For the first time in over a decade, the Carolina Panthers are set to open a season without wide receiver Steve Smith on the roster.
Smith was cut in March as the Panthers overhauled their 29th-ranked passing offence in the offseason.
After cutting Smith, the Panthers allowed receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn to leave in free agency, losing a trio that equated for 149 of quarterback Cam Newton's 292 completions in 2013 and all but seven of the catches made by wide receivers.
The Panthers used their first-round draft pick on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State University, and signed veteran receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to rebuild their receiving core. The Panthers also added Ed Dickson, who joins a tight end room that includes Greg Olsen. Olsen led the Panthers in receptions, yards and touchdowns last season.
The Panthers are hoping the new additions to the offence will help the team build off of their 12-4 record, which was secured by the strong play of Newton and the team's stingy defence.
The Panthers defence averaged 15.1 points against per game and 301.2 yards against per game last season. Both marks ranked only behind the defence of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks for best in the league.
The Panthers are also looking to further their success on the ground this season and improve on their 11th-ranked rushing attack from 2013. The Panthers should be able to do that if running back Jonathan Stewart can stay healthy after missing 10 games last season. Without Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Newton and Mike Tolbert formed the team's rushing attack, which averaged 4.2 yards per attempt. Stewart missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, but is expected to be fully recovered for the regular season.
After allowing Newton to rush 111 times last season for 585 yards, the Panthers will likely be more cautious with their franchise quarterback this year. Newton underwent ankle surgery in March and was limited throughout the Panthers first three weeks of training camp as the coaching staff attempted to avoid any setbacks. In his first preseason action, Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Newton made no rushing attempts and was sacked twice in 12 called passing plays. The next week, Newton rushed three times for 12 yards against the New England Patriots, he was also sacked three times.
Newton fractured a rib in that preseason Week 3 loss to the Patriots, further questioning his durability entering the season.
Newton is expected to play Week 1, but with questions at wide receiver and a lack of depth at quarterback, his health could determine the success of the Panthers in 2014.
Brand New Line: Retirement and free agency claimed three starters from Panthers 2013 offensive line, leaving the team to find new protection for their star quarterback. Matt Kalil will remain at centre this season, but 2013 right tackle Byron Bell has been tasked with moving to the blind side. Amini Silatolu is slated to squeeze between the two holdovers at left guard, while 2014 third-round pick Trai Turner is likely to start at right guard. Who will start at right tackle for the Panthers remains to be determined. Nate Chandler is listed as the starter on the team's depth chart but missed the Panthers third preseason game with an injury. Gary Williams would get the nod if Chandler is unable to play Week 1.
Not settling for second-best: After being the league's second-best defence last year, the Panthers are setting out to be No. 1 this year. In the offseason the Panthers made moves that could potentially have them reach the top-rank. On the defensive line, the Panthers added pass rusher Kony Ealy in the second round of the draft and retained defensive end Greg Hardy, who had 11 sacks with the team last season. The team also overhauled their starting safeties with the signings of Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud.