PFF Preview 2011 – Carolina Panthers

| August 17, 2011

You don’t earn the number one pick in any draft without having one or two, shall we call them issues? The 2010 Panthers had a lot more than one or two, and a number were at key positions, but after making some aggressive moves for playmakers to kick-start this stuttering team (even if they were just re-signings), Carolina is working hard to avoid a repeat performance.
.
Let’s have a look what they have and what they’ve done, and explain some of the reasons they should be miserable or cautiously optimistic. Five to cheer and jeer, here we come.
.

.
.

Five Reasons to be Confident
.

1) Locking Down Charles Johnson

Some will say the Panthers overpaid for a player who has essentially been a starter for one year. Those people are wrong – Charles Johnson has that rare ability to be an elite defensive end. Back in May I put up a three-year look about just how good Johnson has been, covering his rise from bit player to becoming the team’s No.1 rusher. Our second-ranked defensive end in the NFL last year has oodles of talent.
.

2) Imposing Offensive Line

When you have a quarterback struggling to get anything positive done, the quality of the offensive line can get lost. In terms of pass protection, Carolina’s line was seventh-best in allowed pressure per play, and they were just impressive with their run blocking. With excellent performances from Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross, and our secret superstar, Geoff Schwartz, they finished seventh overall in our offensive line rankings. And in news that could improve this ranking, they’ll get Jeff Otah back after missing all of 2010.
.

3) Rolling Deep At Linebacker

It says something about how good the Panthers linebackers are that they can leave a player as strong as Dan Connor on the bench and it doesn’t draw much of my ire. He’s great insurance for any of their guys going down injured, all of whom have considerable talent. Take Jon Beason, our fifth-ranked middle linebacker over the past three years, a tad overrated at times, but a playmaker and force on the defense. Mix in the incredibly underrated and overlooked James Anderson who finished last year our third-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and round it off with Thomas Davis, who was finding his feet in the NFL before spending a season-and-a-half out injured. They can cope with an injury (possibly even two with the skilled Omar Gaither on the roster as well) and still be as good a trio as there is.
.

4) Running Back Depth

Again, you could say they overpaid for DeAngelo Williams. You could also say he’s a declining force unlikely to replicate his truly remarkable 2008 where he was our top-ranked running back. But you don’t need him to carry the ball 300 times a year now because the Panthers have a guy who may be even more talented than the former Memphis Grizzly. Take a look at where the two landed in our three-year Elusive Rating (a formula that considers how many yards after contact are gained and how many tackles a running back breaks). The Panthers’ duo of Williams and Jonathan Stewart finished in the top two spots. Put that together with a solid offensive line and add in Mike Goodson to support it all and you’ve got a seriously strong unit.
.

5) Tightening Up At The TE Spot

It was one of the most uninspiring collection of tight ends; Dante Rosario and Jeff King rarely excelled at what they were meant to, while the guy who showed the most promise (Gary Barnidge) couldn’t get on the field. In any case, with the arrival of an excellent blocker in Ben Hartsock and receivers in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey who can pick up yards (when they’re used), the Panthers have given whoever ends up playing quarterback some big targets.
.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________
.

Five Reasons to be Concerned
.

1) The Quarterback

There are bound to be some highlight reel plays when Cam Newton hits the field, but to expect him to do what more polished and proven quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford were able to do seems ambitious. He’ll take his lumps and probably be a better player for it, but teams are going to sense an opportunity to get after him- presuming he plays, of course. They could always go with our 35th ranked quarterback from last year, Jimmy Clausen.
.

2) Gambling At Cornerback

A few years back, he was one of the best corner in the league, then he got paid and his performance just hasn’t been the same. We’re talking about Chris Gamble of course. Go back to 2008 and you’ll find he ended the year with a +15.8 grade, but in two seasons since that has dropped to a -0.7 (with only a lack of penalties and good run support saving a -5.3 coverage rating). He needs to start playing like he can, because as promising as Captain Munnerlyn is, it will be a lot to ask of him to serve as the top cornerback on the roster.
.

3) Tackling the DT Spot

To be honest, the signing of Ron Edwards seemed more like a last-minute response to a lack of bodies at the defensive tackle spot. Hardly an elite player, but you can put him on the field and he won’t let you down.  Unfortunately for the Panthers, Edwards is already out for the season with a torn triceps. Outside of him, they’re left with Corvey Irvin, Sione Fua, Terrell McClain, Andre Neblett and Nick Hayden fighting it out. That is pretty much an invitation to run up the gut. If I’m the Panthers, I consider the talent of Pat Williams and think maybe he could be a handy stop-gap.
.

4) Pass Catchers

The worrying thing about the Panther receivers last year wasn’t so much the unimpressive rookies, as the decline in Steve Smith. While his quarterbacks didn’t help him out, it’s fair to say Smith didn’t always help them out either. Our top receiver in 2008, he fell to No.101 in our overall grades last season. It didn’t help that he dropped 10 passes (eighth most in the league) but Smith needs to be less of a burden, and more of an asset to his QBs. With David Gettis done for the year, they’ll also need to see Brandon LaFell (-4.4 grade on the year) step up. It could happen, but right now you wouldn’t call this outfit quarterback-friendly.
.

5) NFC South

We’ll probably mention this with every NFC South preview we do, but it’s not easy playing in a division that sent two teams to the playoffs last year, and had a third with a 10-6 record. Worse still, the Saints and Falcons have managed to improve their rosters without losing much. How is a team meant to go from worst-to-first when they’ve got four meetings against exceptionally talented teams, and two against a team far further along in their rebuilding process.
.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________
.
It won’t be easy for Carolina to turn themselves from chumps to champs, but with some lowered expectations there are plenty of reasons to be positive. They have more talent than a number of teams that finished with better records, and had a great free agency in terms of retaining a number of their better players. They’ll surprise some people, but this team is one for the future.
.
.

Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed as well: @ProFootbalFocus
.
.

.
.
.

Comments are closed.