Despite being the NFL’s fourth-youngest franchise, the Carolina Panthers have had quite a bit of success since their inaugural season in 1995. In its 23-year history, the Panthers have a 9-7 playoff record, six division titles, four appearances in the NFC championship and two Super Bowl appearances. Even without a championship ring, the franchise has had some unprecedented success in comparison to the other NFL expansion teams thanks to a plethora of great individual players. Here are the franchise’s greatest players at each position.
Creating the Carolina Panthers All-Franchise Team
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (2011-Present)
The former collegiate All-American and 1985 Super Bowl champion received his first coaching job in 1997 as the Chicago Bears defensive quality control coach. Ron Rivera later served as the defensive coordinator for the Bears and San Diego Chargers during the mid to late 2000’s before landing his first head coaching gig in 2011. He became the fifth Latino head coach in NFL history when he was hired in Carolina and has since the lead the team to a 64-47-1 regular season record in his tenure.
Rivera led the Panthers to three straight division titles from 2013-2015 and was named Head Coach of the Year by the Associated Press in both 2013 and 2015. He earned the nickname “Riverboat Ron” in 2013 after switching up his philosophy from conservative play-caller to ‘calculated risk-taker’ and since then he has led the team to four winning seasons in five years. He trails only John Fox in career wins with the Panthers franchise.
Quarterback: Cam Newton (2011-Present)
Quarterback is one of the few positions the Panthers have been thin at as a franchise. Outside of Cam Newton and Jake Delhomme, no one in the franchise has completed more than 1,100 passes. Of the two, Newton has been the far superior quarterback for the Panthers. In seven years with the team, Newton leads the franchise all-time with 158 passing touchdowns, 25,074 passing yards, 5.2 yards per rush attempt and 54 rushing touchdowns. The former first overall pick won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 and MVP in 2015. He was named First-Team All-Pro in 2015 and has participated in the Pro Bowl three times. It is safe to say he was the easiest choice of selecting the franchise’s best players.
Running Back: DeAngelo Williams (2006-2014)
This was a tough choice that narrowed down to Williams and his former backfield teammate Jonathan Stewart. Williams was the bigger home run hitter and in 2008, he rushed for 1,515 yards becoming the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Stephen Davis accomplished the feat in 2003. He is also the only player in franchise history to rush for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as he followed up his 2008 performance with 1,117 rushing yards in 2009. During the tail end of his stint with the Panthers, he struggled to stay healthy and the team eventually decided to release him in 2015. Williams still holds the franchise records for the longest rushing attempt (77 yards), most rushing touchdowns in a season (18), most yards from scrimmage in a season (1,636 yards) and most rushing yards in a single game (210 yards).
Wide Receiver: Steve Smith (2001-2013)
No surprise here. Smith is arguably the best player in Panthers franchise history and was so right from the get-go. In his first career game, Smith returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Talk about a rookie debut. Smith leads the Panthers all-time in all receiving categories with 836 receptions, 12,197 receiving yards, 67 touchdowns and 43 100+ yard receiving games. Smith had a knack of coming up clutch for the Panthers in big moments. In 2003 when the Panthers reached the Super Bowl, Smith led all playoff receivers with 18 receptions, 404 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. In 2005, Smith had his best season winning the receiving “triple crown,” leading the NFL in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,563) and touchdowns (12). In 2014, general manager Dave Gettleman decided to release Smith claiming the receiver was “too old to play in this league.” Smith went on to record 79 receptions and 1,065 receiving yards the very next season in Baltimore. Smith will be remembered for a lot of his expressions but his most recognizable will be “Ice up son” after his infamous scuffle with Aqib Talib in 2013.
Wide Receiver: Muhsin Muhammad (1996-2004, 2008-2009)
The Panthers drafted Muhammad in 1996 and is second all-time in franchise history behind Steve Smith in practically every receiving category except yards per reception. While he did not have the speed and electrifying quickness Smith had, Muhammad was as reliable as they come. At 6’2″ 217 pounds, Muhammad used his body size to box out smaller defensive backs and made plenty of tough catches. In his first stint with the Panthers, Muhammad had five seasons with 60 or more receptions including a 102 reception performance in 2000. Muhammad recorded a league-high 1,405 receiving yards and 16 receiving touchdowns in 2005 and was named First-Team All-Pro for the only time in his career. In 2005, Muhammad decided to sign with Chicago in free agency and played three seasons with the Bears. Three seasons later, Muhammad returned to the Panthers and played the final two seasons of his career in Carolina, tallying up 65 and 53 receptions respectively. Muhammad sits fourth all-time in career games played for the Panthers.
