A major plus going into camp is having an established QB. Cam is one of those guys, you know what you are going to get from him. He is built like a Mack truck and has been working hard on improving his accuracy this off-season. There is a lot of work to be done with his new receiving core, which lost Steve Smith and Ted Ginn (who left to play in Arizona).
Cam will finally have a big target in the red-zone with some other seasoned veterans. The first round pick Kelvin Benjamin's 6'5" frame and strong hands will lend a big hand in the red-zone and on those 3rd down conversion attempts. Benjamin is not getting much respect in mock drafts, but he has the size and speed to be an every week starter in most leagues.
The Panthers run a modified no-huddle and will increase the tempo to let the skill players run. The addition of Jerricho Cotchery, who had a career high 10 TDs in Pittsburgh with a similar type QB, will help Cam's confidence. They hope to provide speed that can stretch the D, which will open running lanes for Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams.
I think that Tolbert is going to have a great year. He is capable of 700+ yds and 8-10 TDs, which makes him a nice fantasy sleeper. He will be on the field a lot because he can run and pass block and has soft enough hands to catch passes in the flat. One downside for the team - Stewart is expected to miss the first 2-4 weeks with a hamstring issue. His injury prone nature will keep me away on draft day.
At the Tight End Position - Greg Olsen is Greg Olsen. He had the best year of his career last year so his numbers will probably deflate a bit. He is currently the 8th TE off the board and should be drafted as such. Don't reach expecting him to get some of Smith's targets. He is a reliable option, however, and will have a few double-digit games. Cam, being a mobile QB, necessitates drafting a back-up plan in fantasy leagues. Cam is being drafted at QB 10 in mock leagues, so you should be able to get him later and swing back around for a competent backup a pick or two later. His ankle is looking better every day and is "ahead of schedule". It should not be a concern week 1.
Overall, the Panthers should have a good year. I predict 10-6 with highlight wins against @Baltimore and @Atlanta. The big game week 8 at home vs the defending champs, The Seattle Seahawks, should be a challenge and will serve as a yardstick for team growth. Home against Pittsburgh will be a tone setter for the season in week 3. Having the Lions in week 2, the Bears in week 5 and the Bengals in week 6 will test the strength of the secondary. Those experiences should help them grow and take the next step towards the Super Bowl.