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49ers opponents 2016: Kelvin Benjamin's return will be huge following the Panthers NFC title

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Our review of the San Francisco 49ers 2016 opponents continues on with the defending NFC champions.

49ers opponents: Cowboys

The 2016 NFL Combine gets going next week, and we are less than three weeks away from the start of free agency. Since news is going to start picking up shortly, I thought it was a good time to begin our annual review of the San Francisco 49ers upcoming opponents.

We will be providing three breakdowns. This first one will review the previous season for each team. It will also include a list of each team's free agents, and a look at some potential needs heading into free agency and the draft. The second one will come in April, providing a look at where teams are at following free agency, and what the draft means for each team. The third set will come in July, providing a recap of the offseason and a look ahead to training camp for each team.

We started with the Dallas Cowboys, and now move on to the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. Carolina went 15-1, but came up short against the stout Denver Broncos defense. That being said, they are in a strong position to potentially return to Super Bowl 51. We sometimes hear about the curse of the runner up, so it is certainly possible they take a significant step back, but given the talent on this roster, they are in a good position.

The big step forward on offense came courtesy of quarterback Cam Newton. He had a career-high 35 touchdown passes, and also set career highs in QBR and passer rating. He completed less than 60 percent of his passes, but was critical to the Panthers offense. And considering they lost Kelvin Benjamin in training camp, Cam did some impressive work with a receiver corps that included the likes of Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery. Greg Olsen emerged as the best receiver on the roster, catching 77 passes for a career-high 1,104 yards.

On defense, it was another big year for linebacker Luke Kuechly, but it was Josh Norman's emergence as an all-pro cornerback. He had a solid 2014 season, and took a big step forward in 2015. Safety Kurt Coleman finished third in the NFL with seven interceptions as the secondary did some strong work in 2015.

Free Agents

Unrestricted free agents: WR Jerricho Cotchery, RB Mike Tolbert, S Roman Harper, CB Charles Tillman, OG Amini Silatolu, LS Jeffrey Jansen, QB Joe Webb, OG Chris Scott, OG Fernando Velasco, CB Cortland Finnegan, OG Tyronne Green, DT Kyle Love, DE Frank Alexander, CB Josh Norman, P Brad Nortman

Restricted free agents: WR Stephen Hill, OT Mike Remmers

Exclusive rights free agents: ILB Ben Jacobs

The biggest name is Josh Norman. The cornerback is due to hit free agency, but all indications are that if a deal is not done before March 1, he will be designated with the franchise tag. It seems highly unlikely that Norman is going anywhere following his big season.

Roman Harper was an effective safety alongside Kurt Coleman, but the team is prepared to find a new option to replace the veteran. Harper signed a 2-year deal prior to the 2014 season, and all indications are the Panthers are prepared to move on.

Potential Needs

The team will need to find a new safety to replace Roman Harper. They will also need some additional help in the pass rush. They lost Jared Allen to retirement, and will look to replace him either with a veteran or through the draft.

The offensive side of the ball is an interesting one. They got great play from their offensive line through most of the season, but it fell apart at the worst possible time in the Super Bowl. It will be interesting to see if there is much turnover along the line to rectify the problems of the Super Bowl.

Wide receiver was a need for much of the season, but the big addition for Carolina will be the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin following his training camp ACL injury. I imagine the team will take it slowly with him, but getting him back could be huge for Cam Newton to build on his strong 2015 season.