- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't a long message, but it spoke volumes about where the Carolina Panthers are mentally.
"Don't sleep on the Panthers," Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert said.
The Panthers nationally have been dubbed the NFL team most likely to take a big fall. After Carolina lost its top four wide receivers, its starting left tackle and three-fourths of its secondary, many predict four to five fewer wins than its 12-4 2013 season.
Throw in offseason ankle surgery for quarterback Cam Newton and legal issues involving Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and one easily could argue that the Panthers have had the worst offseason of any team in the league.
That they've never put together consecutive winning seasons since coming into the league 20 years ago doesn't help.
Coach Ron Rivera uses this as motivation. His players use it as a lack of respect.
They're playing the underdog role to the hilt.
"We put a lot of work in last year and a lot of people didn't give us a chance," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "So this offseason [there have been] a lot of questions about what we're doing next and it's sort of the same thing. We're just starting over refocusing. That's something that is going to be incredible for us."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Even Rivera admitted he was concerned when Carolina failed to sign wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith. He went as far as to say the team didn't need a true No. 1. That seems like a distant memory. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a legitimate No. 1. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have brought in the leadership and consistency. This group is closer than last year's that averaged slightly less than 10 catches a game. With more talent at tight end, it will open up the entire offense.
2. General manager Dave Gettleman likes what he calls "hog mollies" -- big players on both sides of the line. He has put together a group on the defensive front that is deeper than some of the best units he had while with the New York Giants. Carolina has eight or nine players who could play for most teams. Having the luxury to rotate big, fast bodies in without suffering a significant drop-off should help the league's No. 2 defense -- No. 1 in sacks -- in 2013 maintain its elite status.
3. Led by Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has a solid core on both sides of the ball. Newton is more confident and poised than ever as he enters his fourth season. The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March should be stronger, making him more dangerous as a runner. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has been compared to some of the all-time greats, such as Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. He is a tackling machine who lives and breathes football. He makes everybody around him better. So does Newton.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Kalil laughed when I asked him about all the questions surrounding the restructured offensive line, saying the line has been a question mark since he arrived eight years ago. The difference is Carolina had Jordan Gross at left tackle all those years. The Panthers don't now. Regardless of how the battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler shakes out to replace Gross, Carolina will have two undrafted players starting at the tackle positions because the other will start on the right side. No other team probably can -- or wants to -- say that.
2. The Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995. Their average win total the season after their previous four winning seasons is 7.5. That there's never been a repeat winner in the NFC South doesn't bode well, either. That Atlanta and Tampa Bay should be stronger, and New Orleans should be solid once again, will make repeating last year's 5-1 division record tough. The overall schedule should be tougher, as well, particularly an Oct. 12-30 stretch of at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans.
3. Back to the offensive line: It's a fragile situation. Although the starters could surprise, the depth outside of Garry Williams (T/G) and Chris Scott (G) is suspect. This team can't afford to lose three guards, as it did early last season, and still succeed. It especially can't afford a loss at tackle. Plus, it is depending on rookie Trai Turner out of LSU as the starting right guard. As consistent as he has looked in camp, he's still a rookie.
Benjamin and Newton have formed a bond off the field that obviously has helped their chemistry on it. It's a relationship Newton never had with Smith.
Benjamin has made more spectacular catches in his first few weeks of camp than arguably any receiver in Carolina history.
Despite being found guilty on domestic violence charges, which he is appealing, Hardy has remained popular among fans seeking autographs.
The addition of free agent Ed Dickson and the emergence of Brandon Williams to go opposite Greg Olsen makes the Panthers deep at tight end. They'll go with a lot of two-TE sets that will force teams to put eight in the box and open up the entire offense.
Replacing Ginn (Arizona) as a kick returner remains a challenge.
Running back Jonathan Stewart has spent so much time on the stationary bike rehabbing injuries the past three training camps that some are wondering whether he's training for the Tour de France.
12hEric D. Williams