Wide Receiver: Mark Carrier (1995-1998)
Though he only played four of his 12 NFL seasons with the Panthers, Carrier was a pivotal piece in team’s offense the first couple seasons. In fact, Carrier is the only player in NFL history to compile a 1,000-yard receiving season in the first year of an expansion franchise. In 1995, Carrier led the team with 66 receptions and 1,002 receiving yards. The following season Carrier led the team with 808 receiving yards and finished second with 58 receptions. He currently sits sixth all-time in franchise receptions with 176.
Tight End: Greg Olsen (2011-Present)
Olsen’s career began in 2007 after he was drafted in the first round by the Bears. After four seasons, however, Olsen was traded to Carolina for a third-round pick and that could go down as one of the best trades in franchise history. Olsen has been one of the most consistent dual-threat tight ends the NFL has to offer since coming over to the Panthers. He quickly became Newton’s favorite target and has compiled 445 receptions in seven seasons. Before 2017, he never missed a game due to an injury. From 2014-2016, Olsen became the first tight end in NFL history to have three straight seasons of 1,000 receiving yards or more. Olsen also happened to lead the team in receptions for four straight seasons from 2013-2016. The three-time Pro-Bowler sits third all-time in receptions only behind Muhammad and Smith.
Left Tackle: Jordan Gross (2003-2013)
For much of the 2000s, the left tackle was always a reliable position on the Panthers offensive line thanks to Gross. The Panthers used their first-round pick in 2003 on Gross and the Utah offensive lineman ended up starting 167 games for them in 11 seasons. He missed only nine games during that span due to injury and was named first-team All-Pro in 2008. It came as a surprise when Gross decided to retire at the age of 33 but nonetheless, he was a pivotal part of the Panthers offense for many years.
Left Guard: Andrew Norwell (2014-2017)
The Panthers have had some success in converting former undrafted free agent offensive linemen into starters, but none are as great a story as Norwell. After playing college ball at Ohio State, Norwell went undrafted but shined during the Panthers OTAs and minicamp. He found himself a roster spot and started nine games at both right and left guard filling in for injuries. The following season, Norwell took over the starting left guard spot and never looked back. He started all 16 games in 2016 and 2017 while being named first-team all-pro in 2017, which earned him a lucrative five-year, $66.5 million dollar deal this offseason with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Center: Ryan Kalil (2007-Present)
Much like Gross did at the left tackle spot, Kalil has solidified the center position for much of the past decade on the Panthers offensive line. He has been considered one of the league’s best centers when healthy and has been named first-team All-Pro in both 2013 and 2015. Kalil reads defenses extremely well and has helped every quarterback he’s played with in identifying blitzes at the line of scrimmage and adjusting the pass protection. In 11 seasons, Kalil has started 129 games but has only made 14 starts the past two years combined. He has come out and stated that 2018 will be his final season so the Panthers will be looking to make one last push while he is still on the roster.
Right Guard: Trai Turner (2014-Present)
The right guard position has been sort of a revolving door throughout the team’s history. But in 2014, the Panthers used a third-round pick on a guard out of LSU and Turner has been one of the best offensive linemen ever since. Turner has made 54 starts in four seasons and has been voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls. Turner signed a four-year, $45 million extension this off-season and will look to make a fourth straight Pro Bowl in 2018.
Right Tackle: Chris Terry (1999-2002)
Much like the right guard spot, the right tackle position has been pretty thin during the franchise’s existence. Terry is one of the few players that can say he started more than three years at the position. The Panthers used their second-round pick on Terry and in his first season, he was named to the NFL’s all-rookie team. In 2000, Terry showed off his versatility as he was asked to play a few different offensive line positions due to injuries. His production declined however in 2001 and the following year in 2002, the Panthers traded Terry to the Seattle Seahawks.
Defensive End: Julius Peppers (2002-2009,2017-Present)
Much like Smith on the offensive side of the ball, Peppers is considered the franchise’s best defensive player of all-time. Peppers was the second overall draft pick in 2002 and had an incredible rookie season with 12.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. He went on to record 81 sacks and 30 forced fumbles during his first eight years in the league and was named first-team All-Pro in 2004 and 2006. In 2010, he decided to sign with the Chicago Bears in free agency and after four seasons, he elected to stay in the NFC North and play with the Green Bay Packers.
