Football Nation Preview: The 2013 Carolina Panthers
2012 Record: 7-9
Cam Newton's character was forced to dodge bullets after a lopsided loss to the Giants in Week 3. Newton went into his 'Super-Cam' posturing after a 1-yard rushing touchdown, but there was an issue: that was Carolina's first score of the game, and New York was up 23-7.
The Panthers would lose eight of their first ten games, and six of those losses were by a touchdown or less. The team hacked away close games against the Falcons and Bears, and suffered a bitter overtime loss to Tampa Bay in mid-November.
The run defense was a big part of those woes early on. In the first ten games, Carolina gave up 100+ yards on the ground six times, and four of those games were losses. Even Atlanta, with its diminished running game, racked up 121 ground yards against the Panthers.
Line Doesn't Back Up Offense's Potential
Before the 2012 season, it seemed as if the Panthers were about to make "the leap". With evolutionary quarterback Newton silencing many critics in 2011, he was imbued with high-caliber blocking back Mike Tolbert in free agency. Along with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, this looked to be a nightmare for run defenses everywhere.
But the offensive line was beset with problems last season. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil missed 11 games with a foot injury. Guard Ryan Hangartner took over at center, while seldom-used guard Jeff Byers was inserted into the line-up.
As such, the potential for the offense was stunted. A team with such rushing prowess only topped 150 YPG as a team in three of their first twelve games. Newton was sacked 36 times, tying him with Tony Romo for sixth most QB snuffs in the league.
2013 Projected Wins: 6.5
Top 3 Rookies
-Star Lotulelei, DT (1/14): The Panthers were average in run-stopping, and get this Pac-12 monster, who can prevent lanes from opening, and knife between most linemen.
-Kawaan Short, DT (2/44): The counterpoint to Lotulelei; a long-armed pass rusher who can knock down throws, but also has the leg power to be stout vs. the run.
-Edmund Kugbila, G (4/108): Poor academics cost him a chance at a Division I school, but the native son of Ghana caught the eyes of scouts with great blocking at Valdosta State.
If the draft was designed to shore up the front of the defense, the free agency period afforded Carolina a chance to enhance the secondary. Within the first few days, the Panthers signed cornerbacks Drayton Florence (coming off an injury-filled 2012 in Detroit), and nickel corner DJ Moore from the Bears.
Helping fill out the body of the D are safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Chase Blackburn. Mitchell works as an effective blitzing safety (something coordinator Sean McDermott learned under the late Jim Johnson), while Blackburn was solid in 15 starts last year.
Blackburn's Giants teammate Dominik Hixon, as well as the 49ers' Ted Ginn, will supplement Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, as well as bolster the return game. DeAngelo Williams reworked his contract, and is no longer subject to any possible trades.
Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Cam Newton
RB - Jonathan Stewart
FB - Mike Tolbert
WR - Steve Smith
WR - Brandon LaFell
TE - Greg Olsen
LT - Jordan Gross
LG - Amini Silatolu
C - Ryan Kalil
RG - Geoff Hangartner
RT - Byron Bell
DE - Greg Hardy
DT - Dwan Edwards
NT - Star Lotulelei
DE - Charles Johnson
OLB - Thomas Davis
MLB - Luke Kuechly
OLB - Jon Beason
CB - Captain Munnerlyn
CB - Josh Norman
FS - Haruki Nakamura
SS - Charles Godfrey
K - Graham Gano
P - Brad Nortman
LS - JJ Jansen
2013 at a Glance
With Carolina sitting at 1-5, general manager Marty Hurney was canned last October. It seemed as though Rivera was doomed, especially when the team sunk to 3-9 in early December. However, the team rattled off four straight victories (including a convincing upset of Atlanta) to finish 7-9, and slightly better than their 2011 season.
Replacing Hurney is David Gettleman, who is said to be more frugal with team money. The restructuring of Williams' contract saves the team $3.2M.
Even so, Rivera goes into 2013 with a team $8.5M under the cap, and little done to improve their troubled offensive line. Kalil is progressing slowly from his Lisfranc injury, but should be ready for the season.
However, there is no more Rob Chudzinski to guide the offense. Coach Chud took the lead job in Cleveland, which led to the team promoting Mike Shula into the role.
Shula has spent nine of the last 13 seasons as a quarterback coach (with the Dolphins, Jaguars, and Panthers), but did have a four-year run as offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay (1996-99). During that time, the Buccaneers never once finished in the top half of the NFL in yards or points.
Shula, according to Rivera, will be simplifying the offense from Chudzinski's methods, allowing for less confusion, and possibly easier use of no-huddle when needed.
Shula has also indicated the need for Newton to be mentally stable, after his maturity and actions came under fire last season.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott presided over an improved defense in 2012, thanks to the fumble-forcing skills of rookie-of-the-year Luke Kuechly and the dominance of ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.
With Lotulelei and Short in the fold, the club looks to sand the edges off their defense. Areas where they help improved are running yards per attempt (4.23 in 2012, 17th best) and, if the hurries work, interceptions (11, tying them for 23rd place).
Though the secondary received attention in the signings of Florence, Moore, and Mitchell, it appears Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman are still penciled in as starting corners. Rivera, however, has been trying different combinations at OTAs. If anything, the aging Florence may be used best as a combo nickelback/learning tree.
Linebacker Jon Beason has missed 27 games over the past two seasons, but was sprinting at OTAs. If healthy, he Kuechly, and Thomas Davis could be one of the game's most formidable linebacking groups.
Between a simplified offense loaded with weapons, and a good defensive front seven that's getting even better, Carolina has lots to look forward to this coming season. On the other side of the coin, the offensive line and the secondary provide many concerns.
The offensive line hasn't proven capable of nurturing the dynamics of the offense, and the secondary lacks a definitive alpha. Can the Panthers still succeed in spite of these concerns? They're in a very tough division, and Rivera knows his job is likely hanging in the balance.