State of the Franchise
The Panthers’ 2012 season started glaringly similar to their 2011 campaign with a disappointing 2-8 record through 10 games. However, entering Year Two of the union between coach Ron Rivera and franchise QB Cam Newton – who had set records for rookie passing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in his debut season – preseason expectations in Carolina were perhaps a tad unrealistic. To put that notion into perspective, three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil bought a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer prior to the season featuring the headline, “Why the Carolina Panthers will win Super Bowl XLVII.”
While the Panthers started off sluggishly, they at least tended to be competitive in most of their games out of the gate. Besides two blowout home losses at the hands of both Manning brothers, the Panthers lost four consecutive games to the Falcons, Seahawks, Cowboys and Bears, all by five points or less, in addition to an overtime loss to the Buccaneers in Week 11. Along with the tough start, Kalil and former Pro Bowl LB Jon Beason were both placed on Injured Reserve and the Panthers fired GM Marty Hurney, throwing the future of Rivera into uncertainty after just a season and a half at the helm.
It wasn’t until a late-November Monday night game in Philadelphia that the Panthers turned their season around. Newton not only passed for 306 yards and two touchdowns, he also scored on a pair of runs. The team went on to win five of its last six games and improved on both sides of the ball. Newton set a franchise record with 176 consecutive pass attempts without an interception and the Panthers’ passing attack finished third in the league in yards per attempt. On the ground, Newton led Carolina in rushing yards and touchdowns, but other runners also had their moments. After starting running back Jonathan Stewart’s lackluster season was ended by an ankle injury, DeAngelo Williams took the reins and revived his season, punctuated by a team-record 210 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Week 17 against the Saints. In addition, bulldozer FB Mike Tolbert provided Carolina with a goal line punch, adding seven rushing touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, improvement manifested after rookie Luke Kuechly was moved to middle linebacker. The team’s 2012 first-round selection led the league with 165 tackles and earned the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Up front, the Panthers also boasted a stellar pass rush. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both finished with double-digit sacks, registering 12.5 and 11, respectively. New GM David Gettleman boosted that defensive front over the first two rounds of the 2013 draft, by selecting a pair of defensive tackles, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
Chase Blackburn - LB, Giants
After registering a career-high 94 tackles and three sacks last season, he joins one of the league’s top linebacking units.
DRAYTON FLORENCE - CB, Lions
The veteran cornerback adds valuable experience to a young secondary.
Domenik Hixon - WR, Giants
Likely to be the Panthers’ No. 3 receiver after catching 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns last season.
MIKE MITCHELL - S, Raiders
Will compete for a starting safety position with Carolina after spending four years as a reserve with Oakland.
Star Lotulelei - DT, Utah
(Round 1, 14th overall)
Dropped a bit in the draft due to heart condition concerns; he is a versatile, explosive and disruptive player.
Kenjon Barner - RB, Oregon
(Round 6, 182nd overall)
Highly productive college running back that poses a big-play threat. He’s not very strong, so will likely be used situationally.
Chris Gamble - CB, Retired
Retired after being cut by the Panthers for salary cap purposes.
Louis Murphy - WR, Giants
Caught 25 balls for 336 receiving yards and one touchdown in his only season in Carolina.
LIGHTS, CAM-ERA, ACTION
In his second season, QB Cam Newton proved once again to be a dynamic playmaker. His maturity was questioned during the Panthers’ rough start, but Newton eventually responded with the kind of play that earned him the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. During Carolina’s final six games, which included the team’s first streak of four consecutive wins since the 2008 season, Newton accounted for 14 total touchdowns and just two turnovers. Newton also broke Peyton Manning’s record for most passing yards in the first two seasons of a career with 7,920 and led an offense that produced 75 plays of 20 yards or more. Further, Newton reduced his interceptions from 17 in his rookie year to 12. This development earned offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski the Browns’ head coaching position in the offseason. Even without Chudzinski around this season, expect Newton to once again be among the league’s most explosive players with his ability to pressure defenses both in the air and on the ground.
DEPTH ON OFFENSE
The Panthers have surrounded their star quarterback with a number of talented options in both the pass and run games. Veteran wideout Steve Smith is undoubtedly Newton’s No. 1 target, catching a team-high 73 balls in 2012, totaling 1,000-plus receiving yards for the seventh time in his career. Opposite Smith, Brandon LaFell posted career-high numbers in catches, yards and touchdowns, despite missing two games. Greg Olsen also had a productive campaign, setting team records in catches (69) and yards (843) at the TE position. Along with these returning threats, the Panthers signed pass-catchers Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. to add depth to their receiving corps. In the backfield, the Panthers continue to feature the well-compensated Jonathan Stewart/DeAngelo Williams duo that has proven to be productive in seasons past. The two figure to split time while handling the bulk of the carries, with sixth-round pick Kenjon Barner in the change-of-pace mix and FB Mike Tolbert in line to remain the goal-line specialist.
STOUT FRONT SEVEN
In 2012, Carolina finished 10th in total defense, up 18 places from the previous season. Much of this is due to the team’s front seven, which features ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, along with talented LB Luke Kuechly. The resurgence of Thomas Davis, who last year played his first full season since 2008, also proved important. Davis finished second on the team in tackles and will line up this season with Jon Beason at the Panthers’ opposite outside linebacker position. In addition, offseason acquisition LB Chase Blackburn will add depth, a winning pedigree and insurance. Throw in draft picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, a pair of defensive tackles, and the Panthers’ front seven should be difficult to penetrate.
Rising: DeAngelo Williams was the subject of trade speculation last season, but averaged 89 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry and scored four total touchdowns in Carolina’s last five games.
Declining: Jonathan Stewart, who saw his season cut short after a Week 12 ankle injury, had just 336 rushing yards and two total touchdowns prior to that point.
Sleeper: Domenik Hixon figures to be more consistently involved with the Panthers than he was with the Giants, giving him an opportunity to improve on his numbers.
Supersleeper: Kenjon Barner doesn’t figure to see much playing time early on, but he could be incorporated as the season progresses in a change-of-pace role.
Luke Kuechly - LB
Seems like a magnet to the football, he led the NFL in tackles last season.
Greg Hardy - DE
Broke out in 2012 with 61 total tackles and 11 sacks.
Charles Johnson - DE
Averaging 49 tackles and 11 sacks over the past three seasons.
RotoWire Rank: 24