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2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Will Brinson | Senior NFL Blogger

Offense

What a difference a No. 1 pick makes: the Panthers went from the league's worst offense in 2010 to one of the most dangerous units in the NFL in 2011, literally doubling up their points-per-game production from 2010 (12.2 ppg) to 2011 (25.4 ppg). That's a result of Cam Newton posting one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history and changing the face of the franchise.

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Many observers are salivating for a sophomore slump, but Panthers fans should actually hope for one. Lower statistics for Newton will mean a more balanced attack and a better defense. Steve Smith's reminded everyone just how talented he was; he's one of the truly elite wideouts in the NFL. Greg Olsen returns as a key member of the aerial attack, although the addition of another versatile tight end would be nice at some point for Rob Chudzinski's offense. The Panthers clearly believe that either David Gettis or Brandon LaFell will break out this season.

The running game for Carolina is laughably stout: Cam, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were the first single-team trio in NFL history to rush for 700 yards each in a season. Mike Tolbert will only improve the red-zone attack.

Left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil are perennial Pro-Bowl players, but this could be a questionable unit in 2012. It's a make-or-break year for right tackle Jeff Otah. That much is clear with the acquisition of tackle Bruce Campbell and small-school, big-upside guy Amini Silatolu. There's upside for the line, but also potential danger.

Defense

It had to pain Ron Rivera, a defensive-minded coach, to watch this unit in 2011. After years of being known as a defense-first squad, the tables were turned on the Panthers last season. They registered just 31 sacks (25th in the NFL), gave up 4.6 yards per carry to opposing backs (24th) and allowed 130.8 yards per game on the ground (25th). Much of their troubles were injury-related: Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Sione Fua, Terrell McClain and Ron Edwards were just some of the guys that went down for extended portions of the season.

It wasn't all negative, though: Chris Gamble re-emerged as a top cornerback under the new coaching staff and linebacker James Anderson looked like a standout once he became the unit's best player. The front seven should be much stronger in 2011: Edwards is back and the McClain/Fua combo should improve. Charles Johnson, who recorded nine sacks last season, could be in for a bounce back with more talent around him. Greg Hardy's a wild card on the other side of the line, but has plenty of potential. Banking on Thomas Davis being healthy is like banking on red hitting 19 times in a row at a roulette table, but Beason seems like a reasonable bet to return to his old self.

I said it before the draft, and I still believe it: tackling machine Luke Kuechly is a perfect fit in Carolina and will be an immediate help when it comes to improving the lackluster rush defense. He's my early pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: Luke Kuechly, LB; Bruce Campbell, OL; Mike Tolbert, RB; Amini Silatulu, OL; J.J. Jansen, LS; Jason Phillips, LB; Jyles Tucker, DE; Nick Harris, P; Haruki Nakamura, S; Kenny Onatolu, LB; Joe Adams, WR

Roster Departures: Travelle Wharton, OL; Jeremy Shockey, TE; Jason Baker, P; Dan Connor, LB; Omar Gaither, LB; Mike Goodson, RB; Legedu Naanee, WR; DeMario Pressley, DE; Geoff Schwartz, OL

Staff: Rob Chudzinksi flirted with some job openings, but returned as the Panthers OC.

Given the Panthers' weaknesses in 2011, many fans wanted the team to attempt to overhaul the defense and wide receiving corps in the draft and/or on the market. Limited cap space kept them from getting crazy in the free-agency market for the second year in a row and Marty Hurney surprised everyone when he didn't use a single pick on a defensive tackle. That's primarily because Carolina believes the third-round picks they invested in Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last season will pay off in the form of an improved rushing defense that doesn't look like it was manufactured in a Switzerland cheese factory.

Obviously Kuechly will help the defense, but the moves Carolina pulled off are actually focused on a much more subtle (and important) goal: protecting Newton. The deal for Campbell, the slight reach for Silatolu in the second round (40th overall), the signing of a pass-catching, red-zone bowling ball like Tolbert ... these are all moves designed to keep Newton healthy over the course of 16 games.

X-Factor: Jon Beason

The offense will score points and the defense, by default, has to be better. How much it improves will likely be a result of how well the All-Pro linebacker bounces back from a torn Achilles he suffered early in 2010. If he's close to his old form, Carolina's theoretical starting corps of 'backers -- Beason, Kuechly and Anderson -- could match up with just about anyone in the league. Beason in good health would create a ripple effect across the entire defense, making it a much stouter unit than last season's.

Sophomore slump

The idea that Newton has to produce the same numbers he produced in 2011 is silly, and borderline ignorant. He'll still put up numbers, but if Newton's chucking the ball all over the place and scoring a bunch of short rushing touchdowns, it means the defense and rushing attack aren't doing their respective jobs. The number the Panthers care about improving is that digit in the W column, and a bad defense and rushing attack won't improve that. So, yeah, this is actually where Alex Smith might be correct to a degree.