After three seasons in Green Bay, Peppers decided to sign a one-year deal to return to Carolina for 2017. Many thought the 37-year-old defensive end was well past his prime, but he managed to record 11 sacks and two forced fumbles for the Panthers defense last year. Peppers agreed to another one-year deal this off-season and will look to add to his career sack total. He leads the franchise with 92 sacks and his 154.5 career sacks are good enough for fourth all-time in NFL history and first among active players.
Defensive Tackle: Kris Jenkins (2001-2007)
Every good defense needs a defensive tackle that is willing to do all the dirty work to free up the linebackers and for much of the John Fox era. Jenkins was that guy. At 6’4″ and 335 pounds, Jenkins wreaked havoc on interior offensive linemen and was effective in stopping both the pass and running game. He was named first-team All-Pro in back to back seasons from 2002-2003, and currently sits 10th all-time in franchise history with 24 sacks. Jenkins may not have put up record-breaking stats, but he took on a lot of double teams and applied lots of backfield pressure during his time in Carolina.
Defensive Tackle: Kawann Short (2013-Present)
Despite playing the same position, Short and Jenkins had very different playing styles. Short is the flashier, quicker, new-age defensive tackle that not only takes on double teams but splits them and makes the sack too. In five seasons, Short has recorded 29.5 sacks which are good for seventh all-time in franchise history. Short signed a lucrative five-year, $80 million deal in 2017 to remain a pivotal part of the Panthers defense.
Defensive End: Charles Johnson (2007-2017)
The Panthers have had some good edge rushers play for their franchise and the player with the second most sacks all-time is Charles Johnson. Johnson was sort of a late bloomer, only recording 10 sacks in his first three seasons. But in 2010, he broke out and recorded 11.5 sacks and quickly became the team’s best pass rusher. Johnson recorded at least 8.5 sacks from 2011-2014 and had a team-high 12.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2012. In 2016, Johnson had the option of taking more money elsewhere but chose to re-sign with Carolina for less money. In his final season, Johnson was suspended for four games to start the year and never got into his groove, recording only 16 tackles and zero sacks in 11 starts. Johnson’s 67.5 career sacks are only behind Peppers for most all-time in franchise history.
Outside Linebacker: Thomas Davis (2005-2017)
When it comes to the linebacker position, the Panthers franchise has a very rich history making it hard to choose the all-time top three at the position. Though there might be some debate on who deserves to make this list, Davis should be in without any argument. Davis was drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft and since then has become the franchise’s leading tackler with 1,032 career tackles. He sits eighth all-time in sacks (28), second in forced fumbles (18), seventh in pass deflections (46) and sixth all-time in interceptions (13).
His path was not the easiest, however, as Davis suffered three different season-ending ACL injuries during his career. Many thought Davis’ career was over after his third tear, but he continued to work and has become a dominant force playing alongside Luke Kuechly. Davis has been recognized for his work in the community as well, winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2014. And of course who could forget, Davis’ unforgettable performance in Super Bowl 50, when he recorded seven tackles in the game despite breaking his forearm just two weeks prior. Very few franchise players have quite the resume Davis has.
Middle Linebacker: Luke Kuechly (2012-Present)
Like Davis, Kuechly was a former first-round pick and since being drafted, has become one of the best linebackers in the NFL. In his rookie season, he went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and followed that up by winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. In six seasons, Kuechly has been named first-team All-Pro four times and led the NFL in tackles in 2012 and 2014. As far as franchise records, Kuechly sits fourth all-time in interceptions (15), third all-time in pass deflections (49) and second all-time in tackles (847). If Kuechly continues to play at a very high level, he should have no problem surpassing Davis for the franchise lead in tackles.
Linebacker: Jon Beason (2007-2013)
Sorry, Dan Morgan, but Beason has almost 200 more tackles as a Panther. Before the days of Kuechly, the Panthers had a dominant linebacker by the name of Beason. At 6’0″ and 230 pounds, he was one of the smaller middle linebackers in the NFL but that did not stop him from putting up four consecutive seasons of 100+ tackles. From 2007-2009, he finished top five in the NFL in tackles and was named first-team All-Pro in 2008 after recording 138 tackles and three interceptions. Due to injuries, Beason’s career took a turn for the worse and he played only five games from 2011-2012. In 2013, the Panthers decided to trade Beason and he ended up finishing his career with the New York Giants. Beason’s 583 tackles are good for third all-time in Panthers franchise history.
