From where they were in 2010, it wasn’t going to be hard to improve.
But with the addition of rookie head coach Ron Rivera and rookie quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers exceeded expectations in a post-lockout, injury riddled “Do I know you?” season of turnover.
Newton’s emergence, plus the return to prominence of wide receiver Steve Smith, made them one of the league’s most exciting offenses last year.
The challenge this year is to keep pushing Newton, and make enough fixes in other phases to keep him from having to bear the entire burden.
From Dom Capers to John Fox, Panthers fans were conditioned by their coaches to believe you won by playing good defense and special teams, and clutch-and-grab offense hoping to score just enough to get by.
Those days are over.
The Panthers were fifth in the league in points scored and seventh in yards last season, thanks to an ahead-of-the-curve rookie season by quarterback Cam Newton.
He still has work to do, but he impressed last year with his ability to stay in the pocket and throw downfield (only Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning had more completions of 20 yards or longer), and adapt on the fly without a proper offseason.
As he develops, the Panthers have the potential to improve on offense, both running and passing.
They added fullback Mike Tolbert to the already good run game, and hope to use him as a receiver out of the backfield as much as a blocker. With running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart together again (perhaps for the last year), it should at least keep Newton from having to run as much.
In the passing game, wide receiver Steve Smith came back to have the kind of season he had as a younger man, and shows no indication of slowing down. His game is built on toughness as much as explosion, and that gives him the chance to hang on. Brandon LaFell is being given a chance to start this year, and has shown to be ready. He plays like a young Muhsin Muhammad, and his physical ability shows in the running game as well. David Gettis coming back from a torn ACL gives them a possible downfield threat as a third receiver, as their Don Coryell/Norv Turner-inspired offense has always had a spot for a tall guy with straight-line speed.
Raise your hand if you trust the Panthers pass rush.
OK, I see Marty Hurney and Ron Rivera. Anyone else? Anyone? Bueller?
This is a sore spot, with only highly paid Charles Johnson trustworthy to be a regular contributor.
Greg Hardy has shown flashes, but had as many sacks in 16 starts (4.0) as eight-game practice-squad promotion Thomas Keiser did as a sub.They drafted Frank Alexander from Oklahoma in the fourth round, and hope he emerges as a third end, but otherwise, they have a bunch of conversion projects and crossed fingers (Antwan Applewhite, Keiser, Jyles Tucker, Eric Norwood).
The inside of the line is equally unsettled, as they’re hoping veteran nose Ron Edwards lends some stability, and 2011 third-rounders Terrell McClain and Sione Fua push through after hitting the wall as rookies. They like Frank Kearse, taken from the Miami practice squad last year as well.
But for a team that once boasted players such as Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins, this unit has fallen fast, as resources were spent elsewhere when priorities changed.
The Panthers did minor tweaking to the personnel on offense and defense, but gave their special teams an overhaul.
Which is good, because their special teams were the worst in the league last year.
They used a fourth-round pick on Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams in hopes of adding life to the return game, but free agent pickups such as Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura, Kenny Onatolu and Reggie Smith were brought in with an eye toward improving their dreadful coverage units. They lost many of their special teams regulars last year to starting jobs because of injuries, and the hope is that getting guys such as linebacker Jordan Senn back in the kicking game keeps it from being a disaster.
They also cut punter Jason Baker, which underscores last year’s regrettable decision to cut John Kasay and sign Olindo Mare to replace him. It was, in short, a disaster.
They got tired of carrying extra kickers since Kasay struggled with kickoffs. But instead of booting Baker and finding a punter who could do it, they released the last original Panther and signed Mare, who was fine on kickoffs but missed several late-game field goals that could have been the difference in wins.
The only other major change was releasing veteran guard Travelle Wharton (who landed in Cincinnati), and replacing him with small-school phenom Amini Silatolu at left guard. The hope is that insulating the second-rounder between Pro Bowlers on either side (left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil) allows him the opportunity to grow into a Wharton-level player or more.
Haruki Nakamura was brought in to help on special teams, but he could easily end up starting at free safety. Ed Reed’s old backup in Baltimore will be given the chance to push incumbent Sherrod Martin for a job.
Martin’s more talented, but had a series of mental errors last year that led to big plays for opponents, earning him a spot in the doghouse.
In a perfect world, Martin would realize he’s being pushed and focus, which could allow him to be a solid starter. But they’re not going to put up with the lapses that got him on the highlights so often last year.
They also have young depth at receiver, which could push Armanti Edwards right off the roster. They traded a 2011 second-rounder to take him in the 2010 third, but he hasn’t shown much yet. The former Appalachian State quarterback wasn’t a return man, and will have to make it as an outside receiver this year, in what’s likely his final chance. They have numbers there, with Kealoha Pilares, Seyi Ajirotutu and others. As much as they want to justify his selection, it’s on him to produce in camp or he’s gone.
This team will go exactly as far as Cam Newton takes them. He’s not designed for, nor asked to play a high-percentage passing game. They want to get yardage in chunks, and he has the arm and the offensive coordinator (Rob Chudzinski) to do just that.
The defense will only have to improve to mediocre for them to have a shot at the playoffs. That’s possible, with Luke Kuechly adding some strength to a linebacker corps that was decimated by injuries last season. With Jon Beason on his way back from a torn Achilles, and Thomas Davis trying to come back from his third torn ACL, there are options there.
They have enough good parts on defense (defensive end Charles Johnson is solid, and cornerback Chris Gamble played at a Pro Bowl level last year) that some improvement is possible.
If they can keep the defense and special teams from being the anchors they were last year, there’s a chance that Newton could push them toward the playoffs.