Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly key for Panthers to make playoff run

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton have become the heartbeat of the franchise. Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports

For the Carolina Panthers to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:

Cam Newton, quarterback: Though "Keep Pounding" is the motto around Bank of America Stadium, "As Cam goes so go the Panthers" also is significant. The defense consistently has been among the top 10 in the NFL over the past five seasons, so it all comes down to how Newton performs. When he plays at the level he did in 2015, when he threw a career-best 35 touchdown passes, the Panthers are almost unstoppable. But Newton has struggled with efficiency and consistency the past two seasons. Norv Turner was brought in as the offensive coordinator to change that with a system of more high-percentage passes. As Turner said, Newton can be the "hardest player to defend in the league" when everything is clicking.

Luke Kuechly, middle linebacker: Kuechly is to the defense what Newton is to the offense. The Panthers are 5-5 in the games Kuechly missed with concussions over the past three seasons. They are 26-11 when he's in the lineup. Opponents average almost three points more per game when Kuechly is out. A prime example is last season's loss to Philadelphia, the eventual Super Bowl champion. Carson Wentz didn't have a touchdown pass before Kuechly went into the concussion protocol. He had three after Kuechly left. What Kuechly does -- calling the defense, making tackles and defending top tight ends -- is invaluable. There's not a better overall middle linebacker in the league.

Christian McCaffrey, running back: Coach Ron Rivera says there's no reason McCaffrey can't get 200 carries this season. That would be a huge jump from the 117 he had as a rookie, when he had a team-best 80 catches. It's also realistic. With Jonathan Stewart gone McCaffrey will take over as the featured back. He won't have to play in the slot as much with the addition of first-round receiver D.J. Moore, Jarius Wright and the return of Curtis Samuel. Turner will find ways to get McCaffrey the ball in spots where he can make big plays just as Turner did for LaDanianian Tomlinson in San Diego. Because of the added weapons, teams won't be able to key on McCaffrey as easily as they could a year ago when the other receivers struggled to get separation.

Torrey Smith, receiver: You might be surprised to see his name here. But remember Newton has been most productive when he has had a dependable speed receiver to stretch the field (see Ted Ginn Jr.). Smith is that player. This is not to suggest Smith will have 19 touchdown catches as Ginn did in three seasons, including 10 in Newton's MVP season of 2015. But having a deep threat should open up the rest of the offense. Smith's leadership also could be invaluable to a young group.

"When you talk about Torrey Smith, there are a lot of reasons he fits what we need as an offensive football team," Turner said. "Having a veteran receiver in our group with a lot of young players there is helpful -- a guy who just experienced going to a Super Bowl. ... He's been successful in the vertical passing game his entire career, but I thought in Philadelphia he branched out and did more versatile things. He really showed he can be a complete receiver."

Donte Jackson, cornerback: You could have listed whoever plays opposite James Bradberry here. That brings free agent addition Ross Cockrell, Captain Munnerlyn and a few others into the mix. The pick here is Jackson, a second-round pick out of LSU. The Panthers haven't had a cornerback with his kind of swagger since Josh Norman in 2015. That confidence, along with his natural talent, is why the Panthers used a high pick on Jackson.

"You see it on the field. You see it when you talk to him," Rivera said. "You watch in his gait, the way he carries himself. That's the type of attitude you have to have to play this game. You have to have a certain kind of swagger."

If Jackson can solidify the spot held by Daryl Worley the past two seasons, it will take this defense from the top 10 to the top five.