|Cam Newton's arrival last season seemed to give receiver Steve Smith's career new life. (US Presswire)|
A year ago, the Carolina Panthers were heading to the draft with a new coach, coming off a two-win season, and the owners of the very first pick.
That pick, quarterback Cam Newton, has changed the team's fortunes in a big way.
Newton's electrifying play gave the team's stodgy offense a shot in the arm and hope for the future. Newton won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and served notice that he can be much more than that.
Injuries crippled the Panthers as they went 6-10 under first-year coach Ron Rivera. But with a lot of young players returning, coupled with Newton's expected growth, the Panthers just might be ready to push for a playoff spot.
The key will be the improvement of the defense, which finished ranked 28th last season. That has to be closer to a top-10 unit. I would expect several picks to be used on that side of the ball.
It's funny how differently people look at this team now compared to just one year ago.
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Newton did that.
QB: Newton threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns and also ran for 14 TDs. His ability to get outside the pocket created a lot of problems for opposing defenses. I think his maturity as a passer surprised some. He did throw 17 interceptions, so mistakes came. But he seemed sure of himself from Week 1. He will cut down on the mistakes as he grows more comfortable. The backups are Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen, but neither one threw a pass last season. They could hold things down for a game or two, but if Newton goes down for much longer than that, the Panthers could be in big trouble.
RB: This is a running back-heavy team. In DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers have a nice pair. Williams is the speed back, while Stewart gives them power. Both averaged 5.4 per rush, although neither got to 1,000 yards in part because Newton was so good as a rookie. Mike Tolbert was signed as a free agent from San Diego to be the fullback. He can also help in short-yardage situations.
WR: There was some talk before last season that Steve Smith was slowing down. He showed that wasn't true. Smith caught 79 passes and averaged 17.6 yards per catch with seven touchdowns. He will again be Newton's go-to guy, but Smith does need more help from the other side. Brandon LaFell was second best in terms of catches among returning receivers with 36. David Gettis is expected back after suffering a torn ACL. Legedu Naanee, who caught 44 passes, won't be back. There isn't much in reserve. They could use help here from the draft.
TE: Greg Olsen caught 45 passes in his first season with Carolina after coming over from Chicago. He should do even more with Jeremy Shockey gone. The backup is expected to be Gary Barnidge, with Ben Hartsock and Richie Brockel as blocking tight ends. They need more help.
OL: The strength of the unit is left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil. Both are among the best at their positions. There are questions at the other spots. Right tackle Jeff Otah is dominant when he's on the field, but injuries have limited his time. He played in just four games last season before going on IR with a knee injury. He is expected back, but for how long? The team will have a new left guard in Mike Pollak, who was signed as a free agent from the Colts. The other guard will be Geoff Hangartner, who started all 16 games last season. Byron Bell started 12 games as a rookie at right tackle for Otah, and he could also move inside to guard. They also traded to get Bruce Campbell from the Raiders. He can play both guard and tackle. The key here is Otah's health.
DL: The best player is defensive end Charles Johnson, who had nine sacks after getting a big contract to stay last summer. Johnson plays hard and can hold up against the run in addition to pressuring the QB. But he has little help around him. Greg Hardy, who was expected to do more at the other end, had just four sacks. That's not good enough. Thomas Keiser showed flashes as a backup. Eric Norwood is a young player that has to show more to get on the field. Antwan Applewhite is a situational guy who had two sacks. Inside play took a hit early when Ron Edwards was lost for the season. That forced a lot of inexperienced players onto the field. Sione Fua and Terrell McClain are two 2011 rookies the team has high hopes for inside. There is some depth in Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse. They could use help outside for the pass rush.
LB: This unit took a hit when Jon Beason was lost for the season in the first game with a torn Achilles tendon. Beason is expected back, but will the injury affect his quickness? James Anderson led the team in tackles from his outside linebacker spot and will again be a starter. The other spot is up for grabs. Veteran Thomas Davis is coming off his third knee injury, but he will get another chance. There isn't a lot of quality depth, so they could use some picks here. Jordan Senn is more of a special-teams player.
DB: Corner Chris Gamble is coming off one of his best seasons and probably should have been in the Pro Bowl. He proved why the team gave him a big contract, but he needs help. Captain Munnerlyn and Darius Butler, a New England reject, both started games there and neither made a case to keep the job. The player to watch is Brandon Hogan, a second-year player from West Virginia. The safety spots are both up for grabs. Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin will try to hold off free-agent signees Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith. Godfrey will be the more likely player to keep his job.