The 2011 Carolina Panthers were one of the league’s most entertaining teams. They played in, and lost, more close games than any team would like to, including going toe-to-toe with two of the NFL’s best teams: Green Bay and New Orleans. The team was a few small breaks away from being a .500 or better team. Instead, they finished a disappointing 6-10.
In 2012, the Panthers want to transition from an exciting football team to a winning one.
With Offensive rookie of the year Cam Newton leading the way, the Panthers look to improve on a season that saw their offense go from worst in the NFL in 2010 all the way to 7th last year. The team saw a resurgence of lifetime Panther, Steve Smith who confessed that he only stayed in Charlotte for the chance to play with Newton.
In the backfield, the team returns the speedy DeAngelo Williams, and the power runner Jonathan Stewart. To make them even tougher to play against, Carolina brought in full back Mike Tolbert from San Diego. He is expected to get the bulk of the goal line carries which is as close to guaranteed touchdown as there can be.
With as many positives that Carolina has going for them heading into 2012, there is one glaring negative for second-year head coach Ron Rivera’s squad: their awful defense.
Last season, Carolina gave up franchise highs in points (429), yards (6042), and passing yards (3949). It was an open shooting gallery for opposing quarterbacks each and every week.
The defense should get a boost however when All-Pro linebacker Jon Beason returns from a knee injury that cost him nearly all of the 2011 season, and when first round pick Luke Kuechly joins the team to provide some skill in the middle.
Nonetheless, the team still has a bit to go before really becoming a contender, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in playoff contention late in the season.
2011 Record: 6-10
Key Additions: LB – Luke Kuechly (Drafted)
S – Haruki Nakamura – Baltimore
G – Mike Pollak – Indianapolis
FB – Mike Tolbert
Key Losses: G – Mackenzy Bernadeau – Dallas
LB – Dan Conner – Dallas
WR – Legadu Naanee – Miami
Offense: QB – Cam Newton: Face it, Newton IS the Carolina Panthers right now. If he goes out with injury, which isn’t out of the possibility given the amount he runs, the Panthers go from an 8 win team to a 2-3 win squad. It’s reasonable to believe that he will put up even better numbers than the 4,000 passing yards, and 35 total touchdowns, 21 passing, 14 rushing, that he put up last season. The Panthers sink or swim with Newton, end of story.
WR – Steve Smith: Smith rejuvenated his career in 2011 by posting 1,394 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns with Cam Newton as his quarterback. Smith, who is still the team’s most explosive player, is Carolina’s primary deep threat. However, with a lack of a true number 2 receiver, Smith will face double teams more often than not. His exceptional route running ability should still allow him to hit the 1,000 yard mark, though.
Defense: LB – Jon Beason: When the Panthers lost Beason at the beginning of last season you could just sense that the defense’s moral dropped. They went on to have one of the worst defensive seasons in team history. With Beason back, the defense won’t be tops in the league, but it will certainly be better than last year.
LB – Luke Kuechly: The Panthers drafted Kuechly with the expectations that he will make an impact this season, but really became a star in a couple of years. Well, Kuechly has been a stud for Carolina and then some. He has been all over the field in practice, and has been working to establish himself as a defensive leader for years to come. If he stays healthy, the Panthers have a future star on their hands in Kuechly.
Coaching: For second year coach Ron Rivera, he just needs to focus on building off the promise of last season. He has his quarterback of the future, a star receiver, a two-headed monster running back duo, and a fierce linebacker unit. If he can just figure out a gameplan to get his team to reach their max potential, you could be looking at the 2012 Coach of the Year.
Breakout Player: Luke Kuechly: I’m going with the safe choice for my breakout player. He has shown flashes of brilliance on the field, and should be a very solid player for the Panthers this season. I don’t think he will be a pro-bowler this year, but give him a couple years and look out.
2012 Prediction: I truly feel that the offense will be just as good, if not better, than last season. If the defense can just be a little bit better than what they were in 2011, the Panthers could contend for a wild card spot. I see strong things for the Panthers in the future, and this year will be another stepping stone towards greatness. I think they finish 9-7.
Overview: Carolina is a team full of potential. If they stay healthy and can just plug in a few pieces in the secondary and defensive line then you could be witness the birth of a great team for years to come.
How do you think the Panthers will fare in 2012? Leave a comment or let me know on twitter, @MikeStrawQCS