Top 5 Players in Carolina Panthers History

The thing about these lists is they’re bound by so much subjectivity, and subjectivity can be deeply rooted in both good and painful memories. We don’t promise to offer an objective list here. One, we’re writing about sports. This isn’t life or death. And two, it’s more fun to write a completely subjective piece on a topic you’re passionate about.

Full disclosure: I moved from New York State to Charlotte in the fall of 1997 to work in sports marketing. Over the last 25 football seasons, I’ve become a dyed-in-the-wool-type fan of the Carolina Panthers. We’ve “enjoyed” consecutive five-win seasons in Charlotte the past two years under new coach Matt Rhule.

That stings almost as much as the 2004 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. It was one of the greatest sports spectacles I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness in person. Not to mention Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at halftime. But I missed that live performance while getting my wife a beer at the break. To be fair: You would have needed a high-powered scope to catch that from the top deck at Reliant Stadium. 

Enough of this long preamble. Here are the top 5 Panthers in Carolina’s young franchise history. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, either.

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Top 5 Players in Carolina Panthers History

1. QB Cam Newton

This is unequivocally true: You loved Cam Newton if he was on your team; you hated the self-proclaimed “Superman” if he wasn’t. 

Remember the way Newton would begin each game? Blowing on his hands and presumably praying. My brother-in-law actually mimicked this before Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos. He was a grown man at the time, too.

I’m convinced that jinxed Carolina as Von Miller owned the Panthers O-Line that day and took home MVP honors after a 24-10 victory. The Panthers never had a chance.  Another painful memory.

The peak of Newton’s career in Carolina came in 2015 when he won the NFL’s MVP Award. He threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns. Newton also ran for 636 yards and scored 10 rushing TDs. The NFL had simply never seen a dual-threat QB of this size and stature until Newton entered the league. 

It was hard to watch a diminished Newton return last year to Carolina, but there was this memorable moment to start.

2. WR Steve Smith 

Smith was another polarizing player on the Carolina teams of Newton’s era. The diminutive wide receiver from Utah had the biggest Napoleon complex in the NFL. 

He somehow sublimated that while becoming one of the league’s most unexpected superstars. Yes, Smith was off the rails at times. There were infamous incidents in 2002 and 2008 when he punched teammates, Anthony Bright and Ken Lucas. He underwent anger management counseling as a result. In the years since Smith has been candid about his mental health issues and become an advocate for those struggling with the same issues. 

Smith’s ongoing evolution on the field led him to become Carolina’s all-time leading receiver in catches (836), yards (12,197), and TDs (67). 

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3. LB Sam Mills

Carolina’s “Keep Pounding” motto is still alive and well. It was Mills who coined the phrase during his battle against cancer. He, unfortunately, passed away from the disease in 2005.

Mills will posthumously become the first Carolina player to enter the NFL Hall of Fame this week. Smith appeared on Charlotte radio sports station WFNZ yesterday and declared that Mills is indeed the greatest Panther player of all time.  

Mills played the last three years of his career with Carolina when the Panthers began as an expansion team in 1995. Mills, a five-time Pro Bowler, is often remembered for this play in Carolina’s inaugural season. It helped the Panthers to their first NFL victory.

4. QB Jake Delhomme

Delhomme was arguably the most unathletic QB in the NFL during his time in Carolina. He was also one of the most likable players with his easy-going ways and Louisiana drawl.

If this was a list of the pluckiest players, Delhomme would be at the top of the board. He simply didn’t have the innate ability or arm strength of Tom Brady. It made you pull harder for him. 

What he did have was a spark plug of a wide receiver in Steve Smith, who always displayed defiance and often anger on the playing field. The chemistry that developed between the two was something to behold. This might be the greatest play in Panthers history, but that’s a list for another day.

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5. DE Julius Peppers 

Peppers, in his prime, was simply a beast. The 6-foot-7 native of North Carolina played 10 of his 17 seasons in Charlotte as a Panther. Peppers made the Pro Bowl nine times and on five occasions as a Panther. 

He ranks fifth on the NFL’s all-time sack leader list with 159.5. There was a mini-revolt in Charlotte when Peppers left to play for the Chicago Bears in 2010. He spent four years with the Bears and then three with the Green Bay Packers before returning home to Carolina in 2017 for his final two seasons. 

Honorable Mention: RB Christian McCaffrey 

I know, I know. We hear you. “You A-hole, CMC hasn’t been able to play a full season in three years!”

But what happened when he did in 2019?  

McCaffrey finished with 1,387 yards on the ground and 15 rushing TDs, narrowly missing out on the league lead (16) shared by Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones. He also caught 116 passes for 1,005 yards and four TDs. He’s still only 26 years old.  

If McCaffrey can stay healthy, and we realize that’s a big IF, and produce those numbers again for another four or five years then he’ll compete for a spot in this top five.

AP Photo/Brian Westerholt

About the Author

Kris Johnson

With more than 15 years of experience as a sports journalist, Kris Johnson’s work has appeared in Sports Business Daily, Sports Business Journal, NASCAR Illustrated, and more. Kris also wrote a sports-betting novel entitled The Endgame.