The Carolina Panthers were a team that continued to show promise in 2012 finishing the season with a 7-9 record, and 3-3 in the NFC South. The Panthers were a lot better than their record considering that seven out of nine of their losses were by less than 10 points, and they finished the season on a 4 game winning streak.
Now heading into their third season together head coach Ron Rivera, and quarterback Cam Newton should be on the same page to get this team back into the playoffs this season. Newton has all the tools it takes to be a top quarterback in the league, and by showing up to to all the Panthers off-season activities has clearly shown he is ready to take charge and lead this season instead of get mad and pout.
To go along with the work Newton is putting in this off-season, he has also stated how he would like to eventually become the Panthers offensive captain when time comes to replace Jordan Gross or Steve Smith.
With the strong desire to be a leader this season, Newton has embraced new offensive coordinator Mike Shula and his new play book. Newton has been running plays at a higher tempo this offense due to the simplified layout of the plays.
Newton has even gone as far as mentioning how much easier calling pays in the huddle has been and getting the offense back to the line. With the offense that the Panthers run, they need to make sure defenses to not have time to make substitutions.
Newton is not the only player excited about the future of this team and what this offense can do, wide receiver Steve Smith has embraced the cut throat approach that has been taken amongst the receiving corp. New Panthers Domenik Hixon and Tedd Ginn Jr. are both players capable of putting together 1000 yard seasons if they can get their hands on the ball.
As for now Brandon LaFell has done enough to maintain his starting job opposite Smith, but better watch out with David Gettis making big plays that are are catching the eye of coach Rivera.
While the Panthers are spending a lot of off-season time trying to find the perfect compliment for Smith, they are also looking for a dominate running back that can stay on the field and endure the nicks and bruises that go along with a 16 game season.
Last season disgruntled running back Jonathan Stewart was finally given a $36 million six year extension to only play in 9 games and run for 336 yards and 1 touchdown.
The Panthers leading rushers last season were Newton with 741 yards then DeAngelo Williams with 737 yards. Williams was rewarded with a cut in pay for his productivity last season making it a mystery why he even wanted to stick around this season.
So far though camp Stewart has been limited to mostly stretching, playing catch, and riding a bicycle since he is recovering from off season ankle surgery. Williams on the other hand has been seen running around enjoying himself while getting the bulk of the carries with the first team players that are in camp.
Rookie Kenjon Barner has also shown a desire to want to run the ball making a couple of big plays that turned coaches heads. With Barner in camp there is still a good chance that Williams will be traded with a good start to the season.
With all the questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense offers the same amount of questions that coaches are looking for answers for.
The biggest question is what kind of impact will rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei have this season after being selected in the first round. Last season linebacker Luke Kuechly walked away with Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Lotulelei possibly could follow in his footsteps.
The biggest play-makers on defense so far have been cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Josh Norman. Both players have already made to spectacular interceptions with Norman diving for his minus the pads.
Linebacker Jon Beason is also showing strong play and leadership this spring instead of sitting on the side watching like he was expected to do. Beason and Chase Blackburn will make a nasty combination this year if that is how the rotation stays.
This Panthers team is set up perfectly to make a playoff run this season and should finish the season with an 11-5 overall record, and 4-2 in the NFC South. If Newton can put together a season he is capable of he very well could hear his name in the MVP discussion at the end of the season.
Now with all organized team activities completed, the Panthers will have their mandatory mini-camps June 11-13.