After a 4th straight loss (including 3 straight by a combined 11 points), Cam Newton stood at the podium and said something had to change and that he was sick of losing close games. The team was 1-5 after coming into the season with high expectations and Newton’s career record was pushed to 7-15, with a ridiculous 9 losses by a touchdown or loss (as opposed to just 1 win by a touchdown or less). Newton was criticized by the media for doing this rather than taking responsibility upon himself and to make matters worse, long time GM Marty Hurney was fired the following week, which Newton was blamed for.
That being said, Hurney’s firing was a year and a half overdue. He should have been let go following the Panthers’ 2-14 season in 2010. And while he didn’t take responsibility upon himself in the press conference, he was a noticeably better quarterback from that point on. Following yet another excruciating loss (by 1 point to the Bears, blowing a 19-7 4th quarter lead in the process), the Panthers won 6 of their final 9 games to finish 7-9. Among those 6 wins were victories over division winners Washington and Atlanta, as well as a victory in New Orleans against the Saints.
Newton was noticeably better in the 2nd half of the season, completing 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.9 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, all while rushing for 394 yards and 4 touchdowns. That was opposed to 57.0% completion, 8.1 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions with 347 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in the 1st half of the season. Heading into his 3rd season in the league, it’s very possible he’s turned a corner, which would be a very good thing for this team. In their final 8 games, they averaged 26.0 points per game, which would have been tied for 8th in the NFL last season. That’s no fluke, as they ranked 5th in the NFL scoring 25.4 points per game in 2011. At the very least, Newton’s early sophomore slump should be a thing of the past and this should be one of the better offensive teams in the NFL.
The other big turnaround for this team was an improved defense. In their final 12 games of the season, they allowed just 21.2 points per game, which would have been 12th in the NFL over the course of the whole season. That was opposed to 27.3 points per game allowed in the first 4 games of the season and 26.8 points per game allowed in 2011. The obvious change from week 4 to week 5 was moving eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kueckly to middle linebacker and giving him an every down linebacker role, but you can’t give him all the credit. Young players like Greg Hardy also broke out as the season went on defensively.
For those reasons, I like their chances of carrying their strong finish into 2013. They also have a few other things working in their favor. For one thing, they were better in DVOA that their record suggested, which is usually a sign of an impending improvement. They ranked 13th in DVOA, which grades teams on a per play basis against their level of competition. In terms of weighted DVOA, which puts greater weight on more recent games (games later in the season), they were 9th.
Part of the reason for this was their poor record in close games, as they went 1-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less. In the past 2 years, they are a ridiculous 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less. This type of thing tends to even out in the long run and if they can go .500 in those types of games this season, it will go a long way towards improving their record. Contrary to popular belief, there’s really no such thing as being “bad at winning close games.” You can’t even blame Cam Newton, who has completed 76 of 139 (54.7%) for 1074 yards (7.7 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 105 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in the 4th quarter when the game is within 7 points. Those numbers aren’t much worse than his career numbers. It’s just been bad luck.
This team still has flaws, but if they defense plays at the level they played after week 4 last season and Cam Newton continues to play the way he did down the stretch last year, this team can compete with any team in the league. Almost every year there’s a team that goes from last place to first place and a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a 1st round bye and the Panthers are as good a pick to do so as any team in the NFL.
I went into depth about Newton in the introduction. He had a bit of a sophomore slump to start last season, but for the most part, he’s led a very explosive offense in his first 2 years in the NFL and should continue to do so in his 3rd year in the league and could easily have the best season of his young career. If he had managed a .500 record in close games in his career, he would be 18-14 in the last 2 seasons with not always such a great defense supporting him. With an improved defense supporting him this year, he can definitely take this team to the playoffs and contend for the division title.
One of the big differences between the 2011 Panthers’ offense and the 2012 Panthers’ offense was the running game, which didn’t function nearly like it did the year prior. In 2011, they ranked 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards with 2408 and 1st in yards per carry with 5.4. Cam Newton rushed for 706 yards and a quarterback record 14 touchdowns on 126 carries and also opened things up for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who each averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 155 and 142 carries respectively.
In 2012, Newton continued to do his part, rushing for 741 yards and 8 touchdowns on 127 carries, leading the team, but DeAngelo Williams looked old and Jonathan Stewart was hampered with injuries. Williams did average 4.3 yards per carry on 173 carries, but only because of a random 210 yard/21 carry performance in week 17 against a laughable New Orleans defense. Before that, he was averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Going into his age 30 season this year, things aren’t going to get better.
Jonathan Stewart, however, could get better. Injuries limited him to just 3.6 yards per carry and 93 carries, but he’s only 26 and had only missed 2 games in the prior 4 years, when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Provided he’s healthy, he should be able to be a solid starting running back this season and keep the aging Williams off the field as much as possible. Mike Tolbert, meanwhile, rushed for 3.4 yards per carry on 54 carries while scoring 7 touchdowns as a short yardage back, which is impressive considering his role. He should be able to do the same again in 2013. Tolbert also is a good pass catching, leading Carolina backs with 27 catches and serving essentially as a move tight end in certain situations.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Greg Olsen was a 1st round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft and finally came into his own last season, catching a career high 69 passes for a career high 843 yards and 5 touchdowns, serving as a very good secondary receiver for Cam Newton. Steve Smith remains the #1 receiver, catching 73 passes for 1174 yards and 4 touchdowns, but it’s unclear how much longer he can do that for, as he’s going into his age 34 season.
