The Carolina Panthers were created in 1995, and were already playing in the NFC Championship Game a year later. Since then, they’ve made two Super Bowls and have qualified for the playoffs eight times. The team may not have any all-time NFL greats at this point in their history, but there are still some well-known names who significant impacts during their time in Carolina. Here are the five biggest.
5. Cam Newton, quarterback
Newton was the first overall pick back in 2011, and he mostly lived up to the hype. As a rookie, he totaled 35 touchdowns through the air and on the ground, and was the NFL MVP in 2015 after scoring 45 touchdowns and leading his team to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl berth. Over his nine years in Carolina, Newton was 68-55-1 as a starter, made three Pro Bowls, and won three playoff games. A shoulder injury limited him to just two games in 2019, and he was released following the season. Newton is now a member of the New England Patriots, but is the greatest QB in Panthers history, although the way the team nonchalantly moved on from him wouldn’t indicate it.
4. Luke Kuechly, linebacker
Kuechly was selected ninth overall in 2012, and played eight seasons, making the Pro Bowl in every season after his rookie year, and was selected to five All-Pro teams. He retired after the 2019 campaign due to concerns over the multiple concussions he had suffered during his career, but was the definition of elite against both the run and the pass. Had he not been injured, he would have been a surefire Hall of Famer. That may still happen, as he racked up 1,092 total tackles, and he deserves the honor.
3. Julius Peppers, EDGE
Drafted second overall in 2002, Peppers spent the first eight years of his career with the Panthers, before moving to Chicago and Green Bay for seven seasons. Peppers returned to Carolina in 2017, and retired after two more years with his old team. For the duration of his 17 years, Peppers was one of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers, collecting nine Pro Bowls and three All-Pro nods, and totaling 159.5 sacks, which ranks him fourth all-time. His initial departure for Chicago was ugly, but he and the Panthers reconciled, and when he’s eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, he’ll go in as a Panther.
2. Steve Smith, wide receiver
Smith is the greatest Panther of all time. A third-round pick out of Utah in 2001, the diminutive 5’9″ 195lbs dynamo was named a first-team All-Pro kick returner as a rookie, before he earned playing time at WR. He spent a total of 13 years in Carolina, fighting through injuries and becoming a team leader. He was known as one of the league’s best trash-talkers, and always had something to say to the other team. Things didn’t end too well in 2014, and he asked for his release before signing with the Baltimore Ravens, for whom he played his final three seasons. Overall, Smith caught 1,031 seconds for 14,731 yards and 81 touchdowns. The WR competition for the Hall of Fame is stiff, but Smith could end up getting into Canton at some point, and if that happens, his induction speech should be must-see TV.
1. Sam Mills, linebacker, coach, and inspiration
Mills joined the team at the age of 36 and played the final three years of his career in Carolina. He was a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 1996 and retired after the 1997 season. Mills then transitioned to the Panthers coaching staff, starting out as a defensive assistant and then moving up to linebackers coach in 1999.
Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer prior to the 2003 campaign and was told by doctors that he had only a few months to live. In spite of this terrible news, Mills decided to fight the disease, undergoing chemotherapy treatment and remained on staff for the team. Je gave an emotion-filled speech before Carolina’s Wild Card matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, which they won 29-10. The Panthers advanced all the way to the Super Bowl, where they came up just short against the New England Patriots, 29-32. During Mills’ speech, he used the phrase “Keep Pounding”. This not only became an official team slogan, but also was the namesake for a Panthers-affiliated charity fund that has raised over $3 million for cancer research and treatment.
Mills kept pounding for nearly two years after his initial diagnosis and passed away in April of 2005. Mills may not have been the best or longest-tenured player in Panthers history, but he left the biggest legacy, one that will live on forever.