Cornerback: Chris Gamble (2004-2012)
Gamble spent his entire nine-year career with Carolina and finished as the franchise’s leader in interceptions (27) and pass deflections (96). After recording 74 tackles, 14 pass deflections, and six interceptions his rookie year, Gamble was named to the 2004 All-Rookie team. He followed that up with a 2005 campaign in which he recorded seven interceptions, 75 tackles, and a defensive touchdown. After not recording an interception in 2010, it looked like Gamble’s career was nearing an end, but he bounced back and had an impressive 2011 with 11 pass deflections and three interceptions. He later retired after the 2012 season.
Safety: Mike Minter (1997-2006)
Minter was a second-round draft pick in 1997 and even though he never made a Pro Bowl or was named to an All-Pro team, he was one of the most important players on the Panthers defense during his career. Despite being a smaller sized safety, Minter had a nose for finding the ball and his 780 tackles are good for second all-time in Panthers history. He finished his career with 17 interceptions, which is good for third all-time and he is second in franchise history with 52 pass deflections. Minter had a one lone postseason interception but it was a big one, coming against the St. Louis Rams in the 2003 Divisional round. His 148 games played for the franchise is good for seventh all-time.
Safety: Charles Godfrey (2008-2014)
Godfrey was drafted by the Panthers in 2008 and instantly showed his capability to contribute to the defense his rookie season by compiling 59 tackles, five pass deflections, one sack and one interception. In 2010, he had his best season tallying 83 tackles, five interceptions, and eight pass deflections. During the 2014 season, Godfrey was traded from the Panthers to the Atlanta Falcons but his 11 career interceptions are good for seventh in franchise history. He has 364 tackles, 33 pass deflections and seven forced fumbles as a member of the Panthers franchise.
Cornerback: Josh Norman (2012-2015)
Although Norman emerged as one of the best corners in the NFL after the 2015 season, it was not always that way early in his career. He was drafted in the fifth round out of Coastal Carolina and was thrown into a starting role right away due to injuries. Norman’s rookie year was rough as he continuously got picked on by opposing quarterbacks. In 2013, he lost his starting position in preseason and was kept inactive many of the games that year. However, he turned it around in 2014, winning a starting spot and recording 11 pass deflections and two interceptions in 10 starts.
In 2015, Norman had four interceptions, two interceptions returned for touchdowns, 18 pass deflections and continuously put the opposing team’s best receiver on lock week in and week out. In a five-week span, Norman held DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones to a combined nine receptions for 89 yards. Pretty darn impressive for a guy who got benched just a couple seasons prior.
Kicker: John Kasay (1995-2010)
No other player in franchise history can say they played more games than Kasay as his 221 games for the Panthers ranks first by a large margin. He was as consistent as a kicker can be, finishing with a field goal percentage of 82.8 percent throughout his 16 years in Carolina. His career long came in 1998 when he knocked in a 56-yarder and his best season was in 2008 after converting on a career-high 90.3 percent of his field goals. His 1,482 career points are good for first all-time in franchise history.
Punter: Todd Sauerbrun (2001-2004)
The Panthers punt game was fairly weak during the franchise’s first few seasons, but that changed when Sauerbrun was added to the roster. The journeyman played for five different teams in his career but had his best years in Carolina. In 2001, Suaerbrun averaged a career-high 47.5 yards per punt which was good enough to lead the NFL. In 2002, he averaged 45.5 yards per punt which again, led the NFL. In both of those seasons, Sauebrun was named first-team All-Pro for the only times in his career. His career long of 73 yards in 2001 is also the second longest punt in Panthers franchise history. Sauerbrun has the second highest punt average in franchise history and has the second most punts.
Return Man: Steve Smith (2001-2013)
Although many people will remember Smith as a dynamic receiver, do not forget that he was an electrifying return man early in his career. He is the only player in franchise history to have multiple punt and kickoff return touchdowns. Smith sits first all-time with four punt return touchdowns, 178 punt returns, 1,652 punt return yards and is second in kickoff return touchdowns (2) and kickoff returns (98). In 2001, Smith finished with the most combined kickoff and punt return yards in the NFL with 1,795.