Nice! I just moved to Belhaven, NC to help my parents renovate their new house.
Honestly, 4-3 and 3-4 don't matter as much as they once did. I mean, teams like the Cardinals were in nickel for like 90% of their plays last season, and every team seems to be in base defense less and less every year. Also, the Bucs didn't REALLY cut McCoy because of scheme. He looks to be able to play 3-4 DE. We basically all know it's because they didn't even have the money to sign all of their draft picks to their dirt cheap rookie deals.
As for the Panthers' competitiveness, I really like their chances to make the playoffs. They undoubtedly upgraded their blocking unit over last season. They were one of the top teams over the first half of the season. The playcalling was good, their weapons were outright exciting. Then Cam Newton started getting hurt.
Their weapons are enough to make me drool. Greg Olsen is still a baller. DJ Moore is a #1 receiver and Curtis Samuel is a fantastic all-purpose weapon. Christian McCaffery is one of the top five or so running backs in this league and is deadly in all aspects of the game.
It's crazy just how simultaneously overrated AND UNDERRATED Cam Newton is. He's the lifeblood of this team. The dude's a baller. He's not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, and probably never will be. He's great in his own right.
His presence does so much for the team, with his mindset, toughness, and athleticism. He's a good distributor of the football as a passer, but his arm talent as a prospect was never on the level of, say, a Jared Goff, Josh Rosen, or Andrew Luck caliber of player where they had pretty consistent accuracy on both touch and zippy throws, with the arm strength to make every throw work. In the league, that hasn't changed for Cam. He CAN make any throw, but isn't the most consistent with it. However, his demeanor will keep him in the top half of the league's QBs even when his athleticism fades. He's also the type of quarterback that can be schemed into that elite level when it comes to playing in the pocket, and when he's not, he'll still be competent as a passer.
The team imploded when his shoulder exploded. Now, we saw Andrew Luck take forever to get right after a similar injury, but provided Cam IS able to get healthy by week 3 or so, the Panthers have the goods on offense to get it done with Norv Turner.
Not every QB can carry his team. Cam does.
Now, onto the Defense. We saw the defense weaken as their lack of depth up front got exposed later in the season, and their secondary was never elite. However, the safety position is arguably the strongest in the free agent pool right now. It's also not a terrible secondary. James Bradbury, Donte Jackson, Eric Reid, and Co. are decent enough to keep it rolling if the team doesn't upgrade it.
The scheme change up front should actually be beneficial to the team as a whole. Brian Burns and Christian Miller have the athleticism to develop into playing pretty well in coverage with the pass rush ability to be difference makers off the edge. The addition of a big boy like Gerald McCoy to move around the defensive line, potentially playing five-tech DE, that hybrid 3-tech role in their 4-3, or maybe even taking a couple snaps at nose in certain packages, should really free up those edge guys to make more plays.
As a 3-4, I expect their front seven/six/five (depending upon the package) to be more productive. They'll be better against the run for sure with a bigger interior, and more speed and pursuit to get to the perimeter on boundary running plays that were used to victimize them last year. They're more athletic than the twilight years edge rush last year. They'll be more productive in the pass rush.
They have a dude like Bruce Irvin who's a stout run defender while still being a nice pass rusher on the edge. They have Christian Miller, who was extremely efficient with his snaps at Alabama. Yes, he played on a stacked defense, but you could make the argument that the Panthers with their current composition are setting him up for even more success. And you can't deny his freakish athleticism, efficiency, and how he popped on tape. Brian Burns is a freaky pass rusher and lightning athlete with the ability to develop into an asset as a coverage and pursuit defender, as well. Dontari Poe offers intriguing athleticism as a pass rusher at nose, with the ability to take over the run game at times. We know how good Kawann Short is. We all know that Luke Kuechly is elite. We know how good Gerald McCoy is. He knew he was the piece that they needed up front to put them over the top.
I'm all-in on the NFC South this year and stand by my opinion that they're the best division in the NFL. I do believe that the Panthers are a playoff team this year, and you can taunt me for being an idiot if I turn out to be wrong.