Reasons To Believe
1. On The Attack - Newton instantly became one of the most exciting players at his position early in 2011. He turned the Panthers into one of the most-watched teams in the league with his hard work and athleticism. Newton is a special player with a good crop of pass catchers in Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen. The Rookie of the Year still has room to grow as a passer and will likely share more carries near the goal line, but he is the first step towards helping Carolina make up ground on the powerhouses in the NFC South.
2. Defensive Hunters - The Panthers will get their leader back on defence, Jon Beason, although it might not be in Week 1. Beason has a hamstring issue after recovering from a torn Achilles. Beason will be joined by first round pick Luke Kuechly, who is a complete player that is slated to start at weak side linebacker. James Anderson had an off year while playing with an injury, so he should be back to his 2010 form. This unit should be one of the most improved on the team.
3. Depth In The Backfield - With Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers have one of the best backfield tandems in all of football. Both players have been signed to big contracts and both players are capable of carrying the load if the other goes down with an injury. Carolina also went out and added former Charger Mike Tolbert to the mix. While Tolbert won't threaten to take away many carries, he could be used around the goal line as a battery ram back.
Reasons To Doubt
1. Strong Finish - Fans of the Panthers will point to their 4-2 mark in the last six weeks of the season as a sign of what is to come in 2012. Expectations should be tempered since three of the wins came against the Colts and Buccaneers (twice), as well as a Houston Texans team that was without starting quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson. The four late wins are a positive sign for the franchise, but they aren't a playoff team yet.
2. Defensive Struggles - The Panthers defence ranked 27th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed and was the main cause for the team's losing record in 2011. Carolina has serious weaknesses at defensive tackle and safety. The team will start Terrell McClain and Ron Edwards in the middle of their defensive line, two draft picks from 2011 that have underperformed. At safety Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura will get the call and neither player can help make up for the team's deficiencies against the run or pass.
3. Overspending On Backs - A year after signing Williams to a new contract that included $21 million in guaranteed money, the Panthers inexplicably inked Stewart to a five-year, $36.5 million deal that had $22.5 million in guarantees. To compound matters, the Panthers signed Mike Tolbert to a four-year, $8.4 million contract this off-season. At one of the easiest positions to find serviceable players, Carolina has committed significant cap dollars that may prevent them from bringing in talent on the defensive side of the ball.
What To Expect
Newton will lead the charge in 2012 and the Panthers will gain fans each week with their playmaking ability on offence. Unfortunately, their defence will continue to hold them back and they will end the year outside of the playoff race. The organization is heading in the right direction, but they will need another draft class or two to improve enough to challenge.