Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Carolina Panthers check in at No. 20.
The Carolina Panthers became an entertaining team in 2011. This year they hope to become a good one. The Panthers played and lost a lot of games of the 30–27 variety in 2011 en route to a 6–10 season. Their offense was dramatically improved thanks to quarterback Cam Newton, who won all sorts of rookie of the-year awards while accounting for an astonishing 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing). It was perhaps the best rookie year ever at any position, rivaling those of players like Lawrence Taylor and Gale Sayers.
But the Panthers’ defense will need a serious upgrade this year if Newton is to lead the team into the playoffs in what will be both his and head coach Ron Rivera’s second season in Charlotte. In 2011, Carolina allowed franchise highs in points, yards and passing yards as one quarterback after another eviscerated its defense. The return of linebacker Jon Beason and the arrival of first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly offer some hope, but this is a team that still has major defensive questions.
The Panthers’ offense is led by the three players who represented the team in the Pro Bowl after last season — Newton, wide receiver Steve Smith and center Ryan Kalil.
Smith, 33, signed a new contract in the offseason after rejuvenating himself in 2011 with Newton as his quarterback (1,394 receiving yards). Still the team’s most explosive player, Smith remains the club’s primary deep threat. Has he lost a step in the past decade? Certainly. But his route-running, elusiveness and toughness remain exceptional, and he has flourished in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s imaginative offense. The Panthers need a strong No. 2 receiver to emerge. Brandon LaFell has shown signs of doing so but isn’t great at going over the middle. David Gettis returns from injury and will be a factor.
Kalil anchors an offensive line that received a youth injection in the draft with Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick from Division II Midwestern State who may plug in immediately at left guard. Left tackle Jordan Gross is the team’s most respected veteran and still one of the NFC’s best. Right tackle is iffy as Jeff Otah has been injury-plagued and could be replaced by Byron Bell again.
Otah was traded to the Jets for a conditional seventh-round pick in late July. However, the trade was rescinded after Otah failed his Jets' physical. The 2008 first-round pick was returned to the Panthers, who terminated his contract after he failed their physical as well. Otah's fate as of the start of Panthers' training camp was uncertain.
Tight end Greg Olsen is Newton’s favorite target near the goal line and has some of the best hands on the team.
Running back is a major strength. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — aka “Double Trouble” — share the load as primary ball-carriers. Since Newton also frequently runs, none will have eye-popping numbers, but all three went over 700 yards rushing last season (the first time that has happened in NFL history).
New fullback Mike Tolbert gives the offense one more significant weapon — he’s good out of the backfield as a receiver and also will get a few carries on quick hitters.
But Newton is undoubtedly the key. In his second season, he needs to cut down on interceptions (17 in 2011) and become a better team leader (he had a tendency to pout after bad plays or close defeats). His ability is remarkable, however — his 14 rushing TDs were a record for an NFL quarterback. Veteran backup Derek Anderson has a good arm, but the Panthers would have to run a much more conventional offense if he is forced into action.
The Panthers are counting on the return of several injured players to shore up this unit, but that’s a dangerous presumption. Linebacker Thomas Davis is trying to return from three ACL tears in the same knee — no NFL player has ever done so. Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are coming back from more traditional injuries. They both missed almost the entire 2011 season, which hurt the Panthers badly up the middle. Edwards, 33, will be counted on to anchor the inside positions as a space-eater.
Kuechly’s sideline-to-sideline ability should pair well with Beason’s — one will likely play middle and one weak side. James Anderson led the Panthers in tackles last season and should provide a good third option if Davis can’t return.
But the front and the back of the Panthers’ defense remain suspect. Their best pass-rusher is Charles Johnson, who had nine sacks last season off the edge, but no one else had more than four. Out of Greg Hardy, Antwan Applewhite and fourth-round draft choice Frank Alexander, someone must emerge as a significant threat to opposing quarterbacks.
