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May 21, 2015

Cam Newton falls 49 spots to No. 73 in NFL Network's Top 100

The debate on Cam Newton’s place among the top NFL players continues.

NFL Network revealed its annual Top 100, and the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback checked in at No. 73 one year after he was No. 24.

Newton had been in the top 50 for his career, sitting at No. 40 after his stellar rookie season and following it up with No. 46 in 2013. The list is voted on by players only.

Newton’s play did dip in 2014 compared to the previous year. The Panthers went 5-8-1 in the regular season with him as a starter, though they did win a playoff game against the Cardinals (who had quarterback Ryan Lindley, who won’t be making this Top 100 list).

He had fewer passing yards (3,127) and passing touchdowns (18) than in any previous year. And his 58.5-percent completion rate was the second-lowest in his four years.

But Newton was also playing on a surgically repaired ankle, cracked ribs from an exhibition and, just as he was healing up, fractured his lower back in a car accident.

Newton is the tenth-rated quarterback in this year’s Top 100, so I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But to drop 49 spots because of an injury-riddled season is curious.

Of course, it could be worse. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went from No. 17 in 2013 to off the list entirely last year to No. 77 this year for what mostly appears to be a poor team performance rather than individual play, which has been hampered by inconsistent line play for each of the past two seasons.

This is also a list that last year ranked eventual NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers No. 11 overall and had Jamaal Charles and Drew Brees in front of him.

--Jonathan Jones

Posted by Observer Sports on May 21, 2015 at 08:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (42)

May 19, 2015

What Ryan Tannehill's new deal means for Cam Newton

The Observer has reported Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been deliberate in his contract negotiations with the team, content to let the market for quarterbacks reset.

Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are expected to approach or potentially surpass the $22 million-per-year average of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. That's the high bar.

But Miami might have reset the low bar Monday when the Dolphins extended Ryan Tannehill, the first quarterback from the class of 2012 to receive an extension.

Tannehill's extension includes a reported $77 million in "new money" over four years, an average of $19.3 million that puts him sixth behind Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger.

That's a good chunk of change for a quarterback who in three seasons has yet to lead the Dolphins to a winning record or playoff berth. Tannehill is coming off a career year in which he threw for 4,045 yards and 27 touchdowns, with a passer rating of 92.8.

Tannehill's career passing numbers (61.9 completion percentage, 84.0 passer rating) are similar to Newton's (59.5 and 85.4). Neither has a winning record as a starter: Tannehill is 23-25, Newton is 30-31-1.

But Newton's running ability and the Panthers' back-to-back division titles put him at a different level than Tannehill. Newton came in at No. 7 on NFL.com's Dave Dameshek's list of the league's top quarterbacks. Tannehill didn't crack the top 14.

Tannehill's new contract won't have a significant affect on Newton's negotiations. It just raised the floor for quarterbacks a little higher.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on May 19, 2015 at 09:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)

May 15, 2015

Panthers tabbed to finish last in division by SI

Carolina’s free agency and draft didn’t impress at least one expert.

Sports Illustrated NFL writer Don Banks predicts the Panthers will finish in last place in the NFC South after what he believes was a poor offseason.

Banks picks the Saints to be first, followed the Falcons and then the Buccaneers.

Here’s what he writes about the Panthers:

"Picking a team that went 7-8-1 to finish last in its division might not seem like such a big stretch, but it does raise a few eyebrows when that club also happens to be the two-time defending NFC South champion. Behold the enigma that is the Carolina Panthers. No matter how impressive their December rally was, I can’t get past how shoddy a team the Panthers were for most of last season. When you mix in their ho-hum free agency work (Ted Ginn, Michael Oher, and Jonathan Martin?) and a puzzling top of the draft (Shaq Thompson and trading up for Devin Funchess?), it's really hard to view Carolina as a playoff contender."

It’s fair to question how much the Panthers actually upgraded their offensive line, which was ravaged by injuries last season. And plenty have wondered if Carolina reached for Thompson and gave up too much for Funchess.

