32 Teams in 32 Days: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are a team with an identity crisis. They are defined by elite talent at positions of strength, and by lack of depth at positions of weakness. Cam Newton has given them the ability to be a pass-first team, but they are flush with running backs instead of receivers. They have two of the best pass-rushing ends in football, but couldn’t stop a simple A-gap run last season to save their lives. They have started the past two seasons slowly, only to rally hard once they were out of playoff contention. The Panthers’ biggest challenges in 2013 are to learn to control their own destiny and to effectively use their strengths to mask their weaknesses.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. MonStrz, Inc.
While Greg Hardy‘s personal goal of 50 sacks may seem optimistic, he and the rest of the defensive line, which he has dubbed “MonStrz, Inc.”, have a great chance to collectively meet or exceed such a lofty proclamation. The Panthers’ pass rush generated 43 sacks last year, despite defensive tackles who rarely played the run or pass well, let alone commanded a double team. No defensive tackle that played at least 100 snaps in pass defense graded higher than Dwan Edwards‘ -1.7. Run defense from the defensive tackles was equally bad, with none performing better than -2.6. To remedy this, the Panthers spent their first two draft picks on Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Lotulelei was mentioned as a possible No. 1 overall pick by many analysts before perceived heart issues knocked him down, or off, many draft boards. Once Lotulelei was cleared of any actual medical risk, the Panthers happily pounced on the top player remaining on their board. They continued their defensive tackle overhaul by selecting Short in the second round. These picks will likely be radical improvements and should allow Sean McDermott to run his defense the way he has always wanted to, but has never had the personnel to pull off. Look for a greater variety of blitzes, coverages, and personnel packages now that McDermott has more tools to work with.
2. Linebacking Corps
When healthy, the Panthers field a formidable group of former first-round picks at linebacker. Unfortunately, the trio of Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and Luke Kuechly has rarely been on the field at the same time. A small hamstring tweak notwithstanding, Thomas Davis was recently quoted as saying he feels “10 times” better than he did at this point last year. Beason is coming off knee and shoulder surgeries and is unlikely to participate in training camp, but he remains on track to start Week 1. Kuechly will now man the MLB spot on a full-time basis, and will benefit from practicing at the position for a full offseason. The game has already started to slow down for Kuechly, and last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award portends an ever brighter future. If Lotulelei and Short can better shield the linebackers from opposing guards than the previous DTs did, the entire Carolina run defense stands to improve significantly. On paper, Carolina’s front seven should be one of the most fearsome in the league.
3. Running Backs
The Panthers boast arguably the deepest group of running backs in the NFL. However, the read-option based running attack faltered early last season. Returning to a more conventional power attack culminated in a franchise record 210 rushing yards for DeAngelo Williams in the season finale against the Saints. Jonathan Stewart is nominally the starter, but ankle issues prematurely ended his 2012 season. Stewart, when healthy, is one of the most talented running backs in the game. During the 2009-11 seasons, Stewart topped PFF’s Elusive Rating scale. Mike Tolbert was extremely effective in his limited role and continued to demonstrate his famed nose for the end zone. Rookie Kenjon Barner looks like a sixth-round steal whose speed could add an extra dimension to the 3rd-down offense. And we can’t forget Newton, who was the Panthers’ leading rusher both in yards and in PFF rating. As long as the offensive line can remain at least average, and the coaches can get out of the running backs’ way, this unit should be exceedingly productive regardless of whose number is called.
4. Keep Pounding
The Panthers are hoping that a 5-2 record to end last season dispersed the fog of inconsistency that has hung over the team the past two seasons. Newton had 13 turnovers before that season-ending run, and only two during it. Eliminating turnovers is only the first step, and Newton must build on this by becoming more consistent and accurate. The chemistry that developed during the late-season run fueled the fires of optimism and has the Panthers truly believing they belong among the NFL’s playoff contenders. While Ryan Kalil won’t be taking out any more newspaper ads proclaiming a Super Bowl victory this year, this group believes they can win it.
5. Gettleman’s New Deal
Bringing in Dave Gettleman to replace Marty Hurney as GM wasn’t the most obvious choice, but it may have been the most pragmatic. Gettleman is a no-nonsense everyman who is much more open and straightforward about the state of the team than his predecessor. Gettleman’s experience as Pro Personnel Director for the Giants has dictated his approach to managing the Panthers. He has signed (or re-signed) a number of veterans to one-year deals and has done a very good job of reading the market for such players. Players such as Drayton Florence, Mike Mitchell, D.J. Moore, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon, and Chase Blackburn have been brought in to compete for starting spots. While the names on this list aren’t likely to scare opposing players, they each represent value at positions of need, and each of them has the potential to be productive, given the opportunity. Gettleman clearly has a long-term vision for the team, and his decisions have masterfully balanced the short- and long-term competitiveness of the team against the very limited cap space he was given to work with.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. An Unproven Secondary
Coming into camp, the only starting spot in the secondary written in ink currently belongs to Charles Godfrey. No one else is even penciled into a starting spot. Godfrey returns to free safety full-time for the first time since 2010, when he hauled in five interceptions. The further the Panthers can keep him from the line of scrimmage, the better. Godfrey missed 11 tackles on run plays, while stopping only 15 by himself, and ranked 50th out of 58 qualifying safeties in tackling efficiency. Their approach for constructing the rest of the secondary is simply to gamble that one of the many guys they have thrown into the fire will work. D.J. Campbell and Mike Mitchell are early leaders for the SS position, while Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence are getting first-team CB reps in camp so far. Josh Thomas and Josh Norman could each factor in to the race for starting corner roles, while D.J. Moore will likely compete solely for slot duties. The Panthers may also bring in multiple defensive backs once roster cut-downs begin, or wait for veterans such as Quintin Mikell to lower their asking price. Predicting the final makeup of the secondary this early in camp is an exercise in futility, but unless something radical happens this is likely to be the weakest unit on the team.
