After an electric rookie season in 2011, Cam Newton looks to take the next step forward in a Panthers uniform. 6-10 was a nice improvement over the 2 win season in John Fox’s final run with Carolina, especially considering they did so with a rookie head coach and rookie QB. Of course, Cam has won everywhere he has been, so it shouldn’t be shocking that he settled in so quickly in the NFL. The accolades came pouring in for Newton, but if he wants to mentioned with the elite signal callers in the NFL, he will need to start winning more games.
It seems like a lot of pressure to put on guy in his second year, but Cam has that out of this world talent to already excel in the NFL. Carolina did not make huge adjustments this offseason, but some solid changes to improve their team. Cam will be working with much of the same group he had last year, with Steve Smith once again his number one target. Brandon LaFell should slot in as his number two receiver this year, which should give Carolina a more consistent look on offense. Louis Murphy was acquired from the Raiders, but as of now the talented receiver looks to provide just some depth for the thin WR corps. Greg Olsen takes over as the lone starting TE with Shockey no longer with Carolina. Rivera has raved about Greg, even comparing him to the TE elite in the NFL. I think that is quite a stretch, but Olsen can have a very productive season this year as the number one targeted TE. This league has shown to be moving towards using ultra athletic tight ends more often that take advantage of mismatch problems. Olsen offers just that, so a big season could be in hand for the former Hurricane.
Perhaps the most interesting situation for Carolina’s offense is their running back situation. They dealt Mike Goodson this offseason, but only after signing former Charger Mike Tolbert. Tolbert became expandable after Ryan Mathews evolved into a feature back. He has a strong down field runner that could be featured primarily in short yardage situations. This could be a sign that Newton will take a lot less sneaks this season after taking in 14 touchdown runs last season. I see this as a smart move to preserve Cam’s health. He hasn’t had many injuries in the past, but keeping your QB upright is always a smart move, no matter how strong he is. Tolbert has been lining up as a fullback this preseason, so I don’t expect him to have a ton of carries considering the depth at the RB position.
Speaking of that depth, Jonathan Stewart was extended for 5 years, a year after DeAngelo Williams also signed a long term contract. This a bit surprising to put so much money into one position, especially with the league moving to a more vertical game. However, the two headed monster of Williams and Stewart keep each fresh on gameday and healthier throughout the season. With a young QB and lack of depth at WR, a good running game should keep defenses honest. Look for another year of a ground and pound attack in Carolina.
While the offense is starting to really evolve into a serious threat, the defense still needs some work. Carolina made Luke Kuechly, LB out of Boston College, their first round pick. Kuechly has yet to officially take over Thomas Davis as a starter, but should see plenty of reps this year. Jon Beason returns as the heart of this defense, but has been hampered by injuries throughout the preseason and has yet to see the field. Carolina fielded a very poor defense last year, and have made baby steps to improve it this offseason.
This year I have Carolina finishing 3rd once again. They have an offense that can run with the best of them, but youth and defense will keep them from making the next step. Some shootouts with New Orleans and Atlanta should provide plenty of entertainment this year, but slowing down those offenses could prove to be too much. A .500 season would be a nice step forward, however, which is right around where I see Carolina finishing this year. I will continue to update the Panthers progress throughout the season, right here on panthers360.com.