In so many ways, the NFL is evolving. With the way teams are playing nowadays both on offense and defense, having a diverse and versatile roster is a must to keep pace.
Through the foundation laid by former general manager David Gettleman and the work done by current GM Marty Hurney since replacing him in July 2017 and during his first stint with the team, there is a lot to like in how Carolina has constructed its roster.
Winners of five of its last six games, Carolina boasts a 6-2 record and is emerging as a contender in the NFC, largely because of the makeup of its roster. There are numerous position groups on the roster that feature complementary skill sets that enable Carolina to run a diverse offensive scheme and avoid mismatches on defense. Let's examine.
Some questions were raised at the time but Carolina knew exactly what it was doing when trading away former No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. With Devin Funchess also in the fray, Carolina eliminated a repeat skill in its receiving corps by parting with Benjamin and turned to the younger, better Funchess. Both Funchess and Benjamin are towering targets that are featured as possession receivers but together constipate the offense because of their limitations.
Now playing alongside the 6-foot-4 Funchess is speedster Torrey Smith, the crafty Jarius Wright and multifaceted rookie D.J. Moore. While Funchess is a threat to challenge the seam and compete for 50/50 balls, Smith can get behind the secondary and take the top off the defense. Wright's route-running prowess puts stress on the secondary's ability to pattern match and whoever covering Moore has to be able to remain in phase to every level of the field.
The x-factor of the position group is Curtis Samuel who has emerged as a receiving threat with his blazing speed but also stresses the defense with his dynamic ability with the ball in his hands as a runner.
Oh by the way, three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen is still manning the tight end position admirably with the ability to work the middle of the field and redzone.
The Panthers pass catching options feature a wide-ranging group of skill sets that create an offense that is difficult to defend because of all the different ways it's capable of attacking. There's a lot for opponents to account for.
The versatility of the Panthers' offensive backfield starts with Cam Newton who is the greatest dual-threat QB the NFL has ever seen. His ability to win inside and outside the pocket as a thrower, but also gain chunks of yards with his feet creates a difficult dimension to defend. Healthy for the first time in multiple offseasons, Newton has rediscovered his NFL MVP form from 2015 and is playing even more efficiently.
Joining Newton in the backfield is 2017 No. 8 overall pick Christian McCaffrey who is one of the NFL's most versatile running backs. He is capable of winning as an inside and outside runner and is a dangerous receiving threat with 129 receptions in 24 career games.
Complementing the elusive traits McCaffrey brings to the table is power back CJ Anderson. While he isn't featured often, Anderson can grind out the tough yards between the tackles when Carolina desires to attack in that fashion.
Because so many of Carolina's receivers are capable of winning as runners, the Panthers' receivers must be accounted for not only as pass catchers but as runners. Carolina wide receivers have accounted for 11 rushes for 193 yards and 4 touchdowns in 8 games.
There may not be a Julio Jones or Todd Gurley in Carolina's mix of offensive weapons but the scheme-multiplicity that exists because of the diversity of the group makes for an offense that presents problems for opponents. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner deserves much credit for adapting and modernizing his scheme to the ability of Carolina's roster.
In Carolina's 4-3 defensive alignment, Kawann Short is a prototypical three-technique and among the NFL's best defensive tackles. His ability to create interior penetration and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage is a critical element in a four man front. Alongside Short is Dontari Poe who fills the role of a 1-technique and eating space. His ability to remain stout against the run is critical behind Short's penetration and important to occupy blockers to keep the second level clean.
Backups of Kyle Love and Vernon Butler fit nicely into the rotation because they replicate the skill sets of the Short and Poe in a reserve capacity.
Again, the complementary skill sets within the defensive tackle rotation create a formidable unit that is constructed perfectly to achieve the objectives of the scheme.
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis pair to form one of the NFL's best linebacker duos. Neither has any limitations. They are both fast, physical and urgent processors that feature sideline-to-sideline range, top-end coverage skills and the ability to play into the line of scrimmage.
The x-factor of the unit is Shaq Thompson who has three-down ability and an interchangeable skill set. This allows Carolina to be more multiple is base personnel and mitigate mismatches because of offensive alignment. In Keuchly, Davis and Thompson, Carolina features a trio of backers that don't have the physical limitations many linebacking corps in the NFL do and enable Carolina to matchup with versatile offenses.
Offenses that crave running back or tight end on linebacker matchups in coverage aren't able to exploit Carolina's unit like they do most other defenses.
Perceived as a weakness entering the season, Carolina's cornerback tandem of James Bradberry and Donte Jackson has been outstanding.
At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Bradberry has the size, length and strength to matchup with opponents No. 1, alpha receivers. In an NFC South that features Mike Evans, Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, a No. 1 corner with the physical ability of Bradberry is a must. While No 1 receivers are inevitably going to make their share of plays, Bradberry isn't a total mismatch and he competes well despite facing a murderers row of receivers on a yearly basis.
Rookie second round pick Donte Jackson has stepped in admirably working across from Bradberry. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Jackson isn't the biggest corner in the league but he is without a doubt the fastest and is ultra competitive. Most offenses feature at least one burner in its receiving corps' and most secondaries don't have a cornerback capable of running with that target. Well, the Panthers do in Jackson and again neutralize the ways teams typically find success. In a division that features DeSean Jackson and Calvin Ridley, Jackson has the quickness to pattern match and carry the fastest receivers in the NFL vertically down the field.
Because of how Carolina's roster has been constructed with wide-ranging skill sets among its personnel, the depth and versatility of Panthers' opponents will be challenged on a weekly basis.
To stop the Panthers' offense, it requires a deep pool of fast, long and physical defenders to neutralize the endless ways Carolina is capable of attacking. Because of the versatility and diverse skill sets on the Panthers' defense, it's hard to find mismatches to take advantage of.
The toast of the NFC is currently the Saints and Rams but Carolina presents its own unique challenges for opponents to deal with. Don't sleep on Carolina as a contender in the NFC.