Panthers looking for strong start
WR D.Hixon, WR T.Ginn,
CB D.Moore, CB D.Florence,
DT C.Cole, LB C.Blackburn
LB J.Anderson, CB C.Gamble,
The Carolina Panthers finished 2012 as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, closing their season with a four-game winning streak.
Too bad they got off to such a terrible start.
Cam Newton and the Panthers fumbled out of the gate last season, going 1-6 through the first seven weeks and all but eliminating themselves from playoff contention before they even hit the midway point.
The Panthers will need to get out of the blocks better this season if they hope to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
All Eyes on Newton
Newton has put up some impressive numbers through his first two NFL seasons. In his first year, Newton became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards, finishing the season with 4,051 yards with 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also set an NFL record for quarterbacks with 14 rushing touchdowns.
Last season, his passing numbers dropped off a bit as he threw for 3,869 yards and 19 touchdowns, but he also reduced his interceptions from 17 to 12. Newton had another terrific season running the ball, leading the Panthers with 741 yards and eight touchdowns along the ground.
While the numbers have been great, they haven't translated into wins often enough as Newton is just 13-19 his career. Now in his third season, the Panthers need the 2011 first overall pick to start translating his skills and physical gifts into more wins.
With Mike Shula, who served as the team's quarterback coach for the last two seasons, taking over for the departed Rob Chuzkinski as offensive coordinator the team will feature a more conventional attack.
For Newton, this means less time in read-option, more time spent in the pocket and an opportunity to show off his arm and prove that he has grown as a passer coming into his third pro season.
That's not to say Newton won't be allowed to take off anymore, he just might not average eight carries per game this year.
To help give some punch to the passing game, the Panthers brought in free agent receivers Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. Both will compete for reps as the team's third receiver while Ginn should add a spark to the Carolina return game.
While those two will add depth to the receiving corps, make no mistake, Steve Smith is still Newton's go-to guy.
The 34-year-old Smith had 73 catches for 1,174 yards last season and may see the ball even more this year. In Shula's simplified system, Smith looks likely to work out of the slot more often giving him the opportunity to catch a few more balls and work the underneath.
Fourth year receiver Brandon LaFell will also be in the mix looking to improve on his career best 44 catches and 677 yards from last season.
Back to the Backs
With the threat Newton poses to take off along with the likes of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert at running back, the Panthers, on paper, have one of the deepest backfields in the NFL.
The problem the last few seasons has been getting one of their backs to step up and take charge of the running game. The Panthers have failed to produce a 1,000 yard back in each of the last three seasons as the team has flip flopped between Steward and Williams in a platoon system.
Williams was the team's most productive back last year, running for 737 yards while averaging an okay 4.3 yards per carry but failed to live up to the money he is making.
Stewart meanwhile spent much of last season injured and unfortunately may be headed for a similar season in 2013. He was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list for the preseason with lingering ankle issues.
Despite the lingering questions marks, Shula would like to see Newton run the ball less and feature his backs more heavily in the offence this season.
The Panthers offence will likely be pass heavy in 2013 but Shula will need to get more consistent production from Williams, Stewart and even Tolbert to help take the pressure off Newton.
Of course, both the running and passing games could suffer if the offensive line doesn't show some improvement this year.
The Panthers offensive line enters the season 29th in TSN.ca's rankings which could mean Newton is forced to scramble more than Shula would like him to.
A healthy Ryan Kalil, who missed all but five games last year, will certainly help the line and allow everyone else to play at their natural positions. Jordan Gross and Amini Silatolu give the Panthers a fairly effective left side, but the right side of the line could be a big problem. (-TSN.ca)
While the Panthers offensive unit remained largely intact this off-season, Carolina made a concerted effort to improve on defence.
NFC SOUTH PROJECTIONS
Surprising Division Winner
6th in NFC, wildcard berth
Defence holds them back
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Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers first- and second-round picks in the draft, addressed a major need for the team at defensive tackle. Lotulelei will start immediately and Short should also see quality minutes on the Carolina defensive line.
The additions at tackle should help the team's very productive defensive end duo of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy see less double teams this season giving them even more room off the edge. Johnson and Hardy combined for 23.5 sacks last season.
Having a solid front four should also free up middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL's reining defensive rookie of the year, to use his terrific instincts and make even more plays. Besides Kuechly, the Panthers could theoretically have one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL if only Jon Beason and Thomas Davis could stay healthy.
That is a major if though given that Beason has played just five games the last two years and is still recovering from off-season microfracture surgery on his right knee.
The secondary is the real weakness of Carolina's defence. Chris Gamble was an off-season salary cap casualty and even with the signings of veterans D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence, cornerback remains a problem spot for the Panthers.
It could be another year of the Panthers hoping the strength of their pass rush and front seven can mask the inefficiencies in the secondary.
What It All Means
The Panthers have made some good strides this off-season and if Cam Newton can transition to more of a pocket passer effectively, the Panthers could surprise and be in the hunt for a low playoff seed. There are a lot of question marks though, particularly on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary which could make it another tough season in Carolina. In a tough division, getting back into the post-season is a definite longshot. (-TSN.ca)
Special Teams: K G. Gano, P B. Nortman, KR T. Ginn, PR T. Ginn
Special Teams: K G. Gano, P B. Nortman, KR T. Ginn, PR T. Ginn
Fantasy - By The Numbers
QB Cam Newton didn't quite match his sensational rookie year as a sophomore last season, but he was still very good and there's plenty of fantasy value in a player that passes for 3,869 yards and 19 touchdowns, while running for 741 yards and eight touchdowns, as he did last season.
Get ready for the fantasy season with the latest from TSN.ca.
Rankings: QB | RB | WR | TE | DEF
Fantasy Schedules: AFC | NFC
2013 Auction Values: Cheat Sheet
Fantasy Depth Charts: AFC | NFC
Newton's running ability may help the Panthers, but it hasn't done much for the fantasy value of their running back tandem. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (coming off ankle surgeries) have both been held under 1,000 yards for three consecutive seasons, leaving them as useful depth players for fantasy purposes, with increasing value for one whenever the other is injured.
Veteran WR Steve Smith is still a good bet to gain 1,000 yards, as he has in six of the last eight seasons, but he's managed a total of 13 touchdowns in the last three years and that makes him no better than a secondary option in fantasy circles. WR Brandon LaFell could have some appeal in deep leagues, but TE Greg Olsen, coming off a career-best 843 yards last season, could be the real value in the Panthers' passing game.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are very productive. Johnson has 33 sacks over the last three seasons and Hardy broke through with 11 last season. Second-year MLB Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine, in on 165 stops as a rookie, and OLB Jon Beason could have value if he stays healthy, which is easier said than done, as he's played a total of five games in the last two seasons. (-Scott Cullen)