2011 Record Prediction: 6-10
Given the Panthers are coming off of a 2-14 season, have a new coaching staff, a rookie QB and the hardest schedule in the NFL six wins might be a little optimistic. I do think they have improved this team in many areas I still think they are a year away from competing on a weekly basis.
Best Game On The Schedule
The best game will be the week 16 home match-up on December 24th against the Tampa Bay Bucs. The Panthers will be looking for an early Christmas present from their divisional rival that is always a chippy match-up. I'm predicting the Bucs will desperately need a win in this game to stay in the playoff hunt but the Panthers become the Scrooge and pop their bubble.
Player Who Takes A Step Back This Year
LT Jordan Gross was a Pro Bowler a couple seasons ago but last season and now into this preseason he is getting beat by the fast edge rushers quite often. Though Panther fans have been seeing Gross' reduced quality of play the rest of the league will be aware of it by week 8 in 2011.
Breakout Player Candidates
On offense the Panthers break out player candidate will be QB Cam Newton. In spite of being the #1 pick in the recent draft Newton has plenty of doubters. Though he will be plagued by typical rookie mistakes throughout the season, Newton will make believers of most by the time the season is over.
On the Panthers defense the breakout player will be SS Sherrod Martin. The 3rd year player had 58 tackles, 5 PDs and an INT in 2010. More importantly the 6'1" 200 lb defender is a sure tackler, has great closing speed and has a nose for the ball. I look for Martin to get Pro Bowl consideration in 2011.
Best Panthers Players Others Have Never Heard Of
A few people might remember DE Greg Hardy from his days at Ole Miss but once he slid to the 6th round of the 2010 draft due to injury and attitude concerns he was a distant memory. At one time considered a 1st round pick, Hardy will jog people's memories with some highlight plays in 2011.
The Panthers offense is certainly under-rated at this point and rightly so after last seasons' horrid performance. But once the running game gets going it will take the pressure off of rookie Cam Newton who has already show an affinity for his TE's Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. An effective running game, TE's able to find the seams in the defense and Newton's ability to turn a bad play into a 15 yard scamper will drive opposing DC's crazy this season.
Fantasy Football Outlook
I'm predicting a fantasy breakout for TE Greg Olsen this season as TEs are featured in new OC Rob Chudzinski's offense (think Antonio Gates). I also think RB DeAngelo Williams will be a better pick than his draft selection since I expect the running game to be improved this season. At QB I would avoid Cam Newton to begin with though his running ability will give him more points than a typical rookie QB. I would also avoid WR Steve Smith unless he's available late in the draft as Newton appears dialed in on his TE's at this point and has not thrown to his WRs very much. I expect that part of the game to open up eventually so Smith will be better later in the season than early.
Best Media Personality In Carolina
I think it's safe to say rookie QB and No. 1 pick Cam Newton will become an ‘Icon and an Entertainer' in 2011, at least in the Charlotte market to begin with. He's remained pretty humble so far but the kid has a million dollar smile and a certain charisma that no one seems able to deny. You can expect to see plenty of Newton with his helmet off this season as the reporters and cameras seek him out regularly.
Best Players To Follow On Twitter
Back in February LB Dan Conner had us in stitches but he has since closed his Twitter account. I'm betting it was this one that got him in trouble with his boss: Dan Connor: "Looking for a Valentine's Day card for my wife....Does Hallmark have a "Mail Order Bride" Section preferably in Korean??"
These days I have to go with center Ryan Kalil (@RyanKalil) who lately loves to razz his teammates about the woes of their college teams. In the most recent case, its Thomas Davis and UGA's loss to Boise St.: RyanKalil @TD58SDTM I just feel bad that every year you have to say: "There's always next season"