CHARLOTTE — With less than a month to go before training camp starts, it is officially prediction season.
So as we ramp up for the Panthers to return to Spartanburg, we're going to periodically check in on what some national voices think about the local team.
First up is ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky.
His thesis: The Panthers could be better than a lot of people think this year.
His argument: Because tweets are limited to 280 characters, nuance is hard, and so are complete thoughts sometimes. But he referenced a top-15 defense from last year, some strong individual award candidates, a depth of offensive playmakers, and a solid coaching staff.
He also pointed out some potential pitfalls, specifically relating to the development of the offensive line and the progress of new quarterback Sam Darnold.
Breaking it down: First things first, referring to the Panthers as a top-15 defense last year is extremely generous.
Yes, they were 15th in the league in total defense as measured by yards per game. That's a handy number that gets used as shorthand for these kinds of things. Also, 15th out of 32 is what you could describe as barely above average, and you'd be etymologically correct. They were also 18th in points allowed, which is slightly below average.
Where they really struggled was getting off the field, as evidenced by the fact they were 31st in the league in third-down percentage, with opponents extending drives on nearly half their chances. They were also tied for next-to-last with just seven interceptions.
That's why the Panthers made some serious investments in fixing the secondary, in both free agency and the draft.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly who Orlovsky is referring to as a possible defensive player of the year candidate. Maybe he meant free-agent pass-rusher Haason Reddick, who had 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last year for the Cardinals. Maybe he meant defensive end Brian Burns, emerging after a 9.0-sack season. Maybe he meant hybrid linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn, who led the team in tackles last year and scored a couple of touchdowns. Clearly, the defensive rookie of the year candidate he's referring to is cornerback Jaycee Horn, which makes sense given the fact he was the first defensive player chosen in this year's draft.
The five-deep at skill positions is off to a good start with Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, and Robby Anderson, but Orlovsky clearly has high hopes for Terrace Marshall Jr. and someone else — perhaps Dan Arnold or one of the tight ends. And while Joe Brady came in with a hot hand from LSU and has been interviewed for head coaching jobs already, this is a big year for the second-year coordinator.
Mentioning the growth of the offensive line as key is wise, since the 60 percent of it on the right side is back intact from a decidedly OK group from last year. If the committee of left tackle options and perhaps Pat Elflein stabilize the left side, there's a reasonable chance for improvement, though still enough unknowns to make it a concern.
The part about Darnold playing like a top-five pick is obviously carrying a lot of weight in that tweet.
If the top-five pick in question is Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, that would be fantastic news for the Panthers. If he plays like all the top-five picks from 2013 to 2017 (Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky), the reasons for optimism are fewer.
The verdict: Orlovsky presents a brief but compelling case, hinging on a defense that ought to be much better than it was last year. And while he ties so much of the Panthers' hopes for a 10-win season on Darnold, they have gone to great lengths to insulate their quarterback and to try to keep it from being all about him.
Going from five wins to 10 is a big ask, as the kids say. If every tumbler falls the correct way and they get there, Orlovsky can bask in the glory of being a seer.
Check out select photos of some of the Panthers players entering their sophomore seasons, including Derrick Brown, Jeremy Chinn, Yetur Gross-Matos, Sam Franklin, Myles Hartsfield, P.J. Walker, Rodney Smith and Joseph Charlton.