With the selection of Cam Newton as the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers took a huge step towards becoming competitive in the NFC South once again. While they found more wins, they still struggled to overtake the division’s dominant duo in the Saints and Falcons.
In 2011 it was enough to improve; now they need to start conquering.
Today’s 32 Teams in 32 Days examines why Carolina fans should think this a possibility (even if they shouldn’t guarantee it like Ryan Kalil did), while looking at some of the pitfalls that could ruin everything.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) In Cam They Trust
The NFL isn’t short on playmakers, but it was still stunning to watch the impact that Cam Newton made in his rookie year. All sorts of records were demolished as ‘SuperCam’ displayed an athleticism that teams just couldn’t handle. However, there is no doubt he needs to get more consistent as a passer. He put up tremendous yardage, but made far too many bad throws, especially when the pressure was cranked up. Still, he showed in games like against Chicago in Week 4 just what kind of upside he possesses. Couple that with his nose for the end zone and you’ve got a special talent that could bridge the gap between the Panthers and the top teams in the South.
2) New and Old Faces at Linebacker
While many highly drafted linebackers haven’t fared as well as expected in the NFL over the past four years as rookies, the Panthers have got to hope that Luke Kuechly can buck that trend. The highly touted linebacker has been painted as one of the more complete LBs to enter the league, and with such an investment, Carolina will be counting on him to bring some stability to a group that has struggled mightily.
Bigger news could be the return of the leader of the defense, Jon Beason. Cards on the table, I think Beason is a tad overrated compared to what he actually does from the snap of the ball to a play being whistled dead. He can lay some pretty big hits, but he doesn’t make the impact of top LBs. That’s not to say he isn’t a big upgrade on what Carolina had, orthat having him on the field won’t help this unit out incredibly. Throw in James Anderson (who will be looking to bounce back to his 2010 best) and this could turn out to be one of the best linebacker groups out there.
3) Strength Up Front
It doesn’t hurt Carolina that they have assembled one of the league’s better offensive lines. The only sad thing is it could have been even better if they had stuck with Geoff Schwartz, or if Jeff Otah wasn’t such an injury waiting to happen, but it is what it is. This is unit that finished 9th overall in our offensive line rankings in 2011, helped by having the second highest run blocking grade for its linemen.
The stars of the unit are Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. Gross has improved each year since moving to left tackle and finished last year with our 5th highest grade for a left tackle. As for Kalil, when he’s not guaranteeing Super Bowl wins, he’s got it in him to be one of the more imposing centers in the league. Last season wasn’t his best, but he still finished 8th overall in our center rankings. Joining them is Geoff Hangartner who looks a lot more comfortable at guard than he ever did at center for the Bills. Byron Bell flashed talent as a rookie in 2011, and Amini Silatolu comes with a reputation of being able to get defensive linemen to move. They’ll give their running backs (and quarterback) room to run.
4) The Return of Steve Smith
With Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen throwing to him, it looked like the end of the road for Steve Smith. The receiver failed to develop any chemistry with either, and while they didn’t help him out much, you could argue he didn’t help them either. The 2010 season saw Smith drop 10 balls while collecting just 552 yards as he earned his -7.8 grade. A year later and with a more aggressive offense in place, Smith was back to his best, collecting 1,394 yards, with 538 (5th highest in the league) coming on deep balls. A player like Smith is dangerous because he can beat you all over the field. Whether it’s going long and outfighting defensive backs, or simply taking something short and breaking tackles (his 16 last year were second most of all receivers) to pick up plenty of yards after the catch. Smith is clearly back to his best and showing no signs of slowing.
5) Elusive Backs
You have to go back to 2009 to find a Carolina running back that rushed for 1,000 yards. Back then both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams managed the feat. That drought isn’t reflective of the talent of either man. Instead, it’s down to injury problems and both men being underutilized as the Panthers went all in on their QB last season. When they have been presented with opportunities both have still shown they can burst to, through and beyond the hole. Stewart for example was the most elusive back in the league last year, breaking 52 tackles on 189 touches while picking up nearly 3 yards per attempt after contact. This may be Cam’s team, but more of the ball for the running backs wouldn’t go amiss.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Tackling a DT Problem
I felt for sure that after a season of getting pushed around the Panthers would address the weakness on the middle of their defensive line. They haven’t. Instead they’re hoping that the two draft picks from 2011, combined with a healthy Ron Edwards, will push the unit forward. I can’t say I share their optimism.
