(Luke Kuechly & Cam Newton photos courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
Talk of Fame Network
The Carolina Panthers won’t be the same team in 2016 that they were in 2015. But the Panthers should still be the best team in the NFC South.
So say the listeners and readers of the Talk of Fame Network, who voted the Panthers the best team in the division in our weekly poll. The Panthers received an overwhelming 74 percent of the vote, followed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 11 percent and both Atlanta and New Orleans at seven percent.
Gone from the defending NFC champions are two key elements -- Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman and punter Brad Nortman. Norman sprinted to the Washington Redskins in free agency, and Nortman headed south to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Norman intercepted four passes last season and returned two of them for touchdowns in Carolina’s sixth-ranked defense, and Nortman averaged almost 40 net yards per punt.
But what the Panthers do have coming back is NFL MVP Cam Newton, who passed for 35 touchdowns and rushed for 10 more. Also back is Kelvin Benjamin, Newton’s most explosive wide receiver who missed all of last season with a summer knee injury. In addition, the NFC’s best pass rush returns, led by tackle Kawann Short and his 11 sacks, plus do-everything middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Carolina bolstered the pass rush by selecting tackle Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech in the first round and used three of its next four picks on cornerbacks to help offset the departure of Norman: James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez.
Your Talk of Fame Network hosts were split in the voting with Clark Judge selecting Carolina, Ron Borges Atlanta and Rick Gosselin Tampa.
Judge: "Too much defense plus too much Cam equals too much for the rest of division."
Borges: "I'll go with the rising Falcons. Carolina suffers from post-Super Bowl loss syndrome while Matt Ryan finally gets enough protection to throw the Falcons into the playoffs."
Gosselin: "Carolina has won the division three years in a row -- the first time anyone has won this division back-to-back since it was formed in 2002, much less three times in a row. I agree with Ron -- there's going to be a Super Bowl letdown in Carolina. There were only five teams that ranked in the NFL's Top 10 in both offense and defense last season, and the Buccaneers were one of them. So give me Tampa and its emerging young quarterback Jameis Winston."