Only two franchises have a shorter existence in the NFL than the Carolina Panthers. They entered the league as an expansion team in 1995, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars. With newer franchises, it becomes harder to find a long list of greats in their history. There are just too few total players to choose from. That's not to say that this team doesn't have any great players. No, this is a pretty solid team. It's just the newness of the team that will leave many people thinking that there just aren't any household name, Hall of Fame caliber players. But I think if we narrowed this project down to just the two decades since the Panthers joined the league, they would probably be able to hold their own against most teams. They have had a solid--if unspectacular--group through the years.
Carolina has only picked at the top of the draft once, and they probably got it right. Cam Newton is the lone signal caller to represent the Panthers. Other quarterbacks, like Jake Delhomme and Steve Beuerlein, found modest success with the Panthers, but none have truly been franchise QBs. Newton, on the other hand, has used his extraordinary size and athletic ability to lead the team to a Super Bowl appearance and take home the NFL MVP award. He may not be as consistently great as some people may like him to be, but he is the best to have lined up under center in Charlotte. Plus, his off-field persona has probably brought more attention to the franchise than they have ever had before or would have had without him. Picking Newton was a win for the team.
2. Muhsin Muhammad, WR (1999 Skybox Dominion)
Muhammad wasn't one of those rookies to take the league by storm. He eased his way in, collecting just over 50 total receptions in his first two years. And then he broke out. For the next seven seasons in Carolina, Muhammad averaged 75 receptions for just north of 1,000 yards and 6 TDs on the way to becoming the most prolific receiver in franchise history, at the time. He led the league in receptions (102) in 2000, and receiving yards (1465) and touchdowns (16) in 2004. He was named to two Pro Bowls and one 1st Team All-Pro team and was the franchise's first ever explosive offensive threat.
3. Steve Smith, WR (2013 Prestige)
If Muhammad was the Panthers' first threat, Steve Smith remains their ultimate threat. The man who ultimately passed Muhammad as the top receiver in Carolina history. As a rookie in 2001, Smith impacted the game despite catching only 10 balls. That year, he was an All-Pro kick returner, taking two kicks to the house. One year after teammate Muhsin Muhammad led the league in receptions with 102, Steve Smith bested the franchise record and led the league himself with 103 receptions. In fact, he led the league in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns that year. He is the all-time franchise leader the same three categories.
Kalil has been anchoring the Panther offensive line since 2007. In that span, he has been named to five Pro Bowls and two All Pro teams. Pro Football Reference ranks him 5th all-time for the Panthers in approximate value. Only ten players have played more games in a Panther uniform, and his number is growing with each passing week.
This spot really came down to Kris Jenkins and his counterpart and contemporary on the offensive side of the ball, Jordan Gross. Jenkins gets the nod here due to his dominance at this position during the era. While Gross was a solid tackle, he was never considered elite. Jenkins, though, received four Pro Bowl and two 1st Team All Pro nods. As a run-stuffing defensive tackle, Jenkins never piled up stats. But that wasn't his job. He clogged holes and did it well. In 2002 and 2003, Jenkins led the team in AV.
If I were to decide on the single greatest player for this franchise, I think I would go with Julius Peppers. Taken with the 2nd overall pick in the 2002 draft, Peppers is simply a quarterback's nightmare. Here is is line as a Panther: 95 sacks, 34 forced fumbles, 3 defensive touchdowns, and 103 tackles for a loss. He has represented Carolina in the Pro Bowl 8 times, with another 3 appearances on the All Pro squad. In case you're wondering, the Panthers drafted Steve Smith, Kris Jenkins, Julius Peppers, and the aforementioned Jordan Gross in the first 3 rounds between 2001-2003. It's easy to see why they had success in those years.
Thomas Davis played safety at Georgia and was drafted as a bit of a tweener player in the first round. After one year at safety in the NFL, the Panthers moved him to linebacker, and it was a genius move. Since his move to linebacker, Davis has started every game in which he has appeared. He has been a team leader and a tackling machine, recording nearly 1100 tackles in his career. Injuries have hampered his career, and it's impressive to think what he really could have done had he not lost a nearly two full seasons with a knee injury.
8. Luke Kuechly, LB (2012 Topps Prime)
Anyone who has seen a Panthers game since 2012 has surely seen #59 everywhere on the field. Everywhere. Kuechly is one of those guys who is always near the ball. In six-and-a-half seasons, he has already racked up 930 tackles, been named to 5 Pro Bowls and received 4 1st All Pro nods. That's impressive. Only his rookie year did he miss out on the Pro Bowl, and in 2016, his only year not being named All Pro, he still recorded 125 tackles.
9. Sam Mills, LB (1996 Skybox Impact)
Sam Mills was the original heart and soul of the Panthers. The diminutive linebacker was a playmaker. He played only 3 seasons in Carolina, but it was good enough to be in the top 25 of the team's career AV rankings. What does that mean? By a per game approximate value, only Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly have had a bigger impact on every game they played than Mills. In those 3 years, he forced 6 fumbles, picked off 7 passes, and scored twice. When the Panthers found success early in their history, it was largely because of Sam Mills.
Looking at this team, it's easy to see that defense has been Carolina's calling card since the beginning. However, when a great offensive star takes the field, that's when success really comes to Carolina. The defense (especially the linebackers) always seems to be solid. Offensive playmakers push the team to deep playoff runs.
I already have a couple of names that I expect to hear in the comments, but I feel pretty confident in these picks. But what do you think? Who would you have replaced and with whom? Let me know in the comments!