Take Terrell McClain for example. A player who picked up more pressure than Sione Fua, but was a guard’s best friend as a rookie, being moved about at will. Fua himself flashed a little more talent as a two-down player, but in a year where some rookie DTs stood out for their good play (in Tennessee especially), Carolina’s duo looked out of their depth. Significant improvement is needed from the two because right now, the big load that the now 33-years-old Ron Edwards is, represents your only promise in getting some production from the unit.
2) If It Ain’t Broke…
When Carolina paid Charles Johnson like an elite defensive end many scoffed. I didn’t, because his play in 2010 was so good that an elite defensive end is exactly what he was. Playing almost exclusively as the DLE in the Panthers four man line, Johnson managed to do the impossible; upgrade on the departed Julius Peppers.
Now, after finishing second overall in our 2010 4-3 DE rankings, the Panthers decided they wanted Johnson to be a bit more versatile. Instead of having him obliterate right tackles, he was switching between left and right brining a mixed bag of results. The sack numbers were high, but the total pressure numbers and Johnson’s work in run defense slipped. He was very good, but he wasn’t one of the elite defensive ends. My concern is the Panthers are getting too cute trying to get more out of Johnson, and by changing how he’s used (he spent 432 snaps at right defensive end and 305 snaps at left defensive end) they’ve made him less productive. We’ll see if this changes in 2012.
3) Anything but Safe
With grades of -13.4 and -6.8, the Panthers safety position isn’t one to that generates an awful lot of faith. Both Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin have done little to inspire confidence during their entire careers, and there’s very little to suggest they’ll get much better. Godfrey has always been something of a boom or bust player in coverage, while his inconsistent play and poor tackling is more than matched by Martin. With questions at cornerback and their run defense, it would be reassuring to have safeties that can come down and help in the box and provide a blanket to help over the top. The Panthers do not have this right now.
4) Struggling to Find Complements to Their Stars
Is it fair to ask Steve Smith to do it nearly all by himself? Should the Panthers not be expecting someone other than Charles Johnson to generate some pressure? There’s been a lot of positive press for Greg Hardy but he didn’t contribute on an every down basis, generating a fair (but hardly earth shattering) amount of pressure while sometimes getting himself caught out in the run game. Can he step up, and can Carolina find someone else to contribute in a backup and situational role? Antwan Applewhite is a limited player and we’ve only seen flashes from Thomas Keiser, and let’s not even start to consider where the pressure up the gut will come from.
A bigger problem could be in finding someone to partner with Steve Smith in two receiver sets. In two years of action Brandon LaFell has failed to establish himself (though reports in camp say he’s improving). It’s also asking a lot of David Gettis to come back 100% and be a much improved player on the one we saw last. When you’re making trades for marginal talents like Louis Murphy you know the position isn’t in great shape. A lot is going to be asked of Greg Olsen to make up for this void, but being such a one dimensional tight end could have an impact on other areas of the Panthers offense.
5) Overcoming the Odds
Of course the biggest obstacle to the Panthers success this year comes from the sheer size of the task facing them. The NFC South houses the explosive New Orleans Saints and suffocating Atlanta Falcons, two teams that Carolina just hasn’t been able to go toe-to-toe with through four quarters (2-10 combined since 2009). Sure, with Cam Newton at the helm Carolina could put up points in patches, but he’s far from perfect as a passer and the defense can get worn out by physical units. In some respects they’re tailor built opposition for the Falcons and Saints, teams who rarely lose focus and make you play hard for 60 minutes. If the Carolina Panthers are going to progress they need to find a way to overcome two strong units.
What to Expect
Some ups and downs for 2012. Clearly the Panthers have some explosive players who will make many a highlight reel. That by itself won’t be enough to make the playoffs, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Carolina goes back to a little more smash mouth football, and a lot of Cam Newton. Regardless, progress looks likely for a team that has plenty of young talent, even if it may not be ready to take advantage of some of the coaching changes in the NFC South.