Over the next 2-4 years, Smith can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37.
The Panthers need someone else to step up at wide receiver, but they don’t have a lot of options. Their other starting receiver is Brandon LaFell, a marginal pass catcher, who is among the best run blocking receivers in the NFL, for what that’s worth. He’s a borderline starting receiver at best though and will never be a long term #1 wide receiver.
Their other options aren’t much better. David Gettis hasn’t been able to stay healthy, playing just 17 snaps since a moderately impressive 37 catches for 508 yards and 3 touchdowns as a rookie on a stagnant offense in 2010. Domenik Hixon is only a veteran depth receiver and Ted Ginn is only a return man. This is going to have to be an area they’ll address in the off-season through the draft and for now they’ll have to hope Smith holds up another season as the #1 guy. Some decline is to be expected, however.
The offensive line is also a bit of a concern for the Panthers on offense. They graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 27th ranked pass blocking offensive line and ranked 29th in pass block efficiency, though they did grade out 10th in run blocking. Still, left tackle Jordan Gross was the only offensive lineman to grade out positively and injuries were a major issue. In an effort to, at the very least, shore up their offensive line depth, the Panthers drafted Edmund Kugbila in the 4th round, a versatile small school offensive lineman.
Gross was very good at left tackle, the most important position, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 20th ranked offensive tackle, though he’s heading into his age 33, which is a concern. Opposite him, Byron Bell was the starter at right tackle. Like most of the offensive line, he could be upgraded. Amini Silatolu and Geoff Hangartner will play the guard positions, though Kugbila could always force himself into the starting lineup here. Silatolu struggled mightily as a 2nd round rookie last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligble. He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league this year, but there are no guarantees.
Hangartner also struggled last year, playing both guard and center. He was ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked guard in 2011, grading out positively, so maybe if he can play a full season there again, the 31-year-old can be a marginal starter again. The reason he had to play center last year was an injury to Ryan Kalil. Kalil was a top-7 center on ProFootballFocus from 2009-2011, but played just 5 games thanks to injury last season. He’ll be back this season and, heading into his age 28 season, I don’t see why he can’t be one of the better centers in the NFL again. That will be a boost to this offensive line. Garry Williams and Jeff Byers played significant snaps on the offensive line last year thanks to injury, but both really struggled. They’ll go back to reserve roles this season.
Between Charles Johnson and 2012 breakout star Greg Hardy, the Panthers have arguably the best pass rushing duo in the NFL. Among 4-3 defensive ends, they ranked 6th and 9th overall respectively on ProFootballFocus. Johnson is the better pass rusher, with 14 sacks, 11 hits, and 49 hurries on 519 pass rush snaps, a 14.3% rate. Only Cameron Wake graded out higher among 4-3 defensive ends as pass rushers. Hardy, meanwhile, is the better overall player, ranking in the top-10 as a pass rusher and run stuffer, something only Cameron Wake and Michael Bennett can also say. As a pass rusher, he had 13 sacks, 12 hits, and 35 hurries on 462 pass rush snaps, a 13.0% pass rush rate.
Making them even more valuable is the fact that both have the size to line up at defensive tackle on passing downs, which allows them to essentially get 3 defensive ends on the field at the same time, much like the New York Giants. Frank Alexander is that 3rd end. As a 4th round pick rookie, he was very poor against the run. Despite playing very limited run snaps as a nickel rusher, 197, he graded out 57th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends against the run, but he had 3 sacks, 6 hits and 26 hurries on 360 pass rush snaps, an impressive rate of 9.7%.He fell to the 4th round because of a heart ailment, but I graded him out as a 2nd rounder on tape and it’s very possible that teams around the league, including the Panthers who traded up for him, did the same purely on tape. Going into his 2nd year in the league, he should continue to improve and be a very good 3rd defensive end for them.
While they had very good defensive ends last season, defensive tackle was a major issue for them and they addressed it in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the draft, adding Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short. Those two will rotate with Dwan Edwards, who was a below average player as a starter last year, playing better as a pass rusher than as a run stopper. He’ll be better in a situational role after playing in 718 snaps last season. Sione Fua, Andre Neblett, and Ron Edwards were all among the worst defensive tackles in football last year, grading out 83rd, 81st, and 70th among 85 eligible defensive tackles. Only Fua remains on the roster and the 2011 3rd round pick might not make the final roster.
Short and Lotulelei will also add to their pass rush. It’s very conceivable they are even more improved over last season, when they were ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked pass rush team and ranked 9th in the NFL with 39 sacks. They should also be much improved over their 18th place finish against the run in terms of YPC allowed. This is one of the better defensive lines in football.