2. A Brutal Schedule
The Panthers face the toughest strength of schedule in the league, with 2013 opponents having a .543 win percentage in 2012. While we know the initial strength of schedule often isn’t highly correlated with the final strength of schedule, the Panthers would likely swap schedules with many other teams if given the chance. They also were given the worst possible bye-week of Week 4, and they must face the Vikings, Patriots, and 49ers, all playoff teams in 2012, coming off their respective bye weeks. The Panthers must also play their short-week Thursday game away from home at Tampa Bay. While there is rarely such a thing as an easy win in the NFL, the schedule the Panthers face isn’t doing them any favors.
3. Offensive Line Woes
Jordan Gross was the only Panthers offensive lineman to finish with a positive overall grade in 2012. Even given his positive grade, Gross still ranked as only the 27th best offensive tackle in our Pass Blocking Efficiency rating. Right tackle Byron Bell finished 49th in the same rankings and allowed 45 total pressures. For comparison, league leaders at either tackle position allowed only 16 pressures in a starting role. The guards and centers didn’t fare any better. Ryan Kalil played only five games before suffering a season-ending Lis Franc injury. Amini Silatolu was the Panthers’ worst rated offensive lineman of the year with a -16.8 overall grade. While Silatolu was particularly bad in the middle of the season, the light eventually came on — he was graded +5.5 over his last four games, mostly due to positive run-blocking. There is virtually no proven quality depth behind the starters. Despite these concerns, the only thing of note that the Panthers did to address the offensive line in the offseason was to draft Edmund Kugbila, who will be a project right guard that may not immediately be ready to play, as he comes out of Division II Valdosta State. The Panthers are counting on the existing line to perform better and stay healthy. This is a huge risk and one which has bitten the Panthers in the past. Look for them to add at least one more veteran lineman who is capable of playing multiple positions. Jon Beason’s recent salary reduction and Geoff Hangartner’s release may well pave the way for signing old teammate Travelle Wharton to fill this role. This is a patchwork line whose deficiencies must be hidden by Cam Newton’s athleticism if the Panthers are to have success on offense.
4. Pass Catching Depth
Since Mushin Muhammad’s retirement, the Panthers’ receiving corps has been Steve Smith and everyone else. While Brandon LaFell has made strides toward becoming an adequate No. 2 receiver, the team’s entire passing attack would be crippled if Smith were to miss significant time. Greg Olsen is easily the second-best pass catcher on the team, but none of the other tight ends can be expected to be anything other than blockers in the passing game. New addition Domenik Hixon brings a +8.3 receiving rating, which is a significant upgrade on now departed third receiver Louis Murphy, who posted a -6.1 rating. Ted Ginn was signed to be a returner, but he has developed some chemistry with Newton in the early stages of camp. Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares, Armanti Edwards, and David Gettis all figure to battle for the final two roster spots with their ability to play special teams weighing heavily in the final decision. If any of the receivers other than Smith or LaFell produce consistently, it will be a pleasant surprise for Panthers fans.
5. Coaching and Late-game Execution
Early season-ending injuries and blown fourth quarter leads have been hallmarks of the Ron Rivera era in Charlotte. The Panthers’ record under the head coach is 2-12 in games decided by 7 points or less. Rivera once gifted the Saints 3 points in 2011 by calling a defensive timeout when the Saints would not have otherwise been able to run their kicking unit onto the field before time expired. They chose to promote Mike Shula to Offensive Coordinator instead of hiring more well-respected coaches with proven resumes. To many Panthers fans, this felt like starting DeShaun Foster over a more talented DeAngelo Williams all over again. When Gettleman was hired, it was widely assumed he would clean house, as is standard practice for many new GMs. Instead, he chose to get to know the people already in the building before taking out the trash. While Rivera was retained, it has been made clear that everyone in the building has been put on notice.
What to Expect?
Facing a seemingly brutal schedule and a number of question marks on the offensive line and in the secondary, the Panthers’ season could prove to be difficult. For a team who is consistently inconsistent, finishing anywhere between 4-12 and 10-6 are equally likely scenarios. The coaching staff and most of the roster face a make-or-break season. The defensive front seven should be markedly better against the run, allowing the Panthers to put teams away in the fourth quarter, when they have previously had troubles. The Panthers should be able to claw their way to a 9-7 record, but they will likely miss the playoffs due to a stacked NFC. If the tiebreakers fall the right way and the Panthers do sneak into the playoffs, they will be the hot team that no one wants to play.
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