The Panthers would like to replace Sherrod Martin as their free safety starter. He’s one of the worst tacklers on the team. They signed and drafted a number of low-profile players to provide competition. Starting cornerback Chris Gamble and strong safety Charles Godfrey are probably safe — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn less so. All of them will look better, though, if the opposing quarterback doesn’t have time to look for his fifth option, something that happened all too often last season.
The Panthers weren’t very good on special teams and invested some draft resources to get better. Fourth-round pick Joe Adams will immediately become the punt returner. He averaged a whopping 16.9 yards per return at Arkansas last season. His arrival likely spells the end of Armanti Edwards’ time with the Panthers. Edwards, a converted college quarterback, couldn’t figure out a way to break punt returns and can’t seem to get on the field as a receiver either. Kealoha Pilares will likely handle the kickoff returns after setting a team record with a 101-yarder last season.
New punter Brad Nortman will replace Jason Baker. If the punt coverage is better — and it should be, as the Panthers put a big emphasis on that in the offseason — he should do fine.
The biggest questions will revolve around veteran kicker Olindo Mare, who enters his second season as a Panther. He replaced the popular John Kasay last season and missed two critical fourth quarter field goals. Panther fans still don’t quite trust him, and the team signed Justin Medlock to compete for the job.
Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC South
Assuming Newton stays healthy — and that’s not an entirely safe assumption given how much he runs — the Panthers’ offense may be better than it has ever been. There are playmakers everywhere at the skill positions. It’s likely Carolina will rank in the top five NFL offenses in numerous categories this season.
But will the defense hold up? The Panthers invested some resources there in the offseason but could have done more. They are hoping that the return of several key injured players helps the problem considerably. The Panthers have the talent to contend for their first playoff spot since 2008, but they are going to need to stop people to do it.
Related: 2012 Carolina Panthers Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Cam Newton really, really wanted to be on the cover of the “Madden 13” video-game franchise. Although the player on the cover is subject to the “Madden Curse” — typically falling off in production or getting hurt the next season — Newton loves to play “Madden” and campaigned for the spot. Newton filmed a seven-minute homemade video and posted it online, trying to get more votes in the fan voting that determined the outcome. Newton made it to the finals but lost out in April to Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson in a decision announced live at Times Square with both players in attendance. Some Panther fans, concerned about the curse, said they actually voted against Newton.
Center Ryan Kalil was at the NFL Draft in April, cheering on his younger and bigger brother Matt Kalil — picked No. 4 overall by the Minnesota Vikings. Both Kalils showed up sporting beards that looked like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” Ryan says the primary difference between the two is that he’s better-looking.
The NFL keeps a statistic for plays that gain 20 or more yards, calling them “explosive plays.” The Panthers led the NFL in that category with 90 such plays in 2011, or slightly more than five per game. That helped the Panthers score 48 touchdowns, second-most in franchise history (after a franchise-low 17 during their 2–14 season of 2010).
The Pres and the Panthers The Panthers’ home stadium will be used for the Democratic National Convention Sept. 4-6, most notably for an address by President Obama. Because of that, the Panthers will open the season on the road (against Tampa Bay on Sept. 9) and will likely face a number of security and logistical issues in the two weeks before their opener.
A Different Person
Panthers coach Ron Rivera made an interesting comment in the offseason about Newton. “He seems like a different person,” the coach said. “He seems more mature, in terms of ready to take some leadership roles.” Rivera wants Newton to become more of a team leader. Newton has the charisma to do so, but often took a back seat to veterans like Steve Smith and Jordan Gross last year.
14 Straight and Counting
While Newton throws a lot of deep balls, the Panthers’ offense is still built around the run. Carolina will enter the 2012 season with a franchise-record streak of 14 straight games of 100 yards or more rushing. The Panthers were third in the NFL last season in rushing yards per game (150.5) and first in yards per attempt (5.4). And you can bet they will run a ton in that opener at Tampa Bay; the Panthers rushed for 270 yards on Christmas Eve the last time the two teams played.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: Tues., Aug. 7
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