One of the reasons why they should be improved against the run in 2013, aside from the improved defensive tackle position, is that they’ll have a full season of Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker. The fact that they ranked 18th against the run despite having Kuechly shows just how bad their defensive tackles were and this year and I could see them top-10 in that aspect easily.
Kuechly is a little overrated based purely on his tackles total. Of his 161 tackles, only 67 of them were within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down. I argued that Casey Hayward and Bobby Wagner were more deserving as Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he was hardly bad. Despite only playing 12 games at the position, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked middle linebacker and in his 2nd season in the league and his 1st full as a middle linebacker, he’ll be even better.
Veterans Thomas Davis and Jon Beason will play on the outside. Both have had major injury issues of late. Davis has missed 24 games in the last 3 seasons and has torn his ACL 3 times, but he actually played pretty well last season, missing just 1 game and excelling in coverage, grading out positively overall. He’ll probably be the every down linebacker this year with Beason focusing on just playing the run on two-downs in base packages. Since signing a massive extension in the 2011 off-season, Beason has played just 5 games in the last 2 seasons and is an even bigger injury concern than Davis, who at least was healthy last year. The Panthers precarious cap situation and the cap penalty that would come with cutting him are the only reasons why he’s still on the roster. He should be alright as a run stuffer as long as he stays healthy.
The secondary is the Panthers’ weakness on defense, but their front 7 play, their pass rush, and their run stopping ability should be able to make up for that. Captain Munnerlyn will continue to serve as the #1 cornerback. He doesn’t look the part at 5-8 and he’s been pretty mediocre in the past, but he actually graded out as a league average player last season, so we’ll see if he can keep that up. An improved front 7 should help make sure that happens.
Josh Thomas and Josh Norman will serve as the other two cornerbacks. Thomas was the better of the two grading out only slightly below average in his first season of significant action after going in the 5th round in 2011. Norman, meanwhile, struggled mightily in 2012, grading out as ProFootballFocus 94th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible, but he was only a 5th round rookie, so he could be better in 2013. As is the case with the rest of the secondary, he’ll be helped by this pass rush.
Haruki Nakamura will man one safety spot. In his first year of significant action, he graded out as an average safety, though he was benched mid-season. He looks like the undisputed starter right now as they don’t have any real competition for him, so we’ll see how he holds up. Charles Godfrey will be the other safety. He’s been horrific in the past two years, ranking 79th among 87 eligible safeties in 2011 and 82nd among 88 eligible in 2012. He’s the weak link in an overall weak group. It’s something they’ll have to mask defensively, but they were able to do so last year so I don’t see why they can’t continue to do so this year. Defensively, it looks it be an even more talented group than the one that finished last year so well.
When the Panthers were 1-6 last year, Ron Rivera’s name was tossed around as someone who could be fired, but the Panthers opted to part ways with long time GM Marty Hurney instead and after Rivera got them to 7-9 at the end of the season, they brought him back for his 3rd season. I argued against Rivera being fired the whole time because doing so would probably lead to a new coaching staff, including a new offensive coordinator, which would be unnecessary change that could hurt Cam Newton’s development.
Of course, Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski is gone anyway, taking the Head Coaching job in Cleveland, so they’ll have to hope that internal hire Mike Shula can pick up where he left off. He was their quarterback coach for the past 2 seasons so the familiarity is there with Newton. Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott turned things around down the stretch last season after a miserable start to his tenure in Carolina (which followed a miserable tenure in Philadelphia). Ron Rivera also comes from a defensive background.
New Orleans and Atlanta are seen as the two teams that will be competing for the NFC South title, but Carolina swept the season series against New Orleans last year and came within a field goal of doing the same to Atlanta, including a late season win against the Falcons which they led 23-0 before the Falcons scored some garbage time points. New Orleans will be better than last season, but so will Carolina, for reasons I’ve gone into detail about. Even though Atlanta had the #1 seed in the NFC last year, Carolina was still better in weighted DVOA than them, as the Falcons ranked 13th.
I think they’ll win 4 or 5 divisional games. Outside the division, they host Seattle, the Giants, the Jets, St. Louis, and New England. New England will be the toughest opponent, but the other 4 are very winnable, even Seattle considering their road struggles. Even the New England game is winnable. They should win 3 or 4 of those games, which puts them at 8-3 through the 11 mentioned games. A trip to San Francisco will be tough, but games in Arizona, Miami, Buffalo, and Minnesota aren’t bad.
Overall, I have them winning 12 games, which is a stretch and will take some luck, but they have enough talent that it’s doable and as I said in the opening, almost every year there’s a team that goes from last place to first place and a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a 1st round bye and the Panthers are as good a pick to do so as any team in the NFL. This is one of the most underrated teams in the NFL and a team I’ll bet often early in the season. Getting more than a field goal at home with them against Seattle week 1 at a 1 PM ET start is awfully appetizing.
Projection: 12-4 1st place in NFC South