The Carolina Panthers come into the 2016 looking to improve upon the success they had in 2014. After an 8-8 season in 2015 (simmed), that left them out of the playoffs, the Panthers are hoping to return to the form that saw them go 13-3 and win the NFC South Championship two seasons ago. Now entering their 5th season together running the show for the Panthers, general manager LtJustice and head coach Jim Luby have once again made some bold moves, including a flurry of draft activity, in preparation for the upcoming season. The Panthers front office believes they have struck the right balance of experience and influx of young talent to propel this team deep into the postseason, with their sights set on a Super Bowl run. OFFENSE: QB: Cam Newton, at just 27 years old, is just entering the prime of his career and the Panthers front office secured his services through the 2020 season, when he signed a 7 year/$104 million contract extension during the 2014 season. Cam is not only the leader of this team, but has to viewed as one of the top quarterbacks in the league as he was voted a Pro Bowler and All Pro. Due in large part to his improved decision making, he led the league with fewest interceptions in 2014, Cam has developed into a complete passer. That passing ability along with his athleticism when carrying the ball, makes Newton one of the most dangerous men under center in the whole league. The sky is the limit for Newton and the hope around Carolina is that he will be the man to lead the Panthers to their first Super Bowl championship. The Panthers front office once again tapped into their Cleveland connection to find their backup quarterback. After previous backup Colt McCoy walked away in free agency, the Panthers traded for former Browns 1st round pick Brandon Weeden. While Weeden has yet to find much success as a starter in the league, the Panthers are confident in his physical ability as Newton's understudy. RB: When the Panthers handed the starting halfback role to the speedy Taiwan Jones going into the 2014 season, the move was not universally agreed upon within the organization. The hope was that Jones, who set an NFL record for all purpose yards in 2012, would thrive in the feature role, but unfortunately for the Panthers that was not the case. Jones struggled as a workhorse back, and the Panthers were prepared to let him walk in free agency following the season. Jones did indeed test the free agent market, but didn't find the kind of offers he expected, before coming back to the Panthers and agreeing to return to the role with which he had so much success in 2012. The Panthers think they may have found the workhorse back they wanted, when they drafted Kian Minor out of Arizona in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft. A sure handed back, with a nice mix of power and speed, Minor won the starting role in his first training camp and ran for over 1,000 yards as a rookie. Minor has also proven to be a "quick" learner and at just 21 years old, he has the potential to make quite a name for himself in this league. With Jones back in the fold as the change of pace back and returner, halfback Elijah Mitchell will have to make good on any opportunities he can get, as he is now 3rd on the depth chart behind Minor and Jones. Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert was looking to cash in this past off season, as his contract was up and he wanted to be paid as the top fullback by a large margin. The budget conscious Panthers would not meet the 30 year old Tolbert's outrageous demands, but were able to lock him up for this season at least with the franchise tag. The Panthers consider Tolbert the top fullback in the league and still hope to work out a long term deal with the big bruiser. WR/TE: When the Panthers acquired A.J. Green in a trade with the Bengals in 2012, most thought he and Newton would form a formidable passing duo for many years to come. What wasn't accounted for was the emergence of young Patrick Wilkerson in his rookie season. Wilkerson and Newton had an immediate chemistry, as Wilkerson quickly became Cam's favorite target during the receiver's phenomenal rookie season. Earning Pro Bowl, All Pro, and Rookie of the Year honors in his freshman campaign, Wilkerson went out and took the #1 receiver spot and never let it go. With the emergence of Wilkerson, and after a couple of key drops in their only playoff game in 2014, Green suddenly became expendable in Carolina following the 2014 season. With Green locked into to a recently signed long term deal, the suitors for his services were many. The Panthers front office pulled off a huge trade that sent Green to San Diego, along with Carolina's 1st and 2nd round picks in 2016, for the #1 pick in the 2015 draft (as well as the 1st pick in the 2nd and 3rd rounds). The Panthers had initially targeted halfback Andrew Niles out of Colorado with the top pick, to address their needs at running back. After research by the team left them with character and durability concerns in regards to Niles, the Panthers began entertaining offers to trade out of the top pick. Unable to negotiate a suitable trade for the pick, the Panthers knew there was only one player in the draft that was worth the #1 pick to them and that was wide receiver Anthony Jackson out of BYU. At first glance Jackson is a very similar receiver to Wilkerson. Possessing the same game breaking speed, Jackson is a bigger receiver who likes to go over the middle, which will compliment Wilkerson's deep threat tendency nicely. In an interesting twist; Niles was drafted by the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so if the Panthers were wrong in their assessment, they will find out first hand. The Panthers turned to free agency to land 5th year receiver Alshon Jeffery, and he is expected to be their primary slot receiver. Veterans Greg Little, Josh Gordon, and Ramses Barden, as well as rookie speedster Jeremiah Irvin give Newton a plethora of targets to choose from in the receiver corps. Tight end Greg Olsen, also a Pro Bowler in 2014, was resigned this year to a 6 year deal. That didn't stop the Panthers from using their 1st round pick this year on tight end Chase Virgin out of Iowa State. Virgin is most compared to a young Olsen, so it should benefit him greatly to learn under Olsen. Not many teams can trot out one tight end with the kind of speed and ability that these two have, much less a pair of them. With all of the weapons he has, the question is will Cam be able to spread the ball around enough to not only