Sack lunch

Johnson signed a big deal before 2010 but dropped off in terms of effectiveness last year. That wasn't all his fault; it's hard to rush the passer when teams are just handing the ball off and running it down your throat. It's also tough to get after quarterbacks when you're the focus of the offensive line. The Panthers must improve their pressure on quarterbacks this year, though, especially since Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Josh Freeman are all in for decent years. Hardy emerging as a secondary pass-rush threat would be crucial.

Rookie impact

Outside of Kuechly, the Panthers don't have the sexiest draft class in terms of name value. But if they hit the way they hope to on Silatolu and Arkansas receiver/returner Joe Adams, both the offensive line and the special teams unit will be vastly improved. Cornerback Josh Norman waited all of two months after being drafted to start trash talking Steve Smith; if he's as good as his mouth thinks he is, the secondary will be better too. Frank Alexander was an upside pick out of Oklahoma; if he can make an impact, that would be just gravy. The Panthers can succeed without their rookies making a huge impact, but if they want to make a push for an NFC South title, they'll need the youngsters to step up early on.

Insider's Take

"That is a scary offensive football team. The quarterback makes everyone better and they really believe one of their young receivers is going to break out to compliment Smith. Newton has just scratched the surface. They have the personnel to run some unique packages out of the backfield with Tolbert as a fullback, the two running backs, and Newton. A lot of options for Chudzinski there. They gave some games away last year. Very young team. They'll learn from that and be better."

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

The Carolina Panthers are feast and famine on the football field. The offense can and will feast on an opponent and the defense has been in a famine. Cam Newton is no ordinary quarterback and as one defensive coordinator said "he presents problems no other man in the league can present."

Panthers' Rivals: NFC South

2012 Preview • Schedule
Falcons @ Panthers: 12/9 (1 p.m. ET)
Panthers @ Falcons: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Saints @ Panthers: 9/16 (1 p.m. ET)
Panthers @ Saints: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Bucs @ Panthers: 11/18 (1 p.m. ET)
Panthers @ Bucs: 9/9 (4:15 p.m. ET)

The Panthers believe Newton is their red zone running attack from the shotgun. NFL defenses typically don't assign anyone to the quarterback especially as a runner but 14 rushing touchdowns by Newton got the attention of every defensive coordinator in the NFL this off season. The Panthers also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 26 so there is a legitimate run offense powered by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and both combined for close to 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The offseason addition of fullback Mike Tolbert tells me we will see more 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WR), especially on early downs. Early in Cam Newton's rookie season the Panthers used a lot of deep outside passing and kept the passing game simple.

Ron Rivera told me they went to Auburn and brought back the things Cam did well. As the season went on the offense emerged into a more complete passing game with more shallow crossing routes, screens and distribution to receivers not named Steve Smith. Seven different players had double digit receptions. Newton threw eight touchdown passes in his last four games last year to five different players. This year, the Panther offense should average close to 27 points a game, and they may need to with the defense still a work in progress.

Carolina's defense was the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL and was equally as bad against the run as the pass. They are listed as a 4-3 defense but Ron Rivera is really more of a hybrid coach and isn't opposed to using a 3-4 front if it suits his talent. If the Panthers incur injuries in the front seven he will manipulate the scheme to survive.

There is a lot of pressure on DE Greg Hardy to deliver opposite DE Charles Johnson. Johnson got paid to be an elite pass rusher and will see the protection schemes go to him, which means Hardy has to beat a single block to get to the QB. When the Panthers generated 1 or less sacks in a game last year the team went 0-5. Hardy had four sacks all season. Ron Rivera's defense couldn't slow down the division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans. The Panthers went 0-4 against them and gave up 138 points (34.5 per game).

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

A year after general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera gambled and won big with quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the 2011 draft, the team added its quarterback of the defense with instinctive and reliable All-American middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Panthers Draft Analysis

Kuechly's awareness and reliable open-field tackling could help him post impressive numbers as a rookie. If helped by further development from a young (but talented) rotation of defensive tackles, Carolina might be able to improve significantly on a run defense that finished 25th in the NFL a year ago.

Another potentially strong pick was return specialist and wide receiver Joe Adams in the fourth round (No. 104 overall), in large part due to the former Arkansas Razorback's potential to instantly improve a special teams unit that finished dead last in 2011.

Adams is second in Arkansas history with 164 career catches for 2,410 yards and 17 touchdowns, but his primary role early on for the Panthers will be as a punt returner. His offensive production at Arkansas was enhanced by Bobby Petrino's aggressive scheme and strong quarterback play.

The rest of the Panthers' picks:

1st Round - No. 9 overall - Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
2nd Round - No. 40 overall - Amini Silatolu, OG, Midwestern State
4th Round - No. 103 overall - Frank Alexander, DE, Oklahoma
4th Round - No. 104 overall - Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
5th Round - No. 143 overall - Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina
6th Round - No. 207 overall - Brad Nortman, P, Wisconsin
7th Round - No. 216 overall - D.J. Campbell, FS, California

 
 
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