Bryan, some have named Kony Ealy as a potential unsung hero who can really contribute this year and improve in his sophomore year. Who is your unsung hero for the 2015 Carolina Panthers? – Richard in Fayetteville, N.C.
Ealy is a good one, a maturing player who contributed in the season opener despite his quiet day in terms of stats, but I might go with another player at his position. Defensive end Mario Addison is developing into a not-so-secret weapon of sorts, becoming the kind of player that can bring energy early and that can sap the energy of an opponent late with the game in the balance.
Given his speed but lack of size coming out of Troy in 2011, many projected Addison as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, but no one took a chance on him in the draft. He bounced around three teams before late in the 2012 season, when Carolina claimed him off Washington's practice squad. He made some noise immediately and actually got a start at outside linebacker, but the next season the Panthers started utilizing him as a pass-rushing specialist – in addition to a special teams standout – and he's continued to rise.
While playing in every game, Addison had 2.5 sacks in 2013, then 6.5 last year. In the season opener, he recorded two sacks and also forced a turnover with a near-sack. In his specialized role, Addison could be special.
Should Carolina be worried about the Falcons given the way they played Monday night? Especially Julio Jones. – Martise in Hickory, N.C.
Jones is an elite receiver when healthy, and the team around him looked good in a home victory over the Philadelphia Eagles that put Atlanta atop the NFC South standings with Carolina. The Falcons defense under new head coach/defensive guru Dan Quinn was aggressive and disruptive.
Atlanta has many of the offensive weapons still in place that helped the Falcons average 12 victories from 2010-12; the questions lie along the offensive line and on defense. It's a similar story for the Saints, who won 11 games in 2013 with an emerging defense but just seven games last year with a disappearing defense.
The Panthers have won four of their last five against the Falcons by getting after quarterback Matt Ryan and, last year at least, neutralizing Jones. They've won four of their last six against the Saints. They've won four in a row against the Buccaneers, a team still in transition with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston at the helm. The division is full of threats to Carolina's reign, and Atlanta certainly made an early statement about its intention to be the top threat. While the Panthers play New Orleans in Week 3 and Tampa Bay in Week 4, the Falcons rivalry won't be renewed until Week 14.
Why is it an issue every year for Carolina to get receivers? It seems like receivers are always in need and yet we don't draft quality receivers like other teams. I think Kelvin Benjamin is a great addition but once again we seem to be coming up short on offense. I guess my question is do you think that Carolina will ever have dynamic receivers to match their dynamic defense? – Tiaago in Camas, Wash.
Well, selecting someone like Benjamin in the first round of the 2014 draft and then trading up to take Devin Funchess in the second round of the 2015 draft are steps in the right direction and ones that speak to taking the position seriously. So does bringing back Ted Ginn, Jr., a key cog in the Panthers' strong 2013 season, and trading for an intriguing young prospect in Kevin Norwood when Benjamin went down with a season-ending knee injury.
The loss of Benjamin puts the Panthers in a tough spot, but don't think for a second they're alone in that regard. The Dallas Cowboys will turn to Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley to serve as their top receivers for the next month with Dez Bryant out of action. And what if this week's opponent, the Houston Texans, were to lose DeAndre Hopkins? Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts are next in line.
That's meant as no offense to those teams but rather as a reality check. There aren't enough elite, No. 1 wideouts to go around, so when one goes down, adjustments have to be made – including an adjustment in expectations.