2011 Carolina Panthers preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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The Panthers spent millions re-signing core players, but drafting Cam Newton topped their wish list. (US Presswire)  
The Panthers spent millions re-signing core players, but drafting Cam Newton topped their wish list. (US Presswire)  

2010 RECORD: 2-14 (fourth, NFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Arizona, 33-13, in NFC divisional round

COACH (RECORD): Ron Rivera (first year with Panthers, first overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rob Chudzinski

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Sean McDermott

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 13th rushing, 32nd passing, 32nd scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 23rd rushing, 11th passing, 26th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Cam Newton (first round, Auburn), TE Greg Olsen (from Bears), TE Jeremy Shockey (from New Orleans), DT Terrell McClain (third round, South Florida), DT Sione Fua (third round, Stanford), K Olindo Mare (from Seahawks), WR Legedu Naanee (from Chargers), LB Omar Gaither (from Eagles), QB Derek Anderson (from Cardinals), TE Ben Hartsock (from Jets), S Sean Considine (from Jaguars)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Matt Moore (to Dolphins), CB Richard Marshall (to Cardinals), TE Jeff King (to Cardinals), TE Dante Rosario (to Broncos), K John Kasay (released), DE Tyler Brayton (released), DT Derek Landri (free agent)

SO WHO'S NUMBER TWO?: Feeling a need to send a message to second-year WRs Brandon LaFell (38 receptions, 1 TD) and David Gettis (37 receptions, 3 TD), coach Ron Rivera brought in free agent WR Legedu Naanee from San Diego to compete for the No. 2 receiver spot. When asked what prompted the move, Rivera said bluntly, "Probably the biggest thing is we've had nobody step up other than Steve (Smith). We've got to find guys that are going to step up and challenge for the position." LaFell and Gettis have missed several practices early on with hamstring injuries. Naanee has spent the past four years in Norv Turner's offense -- the same system the Panthers plan to use -- but has never caught more than 35 passes in a season. The Panthers are high on second-year WR Armanti Edwards but still feel he's too raw to work as the No. 2 guy. The good news here is the Panthers added TEs Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey to the mix and both should be valuable weapons and take pressure off Smith and Carolina's No. 2 receiver, whoever that will be.

HELMET CAM: The Panthers signed veteran QB Derek Anderson as a security blanket because he knows Rob Chudzinski's offensive system, but make no mistake about it, the team wants No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton to win the starting job right away. That would mean they could avoid having to start Anderson, who was benched twice last year in Arizona, or Jimmy Clausen (1-9 as a starter, 3 TDs), who finished with the league's worst quarterback rating (58.4) in 2010. Of course, the big question: Will Newton be ready? He only played one season at the Division I level, although he managed to lead Auburn to the national championship and win the Heisman Trophy. The Panthers already have run plays installed to utilize Newton's athleticism and it didn't take long for him to make an impression on coach Ron Rivera who, when asked about the No. 1 pick, simply said, "Wow!" Regardless, Rivera admits that both Newton and Clausen are "definitely in the developmental stage. The thing to understand is that this is a complex offense, but once you understand the concepts of what we do, I think things start to come easy. They're just learning that part of it."

TACKLING A BIG QUESTION: General manager Marty Hurney knew the team's biggest area of concern on defense coming into the season was at defensive tackle, a position that clearly lacked playmakers. That's why the Panthers drafted DTs Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round and signed free agent NT Ron Edwards from Kansas City to take up space in the middle. But one week into camp Edwards tore his triceps and he's expected to be lost for the season. That puts the Panthers back in the market for a tackle. They don't have much experience at defensive tackle with their roster consisting of only Nick Hayden, Corvey Irvin, Andre Neblett and the two rookies. MLB Jon Beason had been excited about having Edwards as his "bodyguard," figuring he would take some blockers off him allowing him to run downhill and make plays. Beason even asked Edwards, "Do you like surf and turf? You take care of me and I'll take care of you." The Panthers know what it's like to lose defensive tackles early in camp. A couple of years ago they lost Maake Kemoeatu to a torn Achilles' and it took several weeks to find an adequate replacement.

KICKING GAME CHANGES: In a move that took just about everyone by surprise, the Panthers released K John Kasay this offseason and replaced him with Olindo Mare. The Panthers signed Mare, 38, because he has a stronger leg on kickoffs, which saves them from carrying a kickoff specialist and frees up a roster spot. Over the past five seasons, Mare has 103 touchbacks to Kasay's seven. However, Kasay has actually been more accurate on field goals. Since 2006, Kasay has made 86.6 percent of his field goals (123 of 142) with the Panthers, while Mare has only connected on 80.1 percent (109 of 136) of his attempts during his time with Seattle, New Orleans and Miami. And, even more surprising, Kasay has been much more accurate from beyond 50 yards. Kasay has converted 55 percent (11 of 20) from that distance, while Mare has converted only 35.2 percent (6 of 17). The good news for the Panthers is Mare has stepped his game significantly the past three years, connecting on 87.9 percent (73 of 83) of his field goals, including 66.7 percent (4 of 6) from beyond 50 yards.

FINAL WORD: Like other teams with new coaching staffs, the Panthers are trying to cram four months of coaching into a couple of weeks of training camp. They missed 24 practices in OTAs and minicamp because of the lockout. That means practices have been moving at a swift pace as the Panthers try to install as much as possible. The big question will be how quickly the players catch on, particularly the quarterbacks. Carolina ranked last in the league in passing last year and desperately need some stability at that position. The Panthers spent millions re-signing their core playrs, but finding a quarterback who can play is on top of their wish list. And that's why they drafted Newton.

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