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2018 Giants opponents: Can Carolina Panthers make it back to the playoffs?

As Giants open camp, we are still previewing the teams they wil play

Wild Card Round - Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Training camp is used for players to get ready for the upcoming season. We’re not going to leave you out of that — you’re getting prepared, too. As players report and training camp opens, we’re going to preview the opponents on the 2018 New York Giants schedule. We’ll look at how 2017 played out and what 2018 might look like to get everyone ready for the season to come.

There’s been a lot of back and forth between the rosters, coaching staffs, and front offices of the Giants and Carolina Panthers. We’ll see how they match up early in the season.

When will they play?

Week 5 at Carolina

2017 in review

Record: 11-5, second NFC South

Expected W-L (Pythagorean Expectation): 9.0-7.0

DVOA rankings: Ninth overall, 17th offense, seventh defense, sixth special teams

2017 was a weird year for the Panthers on and off the field. It started with firing general manager Dave Gettleman right before training camp in July and ended with Jerry Richardson getting forced to sell the team after a sexual harassment investigation. In between Carolina lost six football games, three of them to the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but were still well below the level of performance from the high of the 2015 season.

Offseason overview

Draft Picks

1 (24) D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland

3 (55) Donte Jackson, CB, LSU

3 (85) Rashaan Gaulden, CB, Tennessee

4 (101) Ian Thomas, TE, Indiana

4 (136) Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss

5 (161) Jermaine Carter Jr., LB, Maryland

7 (234) Andre Smith, LB, North Carolina

7 (242) Kendrick Norton, DT, Miami

Key Losses

Andrew Norwell, Star Lotulelei, Kurt Coleman, Jonathan Stewart, Jarius Wright, Ed Dickson

Key Additions

Dontari Poe, C.J. Anderson, Ross Cockrell, Da’Norris Searcy, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, Jeremiah Sirles

Nothing is likely to impact the Panthers more than the loss of Andrew Norwell at left guard. Norwell was the league’s best left guard by snaps per blown block according to Football Outsiders. That wasn’t just good for the sake of having a great left guard, it was also an aid to left tackle Matt Kalil who had 23 blown blocks in pass protection last season.

Along the defensive line, Carolina swapped out Star Lotulelei for Dontari Poe. Lotulelei had long been a force in the middle of the line, but his run-first defense is less valuable when his run defense was no longer elite. He was allowed to leave for a massive deal in Buffalo with former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Poe was brought in on a shorter and cheaper deal and while there will be a slight loss in rush defense, Poe was a much better pass rusher from the interior (21.5 pressures to 10 for Lotulelei last season). The loss in rush defense won’t really be all that noticeable since Kawann Short will still be there and still be a monster at defensive tackle.

Running back will also have a different look. Despite drafting Christian McCaffrey eighth overall last season, Jonathan Stewart led the team in carries with 198. He’s now a Giant. C.J. Anderson was brought in to be the more traditional running back in the rotation. Anderson led the Broncos with 245 carries last season and posted 1,007 yards with top-10 Efficiency (yards run per yard gained) among qualified backs per Next Gen Stats.

Wide receiver was revamped to bring in players who could get open fairly often. Jarius Wright is a useful slot option and Torrey Smith can still play the part of deep threat. That’s on top of first-round pick D.J. Moore, who might have been the best all-around receiver in the draft. All are more quarterback friendly than the departed Kelvin Benjamin, who had the second-lowest average separation in the league among qualified wide receivers last year (1.9 yards) per Next Gen Stats.

The Panthers had a deal with former Washington corner Bashaud Breeland earlier in the offseason, but a failed physical due to a foot infection voided the offer. Breeland would have been a welcome addition to the secondary — he ranked 15th among qualified cornerbacks in Success Rate last season per Football Outsiders. As a replacement Carolina signed Ross Cockrell, who led all cornerbacks in Success Rate with the Giants.

Numbers to know

50 percent: The Panthers were one of three defenses along with the Cleveland Browns (66 percent) and Los Angeles Rams (58 percent) to run a base defense on at least half of their plays. With linebackers who can cover like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson, that doesn’t out the defense at a disadvantage. 49 percent of Carolina’s plays came in nickel.

35: Only 35 of Christian McCaffrey’s 123 carries came outside the tackles, per Sharp Football Stats. McCaffrey is a good inside the tackles runner and better than last year’s numbers would indicate, but keeping him inside the tackles for nearly three-quarters of his attempts is not the best way to use him.

20.6: Cam Newton threw into tight coverage on 20.6 percent of his passes last season, the fifth-highest rate in the league per Next Gen Stats. In 2016, he had the second-highest rate at 24.5 percent. Over those two seasons, Aggressiveness correlates negatively with completion percentage, touchdown rate, and yards per attempt.

19 percent: Despite being the fourth-most run-heavy team in the league, the Panthers ran play-action on just 19 percent of passes, the seventh-lowest rate in 2017.

Opponent Q&A

Bradley Smith of Cat Scratch Reader answered a few questions about the Panthers’ outlook in 2018.

Q: Is the switch from Mike Shula to Norv Turner a net positive or net negative for Cam Newton and the offense?

A: Unless Norv Turner completely forgets everything he’s ever known about coaching an offense, I don’t see how it can be anything but a net positive for the Panthers to get away from Mike Shula’s boring and predictable situational play calling. While Shula is great at designing offensive concepts, he’s totally inept at calling the right play at the right time. Shula’s system is nearly identical to Turner’s, so if Turner can be a better play caller than Shula - which shouldn’t be hard to accomplish - I think the Panthers will come out better in the end.

Q: Mario Addison and Julius Peppers each had 11 sacks and both converted a high percentage of hits into sacks (73.3 percent and 64.7 percent, respectively, while the league average was closer to 40 percent). Can that duo replicate that production and is there enough depth behind them to help out?

A: I’m not 100 percent confident that they can replicate that production this year, but I think the have a chance to get close to that in 2018. One potential issue is that Julius Peppers is 38 years old, and while most players would start to see a steep decline in ability at that age, for some reason Father Time hasn’t affected Peppers yet. The Panthers will try to limit his snaps through the year, however, in hopes that it will keep him fresh down the stretch if they’re in the playoff hunt. We have a lot of youth behind Addison/Peppers at defensive end, so there’s certainly some ‘help’ there, but it’s completely unpredictable at this point how helpful those players will be.

Q: What is the most underrated aspect of this team heading into 2018?

A: I think the most underrated part of this team heading into 2018 will be the wide receiver group. The Panthers have overhauled their receiving corps with the additions of veterans Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright, and rookie D.J. Moore, and I think they have the potential to help take the offense to the next level. At the very least, the organization saw an issue that many fans had with the team and attempted to fix it, and while a lot of pundits and ‘experts’ don’t believe they did enough, I think there’s some potential to surprise a lot of people there.

Q: If you had to pick a regular season record, what would it be?

A: The Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons in their short franchise history, so it would be understandable for me to predict a 5-11 meltdown season since we finished 11-5 and second in the NFC South last year. However, I’m going to remain positive and believe that this season will break the mold of flip-floppiness in Carolina. I think the Panthers can find a way to win anywhere from 10-12 games this year, so I’ll split the difference and predict a second straight 11-5 season with a playoff appearance.