Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is the new head coach in Cleveland, which means quarterbacks coach Mike Shula takes over running the offense. Expect a more conventional approach on offense with Shula.
He will try and keep quarterback Cam Newton in the pocket more, which is the right thing to do. Newton has grown as a passer and he needs to be able to do more of it. Even as big as he is, he needs to be more of a pocket passer. He's more than capable of that.
All 11 starters return on offense, which helps. To help liven up the passing game, the Panthers did sign veteran receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon as free agents. They will battle for the No. 3 receiver spot. Most of the new player additions will be on defense. First-round pick Star Lotulelei will be an immediate starter at defensive tackle, a position that really hurt the Panthers last year. In the secondary, the Panthers signed a group of veterans in corners D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence and safety Mike Mitchell. The pass defense has to be better, especially since they have such good edge rushers.
The battles to see who starts at corner should rage all through training camp. Florence and Moore will be in the mix along with Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman, a second-year player the Panthers really like. It isn't a strong position -- no matter who wins the jobs.
The starting running back job will again be up for grabs in a fight between Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Both are overpaid for what they've given the team, but one has to start. Both have ability, but their numbers aren't as good as their paychecks.
A more conventional offense will mean less of the read-option for Newton, which makes sense. It's time for him to play in the pocket. Look for more push to throw the ball down the field and get away from all the gimmicky stuff.
Safety Haruki Nakamura was a 13-game starter in 2012, but he lacks the range that teams need from their safeties nowadays. With the addition of some younger players, he could go from starter to off the roster, although he can help on special teams.
Unheard-of-guy to watch
Robert Lester was a starter on those good Alabama defenses that keyed their National Championships. But he was not drafted. He doesn't have great speed, which hurt. But he has done a decent job so far for the Panthers and could be in the mix to battle for the starting safety job opposite Charles Godfrey.
Who plays corner? Chris Gamble retired, which leaves an open competition heading to camp. Whoever starts has to be better than what was on the field last season. With two good rush ends in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, the secondary doesn't need to be great -- just better.
Can they transition to a more pass-heavy offense under Shula? I think they can. Newton has the tools and they have some good weapons outside. They do need a third receiver to step up, which is why Hixon could be key. Also keep an eye on Joe Adams.
Something to prove
Veteran linebacker Jon Beason has been plagued by injuries, playing just five games the past two seasons. When he's on the field, he's a heck of player. But he has to stay there. He has to show that the injury bug is behind him. He's had three surgeries in 17 months. That's a lot of overcome.
The Panthers regressed in 2012, but look for this team to be better in 2013 if they can improve on the defensive side of the ball. Newton could be ready for a huge season.