Panthers: 5 greatest players in Carolina history
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Panthers: 5 greatest players in Carolina history

The Carolina Panthers released quarterback Cam Newton on Tuesday. Unable to find a trade partner for Newton, the Panthers cut the former NFL MVP. The move saves the team $19.1 million in salary cap for the 2020 season.

Teddy Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million deal with the Panthers last week, signaling the franchise’s direction at quarterback. Newton turns 31 in May and must look for a new home after spending the first nine seasons of his career in Carolina.

Newton’s name can be found at or near the top of many Panthers’ offensive records. With Newton’s greatness in mind, let’s rank the five best players through the 25 seasons (1995-2019) of franchise history.

5. Thomas Davis, Linebacker (2005-2018)

Thomas Davis suited up for the Panthers for 14 seasons, trailing only kicker John Kasay (16) for the most team history. Davis ranks third in games played (176).

A three-time Pro Bowler, Davis overcame a litany of adversity. He tore his ACL three separate occasions, all on the right knee. Davis remains the only professional athlete ever to play after three separate ACL tears.

Davis made three Pro Bowls (2015-17). His finest season came in 2015, when he was named a first-team All-Pro. He accumulated career-highs in sacks (5.5), forced fumbles (4), interceptions (4) and passes defended (7).

A great person off the field, Davis was named the 2014 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Davis is the Panthers’ all-time leader in solo tackles (789) and total/combined tackles (1,098).

Davis signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2019 offseason. After a one-year stint in LA, Davis agreed to a deal with the Washington Redskins to reunite with former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. Davis played for Rivera, now Washington’s head coach, for eight seasons.

4. Luke Kuechly, Linebacker (2012-19)

Luke Kuechly, the ninth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, spent his entire eight-year career with the Panthers. Kuechly led the NFL in tackles with a career-high 164 in his rookie season. He recovered three fumbles, intercepted two passes and collected 12 tackles for loss. He earned the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

The following season, Kuechly captured the NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. He made seven consecutive Pro Bowls (2013-19). The only defender to have a longer streak of consecutive Pro Bowls was Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary (10). Kuechly was also selected five times to the first-team All-Pro and twice to the second-team All-Pro.

Kuechly announced his retirement from the NFL in January.

In addition to averaging 145 tackles per contest over his decorated career, Kuechly excelled in pass coverage. He amassed 65 passes defensed, 43 pass breakups and 18 interceptions.

The best defensive player on the 2015 Panthers, Kuechly delivered some legendary playoff moments. The linebacker intercepted a pass and ran it back for a TD in consecutive weeks.  Kuechly is the only player in NFL history to record pick-sixes in back-to-back games in a single postseason. The first pick-six came in the Divisional Round versus the Seahawks.

Kuechly put forth a strong final season in the league.  He amassed 144 tackles, 12 passes defensed, two interceptions and a safety in 2019.

The seven-time Pro Bowler was selected to the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.

3. Julius Peppers, Defensive End (2002-09, 2017-18)

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, Julius Peppers spent the first eight years and the last two seasons of his career as a member of the Panthers. The defensive end won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award in Carolina

Peppers played in Chicago from 2010-13 and Green Bay  from 2014-16, before returning to Carolina. Peppers made nine Pro Bowls in his career, four coming with the Panthers. The six-time All-Pro defensive end was so dominant with Carolina he got named to the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team.

The leader of multiple franchise defensive records, Peppers registered the most sacks (97) in team history. Including his days with the Bears and Packers, Peppers ranks fourth in league history with 159.5 sacks.

Peppers is also the franchise’s all-time leader in forced fumbles (34) and tackles for loss (107). He is the only player in NFL history to record both 150+ sacks and 10+ interceptions. Peppers was notably durable, appearing in 266 of a possible 272 regular season games across 17 NFL seasons. His 266 games played places him sixth all-time among defensive players.

2. Steve Smith, Wide Receiver (2001-2013)

Steve Smith caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns (all franchise-highs) during his 13 years with the Panthers.

On the very first play of Smith’s career, the third-round draft pick returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. He did damage as a receiver (10 catches for 154 yards) and runner (four rushes for 43 yards) in the Panthers’ victory. That turned out to be the only win of the season for the woebegone 2001 Panthers.

Smith compiled seven 1,000+ yard receiving seasons with Carolina, the first of which came in 2003. Smith caught seven touchdowns for 1,110 yards. He came up clutch in the postseason, too.

Facing off against the Rams in the NFC Divisional Round, Smith connected on a 69-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass from QB Jake Delhomme in double overtime. The following week, the Panthers won the NFC Championship, reaching their first Super Bowl in team history.

The best year of Smith’s career, 2005, was an all-time great season by a wideout. Smith produced the football version of a (receiving) triple crown by leading the NFL in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,563) and touchdowns (12). He received the NFL’s Comeback of the Year award after missing 15 games the previous season with a broken leg.

Smith made five Pro Bowls (2001, 2005-06, 2008, 2011) with the Panthers. He was a first-team All-Pro in his rookie season in 2001 and during his incredible ’05 campaign. He earned a second-team All-Pro nod in 2008.

Joining the Ravens in free agency in 2014, Smith finished out the final three seasons of his career in Baltimore. He broke the 1,000 yard receiving plateau in his first year with the team.

Smith ranks eighth all-time in receiving yards (14,731), 12th in catches (1,031) and 26th in TD receptions (81).

1. Cam Newton, Quarterback (2011-19)

Selected with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Newton shined right off the bat. In his first professional game, the 6-foot-5-inch QB threw for 422 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He rushed eight times for 18 yards and a TD. While the Panthers lost the contest, Newton managed to leave his mark—becoming the first rookie to throw for 400+ yards in a game—and provided fans with a glimpse of his sky-high potential.

Newton made the Pro Bowl in his first season. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year, setting a single-season NFL record for rushing touchdowns (14) by a QB. In addition, Newton became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 yards in a single season.

A three-time Pro Bowler, Newton was the league’s best player in 2015. He captured NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year honors. An All-Pro selection, Newton posted career-highs in TD passes (35) and passer rating (99.4). Newton became the first player in league history with at least 30+ passing touchdowns and 10+ rushing TDs in a single season. He led Panthers to a 15-1 record, culminating with an appearance in Super Bowl 50.

Newton led the Panthers to four postseason appearances in his tenure, including three consecutive trips (most in team history) from 2013-15. Newton holds the franchise records for QB wins (68), passing yards (29,041), passing touchdowns (182) and rushing touchdowns (58). His 58 rushing TDs are the most ever by a quarterback.

As the only MVP in team history, Cam “Superman” Newton leaves Carolina as the greatest Panther ever.