appease all of them, but to keep opposing defenses guessing. OL: The Panthers were dealt a serious blow when All Pro left tackle Jordan Gross announced his retirement prior to the 2015 season. Gross will definitely be missed, but the Panthers were very happy to land veteran tackle Donald Penn in free agency. While Penn is not considered the level of Gross, he is not the dramatic drop off that you would have had with a youngster. With center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Russell Okung, both Pro Bowlers as well, the Panthers still feel they have as good a core group as anyone on the offensive line. Young veterans Shawn Lauvao and Amini Silatolu will round out the starting group for the Panthers line. DEFENSE: DL: Despite rumors all off season that the Panthers were trying to trade All-Pro defensive end Charles Johnson, nothing ever came to fruition. Johnson will return for his 10th season as a member of the Panthers, and at 30 years old, he has said he is in the best shape of his life. With a $14M cap number this year, in the last year of his contract, it has been speculated that this could be Johnson's last year with the Panthers. Returning to start opposite Johnson will be fellow All-Pro defensive end Kahlbuto Williams, coming into his 4th season. It has been reported that Williams and Johnson will swap sides this season, as the veteran Johnson will play from the left side and the younger and faster Williams will rush from the right side. In any configuration, these two sack masters are sure to spell trouble for opposing quarterbacks. First to spell either starter at defensive end is former Pro Bowler Eric Norwood. Despite seeing a major reduction in playing time, since the Panthers drafted Williams in the 2013 draft, Panthers coaches know that Norwood still has the ability to step in and make a difference when needed. Clogging up the middle for the Panthers is the responsibility of the three man rotation of Phil Taylor, Tommy Kelly, and Marcus Thomas; all big bodies that can take up multiple blockers in the interior of the line. LB: Another surprising name thrown around the rumor mill was middle linebacker and team captain Jon Beason. Considered by most to be the heart and soul of this defense, it is no surprise that he will also be returning for his 10th season in Carolina. At 31 years old, Beason is still one of the top middle linebackers in the league, excelling in both run support as well as pass coverage. With the ink still wet on a brand new 5 year/$30M contract, linebacker Luke Kuechly appears primed to be the heir apparent to Beason as the leader of this defense. With much improved coverage skills, Kuechly is now considered to be a complete linebacker that can play anywhere on the field. Coming into his 4th season, Terrell Reese will start opposite Kuechly at outside linebacker. With good speed and a nose for the ball, Reese has continued to improve and hasn't looked back since claiming the staring spot in his 2nd season. The Panthers linebacking corps also features a pair of intriguing rookies. Keelan Reid out of TCU was projected by most to be drafted in the top half of the 1st round, but was still available when the Panthers picked with the 6th pick in the 2nd round. With great speed and good on field awareness, he has the potential to be a great linebacker in the league. The other rookie is middle linebacker Keith Williams out of Montana. Williams was projected to go undrafted, but with a bare draft board in the 6th round the Panthers took a flier on the 6'3 powerhouse. Williams was initially a hard hitting safety for the Grizzlies before team needs forced him to move to linebacker. Williams is a raw talent to be sure, but with the elite speed of a safety and the brutal thumping power and size befitting a linebacker, he definitely appears to be a talent worth developing. DB: The Panthers continue to get younger in their defensive backfield, as they seem to draft a cornerback high in almost every draft. This offseason saw the departure of veteran safety Charles Godfrey, who was traded to New England in a draft day deal. Returning as the top cornerback for the Panthers is All Pro cornerback Chris Gamble. Leading the league in each of the last two (played) seasons, Gamble doesn't appear to have lost a step at 33 years old. Third year cornerback Wesley Orange will start opposite Gamble and continues to develop into a shut down corner in his own right. Behind the top two corners are the veteran Captain Munnerlyn and 4th year corner Jakhari Brown. Both of whom could be starters on many teams, a testament to the depth the Panthers have at corner. Rookie corner Derrick Davis, a 3rd round pick out of Texas, had a great training camp and is expected to see plenty of playing time in dime and quarter packages. With the impending trade of Godfrey, the Panthers brass looked back to their Cleveland roots once more to fill their soon to be vacant strong safety position. Veteran thumper T.J. Ward was acquired prior to the 2015 season and is sure to make opposing receivers think twice about going across the middle that he patrols. At free safety, rookie 2nd round pick Anthony Russell appears to have supplanted incumbent starter Sherrod Martin. A ferocious hitter himself, Anthony and Ward combine to give the Panthers one of the hardest hitting safety duos in the league. SPECIAL TEAMS: At kicker the Panthers have 2nd year boomer Matt Baptiste. An undrafted rookie free agent, the young kicker has power to spare, but must work on his accuracy to be successful in the long run. Third year punter Charlie Trimble has definitely shown that he was worthy of the 3rd round pick the Panthers used on him in the 2013 draft. A Pro Bowler in each of his first two seasons, Trimble already must be discussed among the very best punters in the league. Panthers fans are excited to see Taiwan Jones return full time to return duties, but Elijiah Mitchell will provide a quality second option when needed. SUMMARY: The Panthers achieved their primary goal in 2014 of winning the NFC South Championship, but were not happy with going one and done in the playoffs. With the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Saints all reloading as well and focused on dethroning the Panthers, repeating will be no easy task. Despite the challenge, and to avoid a backslide, the Panthers focus has to be getting to the big game. A Super Bowl birth against the level of talent found in this league would be an achievement that every member of the Panthers organisation could hang their hat on.