The Carolina Panthers had the worst record in the league last year and they were rewarded with the league’s toughest schedule. That’s what you get for being in the same division as Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and New Orleans. They play 6 games against those 3 teams and could easily lose all 6. They also play Green Bay, Chicago, and Indianapolis, 3 playoff teams from last season. They also play promising up and coming teams in Detroit, Arizona, and Houston.
They should be better talent wise this season, almost by default. DeAngelo Williams and Thomas Davis are both back from injuries, as is Jeff Otah. They also have Cam Newton, the #1 pick in the draft. Whether or not you think he’ll be a future franchise quarterback, you have to agree he’s an upgrade over Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore, their quarterbacks last season.
Cam Newton is expected to be their week 1 starter. I’d say that’s a mistake. I say they should start Jimmy Clausen. Best case scenario, he plays decent and they can flip him for a pick. Worst case scenario, they weren’t going to make the playoffs anyway and it’ll give Newton some time to get comfortable in the NFL. I know quarterbacks have done well after starting week 1 as rookies in recent years, but that’s not always the case and Newton is especially hurt by only 14 starts in college, the lowest by a #1 pick in NFL history. He’s also especially hurt by the lockout.
Newton won’t have a lot to work with in terms of wide receiver. Malcontent and declining Steve Smith is their #1 receiver again by default, after he was shopped this offseason. David Gettis tore his ACL so Brandon LaFell, a 2010 3rd round pick, will be the #2 receiver. Legedu Naanee, an offseason acquisition, will line up in the slot. Even though he was a popular fantasy sleeper last offseason, Naanee, who missed 6 games with an injury last season, has never caught more than 24 passes in a season.
Given the state of this receiving corps, Cam Newton will probably lean heavily on talented tight end Greg Olsen, who was added in the offseason for a 2012 3rd round pick. Tight ends are young quarterback’s best friends and Olsen is a talented tight end who caught 60 passes for 612 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2009 for the Bears before Mike Martz showed up and couldn’t figure out what to do with him. He should lead this team in receiving this year.
The Panthers resigned talented running back DeAngelo Williams this offseason. Williams is talented, but he’s also injury prone, aging, and unnecessary with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson in town. Williams also got more money than most running backs are worth, so I think that was a stupid signing. Still, he will help their running game a bit.
Williams and Stewart split carries evenly under John Fox, but it appears that under new coach Ron Rivera, Williams will be the lead back and Stewart, a talented 1st round pick from 2008, will be his backup, until, of course, Williams gets hurt. Meanwhile, Mike Goodson, who is talented and played well in Williams’ absence last season, will barely see the field as long as Williams and Stewart are both healthy.
The running game, a huge strength in 2009, was worse in 2010, though still decent. A reason behind that was the Williams injury, but a better reason was an injury to right tackle Jeff Otah, one of the best run blocking right tackles in the league. Otah returns to stabilize a right tackle position that really struggled in 2010.
Travelle Wharton was another major injury up front. He didn’t miss the whole season, but he missed a good portion of it. He’s a decent player when healthy, but they really did miss him as a run blocker. The other 3 offensive linemen, Jordan Gross at left tackle, Geoff Schwartz at right guard, and Ryan Kalil at center, didn’t miss a snap all season. All 3 are above average at their position as well, especially Kalil, who got a huge extension this offseason.
The Panthers overpaid DeAngelo Williams, but they also overpaid Charles Johnson on the defensive side. Johnson had an amazing season in 2010 with 11.5 sacks and 58 quarterback pressures and great play against the run. However, that was his only season as a starter. There was no way he deserved to make almost as much money as Julius Peppers. He got as much guaranteed money as Ray Edwards got total money and Edwards has 2 good seasons of statistical production.
The Panthers are hoping that Johnson can remain motivated. Otherwise, their pass rush could be absolutely terrible. They had 31 sacks in 2010 with 11.5 of them coming from Johnson. Greg Hardy, Everette Brown, and Eric Norwood will battle for the right end job, though Hardy was recently in a motorcycle accident. He will probably ready for week 1, but missing the preseason could really hurt him in the position battle. Hardy was a 6th round pick in 2010, while Norwood was a 4th round pick that same year. Everette Brown was a 2nd round pick in 2009 and actually was 2nd on the team with 3.5 sacks last season, but he reportedly is losing the position battle to Norwood, at least for now.
Defensive tackle Terrell McClain might actually end up 2nd on the team in sacks even though he’s a rookie 3rd round pick. McClain will start next to Sione Fua, another 3rd round rookie. Ron Edwards was signed in the offseason to start next to McClain, but he was recently put on IR. The defensive tackle position was a huge weakness for them last season and it should be a little better this season even though they are starting 2 rookies at the position coming out of the lockout.
Jon Beason, who was recently locked up long term, will start at middle linebacker. James Anderson, who stepped up big time last season, starts on the strong side. Thomas Davis, who has missed 25 games in the last 2 seasons with 2 torn ACL, will start on the weak side. He’s reportedly healthy now. He had 113 tackles in 2008, his last full season. If he can’t stay healthy, Dan Connor, a talented linebacker who played very well last season, would step into the starting lineup. Connor was almost traded this offseason, but the Panthers decided to retain him to keep their linebacker depth.
Cornerback Richard Marshall is gone as a free agent. Chris Gamble will be the #1 cornerback and Captain Munnerlyn (arguably the coolest name in the NFL) will step into the lineup in place of Marshall. Gamble struggled last year, though you can blame some of that on the pass rush. Meanwhile, Captain Munnerlyn was very impressive as a nickel back last year, but it remains to be seen how he can do as a starter.
The inexperienced CJ Wilson is expected to be the nickel back, at least until Brandon Hogan is healthy. Hogan was a 4th round pick despite having a torn ACL. He had the talent to be drafted a lot higher than that and he could be ready towards the end of the season. Jordan Pugh could also take the nickel back job, but currently is listed as the 2nd string free safety.
At safety, Sherrod Martin is great in coverage, allowing a mere 57.7% completion percentage without allowing a single touchdown. However, he struggles against the run. Strong safety Charles Godfrey is the opposite, bad in coverage, but a fierce run stuffer. They don’t have a lot of depth in the secondary at all and they are suffering several injuries in the secondary in the preseason. None have been serious yet, but you never know.
On paper, the Panthers should be about a 6 win team. They have the look of a team similar to their 2009 team when they went 8-8, a run heavy team with quarterback issues and decent, but not good defense. However, that’s assuming they don’t suffer more injuries this season. Plus, on top of that, they have a brutal schedule. I only see about 4 winnable games on their schedule (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Minnesota, Washington). I say they go 2-2 in those games and win one random game that they shouldn’t have against a superior team.
Running backs: A-
Receiving corps: D
Offensive line: B-
Run defense: C
Pass rush: C-
Pass coverage: C+
Projection: 3-13 4th in NFC South