The Carolina Panthers are the next team up on our 32 NFL Team breakdown today. Many people feel they began to piece it together the last 6 games of the 2012 season, as they went 5-1 down the stretch. Carolina is looking to win the NFC South for the first time since 2008 when they lost in the divisional round to the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. Ron Rivera will be entering his 3 NFL season as Head Coach and will be trying to improve upon his 13-19 record over the past 2 years. It wont be very easy though, as this stacked division holds names such as the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers.
Offense: The Carolina Panthers Offense ranked 12 overall last year, ranking 16th in passing and 9th in rushing. The 1st overall pick in 2011, Cam Newton, showed some improvement near the end of last season. Newton has been highly questioned on his ability to read a Defense as well as his character as a leader. Newton has accounted for 9,400 total yards with 66 touchdowns, 29 interceptions and 15 fumbles (5 lost) in his NFL career. Steve Smith might still be the most recognizable face of this franchise though, and has gotten a huge jolt in his career since Cam has joined the organization. Smith, over the last 2 years, has accumulated 152 catches for 2,568 yards and 11 touchdowns receiving. The Panthers have yet to find the perfect compliment to Smith, but many feel that Brandon LaFell will rise to the occasion this up coming season. LaFell has 118 catches, 1,758 yards, and 8 touchdowns in his 3 years in the NFL. David Gettis beat out LaFell in the 2010 seasons for the number 2 spot, but tore his ACL in camp in 2011, and couldn’t seem to find the field in 2012, as he kept falling on the depth chart. Both Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn, Jr. might both be on their last stint’s trying to make it in the NFL, and both were brought in through Free Agency to try to add depth to the Wide Receiver position. The Tight End spot is pretty solid for Carolina. Greg Olsen posted career highs in both receptions (69) and yards (684) last season, and scored 5 touchdowns. Olsen should be primed for anther big season as he enters his 7th in the NFL. The two-headed monster the Panthers once had at Running Back in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have disappeared. They both went over 1,000 yards rushing in 2009, but haven’t repeated such success, as neither have gotten over 850 yards in a season since. Carolina drafted Oregon stud Kenjon Barner in the 6th round of the Draft this season and I expect him to be a viable threat in the read option game, if he can see the field. The Offensive Line has 2 All-Pro’s and one might be going into his last NFL season. Jordan Gross has been a fixture at Left Tackle for the last 10 years. Gross has only allowed 16.5 sacks in his last 47 starts. Jordan is slowing down though and took a pay cut just so he could remain with the team this season. Ryan Kalil is the other superstar of this line and arguably the best Center in the NFL. Kalil is coming off a Lisfranc injury in his left foot that caused him to miss all but 5 games in 2012. Rounding out the starting Offensive Line is Right Tackle Byron Bell, Left Guard Amini Silatolu, and Right Guard Geoff Hangartner. Edmund Kugbila, the 108th overall pick in the Draft this year, could challenge Silatolu or Hangartner for one of those starting positions in training camp. If this team is going to take a step forward in the division, it’s going to be due to Newton being more efficient with the football, and improving on his 58.9% career completion percentage.
Defense: The 10th ranked Defense in the NFL (13th versus the pass and 14th against the run) got a big boost form the Draft in April. They took Defensive Tackle Star Lotulelei, with the 14th overall pick, who some considered a Top 5 talent. Lotulelei will make an immediate impact along that line. With their 2nd-round pick, Carolina took another Defensive Tackle in Kawann Short, who was very effective against the run in his career at Purdue, as well as posted 19.5 sacks the last 3 seasons. Short will be competing against Dwan Edwards, who had a nice season last year with 6 sacks. I think that Edwards will be the starter to begin the 2013 campaign, with Short subbing in for both he and Lotulelei. Defensive End Charles Johnson had a typical Charles Johnson type year last season, posting a career high 12.5 sacks. On the other side from Johnson, Greg Hardy quietly exploded onto the scene in 2012, recording a career high 11 sacks. The front 4 for Carolina has a great deal of talent and will be sure to give Offensive Lineman fits all throughout next year. 2nd year player Luke Kuechly leads the Linebacker corps. Kuechly quickly became one of the best Middle Linebackers in the NFL last season, as he accrued 164 combined tackles, with 2 interceptions and a sack. Accompanying Kuechly is Thomas Davis, who was injured much of the 2010 and ’11 seasons. He returned to his old self last year for the Panthers and was second on the team in tackles. Jon Beason rounds out the starting Linebackers. Beason used to be the Captain of this Defense, but after only playing in 5 games the past 2 years, is looking to rebound much like Thomas Davis did, and rejuvenate himself. If Beason can’t return to his old self, the Panthers drafted Iowa State standout A.J. Klein with 148th overall selection, whom I personally felt was a sleeper pick in the Draft. Carolina’s Secondary has many question marks surrounding it. They’re not labeled as the type to get many interceptions. Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, and Captain Munnerlyn are the top 3 Cornerbacks on the team. Munnerlyn was the team’s number 2 Corner, but lost his roster spot to 5th-round rookie Josh Norman last season. Munnerlyn still had a decent 2012 as he recorded 2 interceptions with 2 defensive touchdowns, and led the team in passes deflected. D.J. Moore will also be in the mix. Coming over from Chicago, Moore had 10 interceptions for the Bears the past 3 seasons. At Strong Safety, Carolina brought in Mike Mitchell from the Raiders via Free Agency. He might have strong competition from the un-drafted Safety out of Alabama, Robert Lester, who many were surprised wasn’t selected in the Draft. Lester has a very good chance to win the spot if he can prove that he can pick up the scheme quickly and execute it properly. Charles Godfrey, Free Safety, is going into his 6th season and would like to play up to his 2010 production, when he put up career highs in numerous categories with 5 interceptions. The key to for this Secondary is the pressure that the front 7 will put on opposing Quarterbacks. They should have plenty of opportunities to make plays and need to capitalize on the majority of them.
End Result: This Panthers team is exceptionally talented, but I still think they will finish last in the ferocious NFC South division, with a record of 5-11.