NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers talks to his team in the huddle while playing the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
The Carolina Panthers turned heads last year thanks to a stellar debut from Cam Newton. Are they ready to compete in the NFC South this season?
An era of good feelings has settled over the Carolina Panthers and their fan base. The reasons for that should be fairly obvious. This season is the second year of a rebuilding project that started in January 2011 when the team hired Ron Rivera to be the fourth head coach in franchise history. It was the first year of a rebuilding process that offered far more highlights and signs of hope than most teams in the first season of such an undertaking.
Carolina entered this offseason with weighty expectations for 2012. After all, their rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, etched his name all over the record books, and they finished the season on a very promising 4-2 run.
Newton, despite the his impressive feats, is just one player. Carolina entered the 2012 offseason needing to add the right mix of offensive talent to go with their franchise quarterback in order to give them enough weaponry to finish on top in the close games and dominate the others. The biggest task was to repair a defense that allowed almost 27 points per game and an average of 377 yards to opposing offenses.
Just a quick look at the Panthers' record reveals exactly what you would expect from a team in the first year of a reboot. Rivera's club entered Thanksgiving week with a 2-8 record; however, in those eight losses, only two were decided by margins of more than seven points.
The lead up to the 2011 NFL Draft set new lows in punditry. Analysts raking Newton over the coals, and even the veracity of his smile was scrutinized as much as his forty time. It made it that much sweeter for Panthers fans to witness one of the best seasons from a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Newton set a new mark for passing yards by a rookie quarterback, shattering Peyton Manning's old record with 4,051 yards. His 14 rushing touchdowns set another record for quarterbacks, rookie or veteran, and he is the only player in the history of the NFL with 4,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in a season.
Unfortunately, Newton had to carry much of the load on his own, which is partly attributed to his novice judgement and the offense around him. Steve Smith was his only consistent receiver, and had a career renaissance at 32 by topping 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2008.
The defense struggled to stop the run and the pass, which makes for a deadly, if not obvious, combination. Opponents averaged 130 rushing yards and 246 passing yards against Carolina last year. They ranked dead last in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, coming dead last versus the run and 29th in defending the pass. They had just 31 sacks, but bringing pressure on quarterbacks is difficult with nothing more than gobs of wet paper towels in the middle of the defensive line and in the secondary.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Carolina did not have much cap space to work with this spring. They managed to free up some space by cutting Travelle Wharton and a wise extension of Smith's contract. Still, it was never enough to put them in contention for some of the biggest names in free agency who could have provided some immediate help.
They made a smart move signing former Chargers running back Mike Tolbert, who fantasy football GMs will recognize for his ability to score touchdowns. Tolbert's touchdown-vulturing ability diversifies their ground attack, giving them someone other than Newton who can pound the ball through defenders.
2012 NFL Draft
With the ninth pick in the first round, Carolina snatched up linebacker Luke Kuechly from Boston College. Maybe it was Rivera's past as a linebackers coach that drew the team to the all-around defender. Whatever it was, it looks like a very solid pick that should improve their run defense.
They opted for offensive lineman Amini Silatolu in the second round. He can play guard or tackle, which are both areas of need for the Panthers. His run blocking ability will be appreciated given the strength of the offense.
Carolina's got a great value pick when they found Josh Norman in the fifth round. Snubbed because he played at Coastal Carolina, Norman's size and smarts look like the right mix for success in the NFL. The sooner he can contribute the better, because the Panthers did little to improve opposite Chris Gamble.
Related: Panthers NFL Draft Grade
From SB Nation's Cat Scratch Reader:
The NFC South is arguably one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, if not the toughest. The Panthers went 2-4 in the division last season, winning both games against the Bucs but taking the collar against the Falcons and Saints. The Panthers must reverse that record in 2012 if they want to take the next step.
While the Falcons are mostly the same team from 2011 the Saints have gone through some turmoil that we hope will have a negative impact. Regardless the Panther defense will have to show a big improvement to create a split with those two teams. It will not be enough to simply hope their division rivals regress rather than the Panthers improve. They also have a tough non-conference schedule that will hinder the division runner up from garnering a wild card spot. Winning the division may be the only option for making the playoffs.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Watching Newton's encore should be one of the more interesting stories of the 2012 season. He has a tough start to the season with games against Tampa Bay, New Orleans, the New York Giants, Atlanta, Seattle and Dallas. Carolina's defense will get a real test in the early part of the schedule, more so than Newton and the offense, and audiences should know if the Panthers have another year before they can contend for the NFC South.
Keep an eye on how they do in the division. With New Orleans in flux, Atlanta would seem to be their biggest challenge, and they lost both games to the Falcons last season. If they can win one of those and hold their own with the rest of the division, the Panthers have an outside shot at an invitation to postseason football.