But it’s important to note that in free agency, what you keep is as important as what you gain or lose. Carolina kept its strengths strong by extending Greg Olsen, returning defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards and going younger at running back with Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne. Plus, Carolina figures to have a healthy Cam Newton in 2015.

The Panthers seem to be the most consistent of all the NFC South teams as it stands now. They are coming off back-to-back division titles—the first team to ever do it in the NFC South—while New Orleans goes through a major overhaul, Atlanta is filling gaps with a new head coach and Tampa Bay will depend on a rookie quarterback to bring them five or six wins.

--Jonathan Jones

Posted by Observer Sports on May 15, 2015 at 10:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (48)

May 11, 2015

Luke Kuechly wins Butkus Award a second time

Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly recently became a two-time winner of the Butkus Award, which honors the top linebacker in high school, college and the NFL each year.

Kuechly, a two-time Pro Bowler and the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, became the fourth player to win the award at two levels.

Kuechly, the Butkus winner in 2011 following his junior season at Boston College, joins Von Miller, Patrick Willis and Manti Te'o (high school and college) as players who have won it on two tiers. DeMarcus Ware has won the NFL award twice.

Dick Butkus, the former Chicago Bears great, likes to surprise the recipient with the award in person. He brought Kuechly to Chicago during the NFL draft weekend under the guise of having Kuechly help with Butkus' charitable work, then presented the award to Kuechly during a live TV broadcast on a regional cable channel.

Butkus showed up at the Boston College banquet four years ago to give Kuechly the award when he won it the first time.

Kuechly led the NFL in tackles for the second time in three seasons with 153 stops in 2014. He added a career-high 12 pass breakups, with one interception.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on May 11, 2015 at 05:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

May 05, 2015

Trai Turner 'doing his best' to recruit, show support for La'el Collins

Panthers offensive guard Trai Turner is another in a long list of friends and former teammates of La’el Collins who have reached out to the talented offensive tackle to make his pitch for his team.

Collins went undrafted last weekend because there was too much uncertainty with why police in Baton Rouge wanted to speak with him in connection to a double murder.

Brittney Mills, a 29-year-old pregnant woman believed to be Collins’ ex girlfriend, was shot and killed on April 24. Her son, Brenton, was delivered by cesarean section but died a week later.

Police in Baton Rouge have said Collins is “still not a suspect,” but a Panthers source told me the team is in wait-and-see mode until he is completely cleared, if and when that happens.

Turner and Collins are close friends from their time on the LSU offensive line, and Turner—last year’s third-round pick for Carolina—told fans via Twitter today that he has made his pitch to Collins.



Several of Collins’ former teammates at LSU who play for the Dolphins took a flight to meet with him Tuesday. Former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has reached out to Collins urging him to pick the Buccaneers in undrafted free agency.

Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan met Collins for dinner last night, though it’s unclear if that broke NFL rules or if Ryan simply circumvented them.

Still, I’m told the Panthers are playing it safe until there’s a clear resolution that does not involve Collins in this tragic situation.

Posted by Observer Sports on May 5, 2015 at 04:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (19)

May 04, 2015

The La'el Collins question for the Panthers

Former LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins is set to meet with police in Louisiana in regards to the murder of a 29-year-old pregnant woman believed to be his ex girlfriend.

Police have not called Collins a suspect, but that they wanted to talk to him in connection to this tragic event made the would-be first-round pick undraftable in this weekend’s NFL draft.

For NFL teams, there’s a simple solution to a complicated issue: If he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, wait until he’s cleared and then look to sign him as an undrafted free agent.

But the situation is more complicated for a team like the Carolina Panthers, who have a story with a similarly tragic headline in their young history.

Brittney Mills was shot to death in her Baton Rouge, La., home on April 24. Her son, Brenton Mills, was delivered but died a week later.

Collins’ reps have reportedly said he has proof that he wasn’t near Baton Rouge at the time of her murder. He reportedly will submit blood work and a polygraph if need be.

Collins left the draft in Chicago last week and went undrafted. He was slated to be a mid-first-round selection, which would have netted him a four-year deal worth around $10 million.

