STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Despite starting a rookie quarterback and losing two of their top defensive players within the first two weeks of the season, the Panthers surprised many around the league by finishing with a 6-10 record. Led by Cam Newton, the team improved immensely from the 2010 season and could be a crowd favorite to make a further jump this year. Most of the credit should go to Newton, who set a new rookie quarterback record with 4,051 passing yards to go along with 21 touchdowns through the air. Those accomplishments alone would have easily clinched the offensive rookie of the year award, but Newton also did significant damage on the ground, rushing for 706 yards and an additional 14 touchdowns.
Newton's instant success also reinvigorated wideout Steve Smith, who made rumblings during the previous offseason for a trade. He stayed in town and enjoyed one of the best years of his career, leading to a three-year contract extension in April.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, most of the money they had committed in the prior offseason went to players who vastly underperformed. DeAngelo Williams was given a $43 million contract, with $21 million guaranteed, but finished with only 971 total yards and seven touchdowns. Linebacker Jon Beason received a $50 million deal with $25 million guaranteed, but tore his Achilles' in the team's first game of the year. Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis also received a new contract and went down with a torn ACL one week after Beason suffered his injury. The defensive injuries greatly hurt the team, as the Panthers finished 25th against the run and 24th against the pass.
The personnel on the offensive side of the ball will look quite similar to last year's unit, with the small addition of Mike Tolbert as the new starting fullback. Carries out of the backfield will likely be split once again between Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the latter of whom is in the last year of his contract and will try to prove that he deserves a big money deal after leading the team in rushing yards in both 2009 and 2010.
The defense should improve, as Beason and Davis are expected to return fully intact from their injuries, while top draft pick Luke Kuechly from Boston College joins the unit. The division is weaker than usual this season, as the Saints could very well fall off without Sean Payton on the sidelines, the Buccaneers are still developing, and the Falcons were quickly dismantled in last year's playoffs. If the Panthers' offense can repeat what it did last season and the defense stays healthy and plays to its potential, Carolina could certainly knock on the door for a spot in the playoffs.
Mike Tolbert, RB (Chargers)
A solid pass-catcher out of the backfield, he's unlikely to see many carries this season with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton doing most of the rushing. He could be relevant in PPR leagues, though.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College (Round 1, 9th overall)
The Panthers' linebacking corps took two big hits last season when Jon Beason and Thomas Davis each went down within the first two weeks. Kuechly was the top linebacker in the 2012 NFL Draft and has the motor to rack up plenty of tackles this season.
Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas (Round 4, 104th overall)
The 2011 SEC Special Teams Player of the Year, he'll likely be the punt and kick returner this season. He could also move into the slot position on offense to try to take some pressure off of Steve Smith.
Tauren Poole, RB, Tennessee (Undrafted Free Agent)
This surprisingly undrafted free agent could win the No. 3 running back job behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Haruki Nakamura, S (Ravens)
Provides added depth at free safety.
Jeremy Shockey, TE (FA)
Split most of the tight end reps with Greg Olsen, who is signed through 2015, so he became expendable.
Mike Goodson, RB (Raiders)
Traded to the Raiders after being stuck behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Dan Connor, LB (Cowboys)
Filled in nicely for the injured Jon Beason last season, but wanted a shot at starting this year.
The Panthers had three different players rush for at least 700 yards last season and each of them averaged over 5.3 yards per carry. Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton all failed to rush for 900 yards, although Newton ran for 14 scores (and, oh yeah, he's a quarterback). The backfield is just as muddled this season, with Williams and Stewart returning and Mike Tolbert joining the mix, although the team has stated numerous times that Tolbert was added as a fullback and primarily for his blocking abilities. Williams signed a $43 million contract last offseason and Stewart will be a free agent after this year, so the latter is likely to be hungrier this time around. Unfortunately, there is nothing to show that this year will be different than last year in terms of splitting carries, making this a successful, but fantasy-frustrating, running back by committee.
WHO WILL START OPPOSITE Steve Smith?
In last year's preview, we discussed how the Panthers didn't have nearly enough talent on their wide receiver depth chart after Steve Smith to pose a great threat. It appears this year will offer us more of the same. Smith managed to haul in 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns last season, but no other wideout could even muster half of that. In fact, Brandon LaFell (613) and Legedu Naanee (467) were the only ones to record more than five. Yes, five total yards. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey both contributed, as did the running backs, but if the Panthers are really going to take a step up this season, a wideout other than Smith will have to make an impact. One early candidate is rookie Joe Adams, who is built a little like Smith and also possesses great speed. Other than Adams, the Panthers will try again with Brandon LaFell, David Gettis, Kealoha Pilares, Armanti Edwards, Darvin Adams and Seyi Ajirotutu.
Jon Beason and Thomas Davis combined for 255 tackles in 2009 and 182 in 2010 (Davis played only seven games). They combined for just 16 last year, as both went down with season-ending injuries in the first two weeks of the season. They both are expected to return healthy and should be part of a strong linebacking unit along with first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly. Beason is a beast, who averaged 135 tackles a year before last season. James Anderson is another contributor who took down 145 last year, while trying to pick up the slack. The Panthers' pass rush is a little light outside of Charles Johnson, although the linebackers could be very strong.
RISING: Greg Olsen was the team's third-leading receiver last season and will no longer have to fight for looks with Jeremy Shockey.
DECLINING: Mike Tolbert is the starting fullback and likely won't see as many carries as he did with the Chargers thanks to the presence of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton.
SLEEPER: If Joe Adams quickly emerges as the team's slot receiver due to the lack of overall talent on the depth chart, he could surprise.
SUPERSLEEPER: Tauren Poole, an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, could get some reps if DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart go down with an injury.
Jon Beason, LB
Missed nearly all of last season with an Achilles' injury, but is a tackling machine when healthy.
James Anderson, LB
Racked up 9.0 sacks last season and had minor knee surgery in May, but should be ready for training camp.
Luke Kuechly, LB
The ninth overall pick in 2012 Draft should start right away and record enough tackles to merit IDP consideration out of the gate.
RotoWire Rank: 30