The Panthers plummeted from their 15-1, NFC championship heights of 2015 to a listless 6-10 season a year ago. Star quarterback Cam Newton endured a season to forget with the lowest passer rating in the NFL, in part because his offensive line struggled to keep him upright. The Panthers decision to let cornerback Josh Norman walk in free agency looked unwise when they finished 29th in the league in passing yards allowed. After five losses in six games to start the season, the Panthers were effectively playing out the string.
You know it’s a bad season when the biggest news your team makes during the season has to do with the national anthem. Yet that was how it was during the one-year reign of head coach Chip Kelly in San Francisco. In fairness to Kelly, he never had the time to find players to fit his unique offense, resulting in an anemic passing attack. The defense wasn’t any picnic either, finishing last in rushing yards allowed, total yards allowed and points allowed. After winning in Week 1, the Niners lost 13 in a row en route to a 2-14 finish.
Let’s try this again
Once again the 49ers are starting over from scratch with their decision-makers, to the point where they’re starting to look like the Cleveland Browns West. New general manager John Lynch brought in Kyle Shanahan to coach after he had a ton of success last season as the Falcons offensive coordinator. Shanahan gets a home opener and hopes to start off with a win against the experienced, hungry Panthers.
Speeding things up
Much of the talk last year in Carolina was how the Panthers lacked speedy playmakers to lessen the load on Newton in the offense. That problem was addressed in the draft, with top two picks Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel chosen because of their ability to burn. Both should make an impact early and offer Newton the chance to dump off short passes to guys who can turn them into long plays.
Improving the back end
Carolina’s decision to stick with last year’s corners, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, reflected the improved play of the duo in the season’s final month. The Panthers did feel help was needed guarding slot corners, which is why they brought back Captain Munnerlyn after three seasons in Minnesota. Shanahan’s offense should feature a lot of intricate route-running designed to test the secondary’s cohesion, so the Panthers will find out quickly how they stack up on the last line of defense.
Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey vs. 49ers LB Reuben Foster
A year ago, these were two of the premier players in college football at their respective positions. Now they’ll be meeting each other often, most likely when McCaffrey runs routes out of the backfield and Foster tries to light him up after the catch. These two stars of the future could have an impact on an NFL outcome right away.
Fantasy football tip – WR Devin Funchess
Kelvin Benjamin is the number-one option for Newton, which means that the Niners will likely be concentrating their efforts on him. That allows Funchess, who’s in his third year but only 23 years old, the chance to do some damage, The Panthers need a reliable third option behind Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen; look for Funchess to start down that road on Sunday.
Prediction: Carolina Panthers 38-24 San Francisco 49ers
The Brian Hoyer-led Niners offense looked solid in the preseason and could make some noise at home. But Newton will be looking to show he’s back to his old form with a big offensive show.
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