Instead, if a team signs him, he will sign a standard three-year contract for undrafted rookies. Teams will guarantee as much of his base salary as they can, and he could make as much as $150,000 to $250,000. But it’s a far cry from the millions he was due.

Collins would also be eligible for restricted free agency after three years.

That’s best-case scenario for Collins. In the worst-case, this is another Rae Carruth story where a man had his pregnant ex murdered.

It’s the worst stain on a proud organization’s 21-year history. Even if Collins is cleared, is it the type of headline a team with such a similar story in its past wants to take on?

“I feel terrible for the woman,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said after the first round of the draft when asked about Collins. “I feel awful for the kid. It’s a bigger part of it. It’s bigger. It’s just frightening, this is a really frightening situation. It’s difficult. He is a very talented kid.”

The Panthers had interest in Collins before this tragic situation, though the team knew the chances were slim he would fall to them. With all the noise around him, and due to the team’s history with this situation, it’d be very surprising to see Carolina sign him.

--Jonathan Jones

Posted by Observer Sports on May 4, 2015 at 10:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (16)

May 02, 2015

List of undrafted free agents planning to sign with Panthers

The draft is over, but the work is still not done for NFL teams.

All teams will be grabbing undrafted free agents tonight with the hope of signing them next week, and we'll keep an updated list of players reportedly coming to Carolina as either free agents or to rookie minicamp.

Utah OLB Brian Blechen

South Carolina WR Damiere Byrd

Clemson CB Garry Peters

Florida defensive tackle Darious Cummings

Southern DT Arthur Miley

Memphis DT Terry Redden

James Madison S Dean Marlowe

Charlotte OL Daniel Blitch

--Jonathan Jones

Posted by Observer Sports on May 2, 2015 at 06:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (18)

May 01, 2015

What they're saying about Shaq Thompson

Given that Shaq Thompson played three positions at Washington, a lot of experts wondered what his best spot would be in the NFL in the weeks leading to the draft.

And while the Panthers made it clear they plan to use Thompson as a linebacker after taking him 25th overall, the reaction from most analysts still centered on whether Thompson might be a tweener at the next level.

A sampling of some of the comments about Thompson following the first night of the draft:

From Pro Football Focus:

They say linebacker, we see safety. Thompson is not good when blockers get on him, but looks a natural in coverage. How that fits in with Carolina in the short term is most interesting, because there’s no way you’re taking Luke Kuechly or Thomas Davis off the field on those passing downs any time soon. Thompson had the sixth highest grade in coverage of all linebackers against Power-5 opposition but was down in 25th for his work against the run. Numbers that really sum him up. We can’t fault the Panthers for not going offensive line (biggest need) given the run on linemen, but it does seem like something of a luxury pick when you’ve got some real weapons at wide receiver on the board.

From MMQB.si.com:

It was ironic that Thomas Davis announced this pick. Davis is the man Thompson could one day replace. But that won’t be anytime soon, as the 32-year-old Davis is coming off another excellent season. Some have identified Thompson, a fluid pass defender who has the ability to cover tight ends, as a dime linebacker. But as long as Davis is going strong, Carolina will remain a nickel sub-package team on all passing downs. So where, then, will Thompson play? Some have wondered if he can be a safety. If so, we’ll soon see the last of Roman Harper.

From the Boston Globe:

The 6-foot, 228-pound Thompson was the winner of the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player. He scored six touchdowns in 2014 — four on defense and two as a running back. He even started at tailback against Colorado last year and ran for 174 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and caught two passes for 41 yards.

From the Washington Post:

Is he a linebacker or a safety? If he’s a safety, why not take Landon Collins instead? This was a surprising pick and, frankly, not a risk that a mediocre team should be taking at this point in the draft.

How he fits: He will be an interesting fit into the Panthers defense. He’s a versatile athlete that could play safety or outside linebacker in Carolina’s 4-3 defense. Either way, Thompson’s versatility will prove valuable in nickel and dime sub-packages as he can play linebacker and still provide strong coverage.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on May 1, 2015 at 09:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (19)