The Past: While the last meeting between the Panthers and Packers ended well on the scoreboard, a 30-23 victory at Bank of America Stadium, the win was a bitter one as the Packers lost safety Nick Collins to a neck injury that ultimately ended his career. Collins was in his prime at that point and had been one of the star players for the Packers in the Super Bowl, intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown. While the Packers didn’t know it at that point, the loss of Collins actually started a cascade of defensive meltdowns over the next couple of years while the Packers trotted out the likes of MD Jennings and Jeron McMillian in the hopes of replacing Collins. Neither one was a tenth of Collins caliber and the Packers defense ended having a historically bad season in 2012. Fast forward to 2014 and while the Packers appear to finally have solved their issues at safety with Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde and 1st round rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Packers history of injuries has not.
The Present: The Carolina Panthers are getting a little bit of the Packers treatment as they are incredibly banged up. Of the 5 running backs currently on the roster, 4 are on the injury report and its possible that 5th string Chris Ogbonnaya gets significant playing time. In the passing game, Cam Newton is dealing with ankle and throwing hand injury and might possible be without the services of #1 WR Kevin Benjamin, who is currently going through the league mandated concussion protocols and tight end Greg Olsen, who has an ankle injury but did practice this week. With such a beat up offense, it’s hard to see what exactly the Panthers will try to do, running the ball would likely be the safest, but they can’t afford to lose or re-aggravate an injury to a running back and Cam Newton likely won’t be at 100% and neither will his receivers. Sure, Newton could run the option, but would you really want to put your battered quarterback into more tackles? On the other side of the ball, the Panthers are one of the worst defenses in the league, currently 28th overall, 23rd against the pass and 27th against the run. With that sort of balanced weakness, the Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy will likely have their pick in terms of favorable match ups. Expect the Packers to get the run game early with Eddie Lacy and force Cam Newton to beat the defense with his arm instead of his legs.
The Future: The Panthers are currently 15th in terms of cap space, with a little over $6 million in 2014. This is definitely enough for some emergency injury replacement signing and perhaps a resigning or two. They could also carry over some of this space to the next season and help along their future finances. On the flip side, multiple bad decisions have lead to the Panthers having over $19 million in dead money, mostly with the release of middle linebacker Jon Beason and wide receiver Steve Smith but also because they have a staggering 34 players who are no longer on the team but still on the payroll. The Panthers also have a lot of players on 1 and 2 year deals, with the most notable up coming free agents being Greg Hardy in 2015 and Cam Newton and Greg Olsen in 2016. Of course with the new salary cap and the 5th year option for 1st round draft picks, the Panthers do have the option of franchising Newton but will likely show him the money because he is the face of the franchise with the release of Steve Smith.
In terms of rookies, none have played particularly well; wide receiver Kevin Benjamin joined the Panthers as essentially the go to wide receiver and has had some good moments, however he’s still a rookie playing with an athletic but not always cerebral quarterback and as a result he is currently ranked as the #167 best wide receiver in the NFL according to profootballfocus (Jordy Nelson currently is the best). 2nd round pick Kony Ealy, who was overshadowed by Michael Sam hasn’t done much either, while a much better player than Sam, Ealy has graded out as one of the worst defensive linemen on the Panthers roster and one of the worst in the league as well. 3rd round pick Trai Turner has been the best rookie of the bunch but is more of a pass blocker than a run blocker which is surprising considering the Panthers’ offensive philosophy. 4th round safety Tre Boston hasn’t seen the field, while 5th round cornerback Bene Benwikere has seen a ton of snaps but has played like a rookie. Finally 6th round running back Tyler Gaffney was a more interesting pick, Gaffney suffered a knee injury in training camp and in an attempt to save some cash, they released him instead of sending him to the IR. Likely the Panthers were hoping that no one would claim him and he would then be sent to the Panther IR with a lower salary. Instead the Patriots stole the show and stole Gaffney by claiming him and then sending him to their IR. Overall, there’s no one to blame other than the Panthers front office, who got caught with their pants down against a typically sharp Patriots front office.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.