Here's where things start to go a little downhill in the Queen City.
In regards to the Cam-run offense, it's hard to give them anything but high marks. They finished seventh in the league in total offense (including third in the run) and fifth in scoring. But coming into the season, everyone expected the team's solid defense to carry Carolina through Newton's rookie season.
How did that turn out? The squad finished 28th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense, allowing 377.6 yards per game over the course of the season.
Now, a lot of this has can be traced backed to injuries suffered by the Panthers—and no position suffered more from injuries than the linebacking corps. When healthy, the three-headed monster of Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis is one of the strongest in the league.
Beason is an All-Pro player and will be quarterbacking Carolina's defense for years to come, but he went down in week one with an Achilles injury and was lost for the season. While everything looks good for his return next season, Thomas Davis has shown us just how injuries can linger and potentially derail a career. I hope the Panthers are cautious about getting Beason back on the field, especially with backup Dan Connor expected to leave via free agency.
Connor has been a godsend, not necessarily for how he's played, but how much he's been needed to over the past two seasons. Not only did the Penn State product start in Beason's place all of last season (finishing third on the team in tackles with 75), but he helped fill the void left by Thomas Davis' second ACL injury in 2010.
He's not anywhere near the talent Beason is, but he's shown that he has starting talent and should find an opportunity to do so for another team this offseason.
What should the Panthers do with Thomas Davis?
While Connor did a serviceable job filling in for Beason last season, he hasn't played as an interior linebacker for the Panthers and that inexperience showed at time, especially against the run. The Panthers ranked 31st in the NFL yards per carry on runs up the middle; while a lot of that falls on the responsibility of the defensive tackles, Connor certainly wasn't racking up the tackles around the line of scrimmage either (only three were for loss).
Back in 2008, Davis teased us all by putting together a season where he tallied 113 tackles (nine for a loss) and 3.5 sacks. He followed it up with even more impressive numbers to start the 2009 season, before suffering through three ACL injuries in three years. He's a cautionary tale to players on just how physically taxing football can be, and there are many (including myself) who believe his knees will never fully heal.
There's talk of the Panthers cutting ties with Davis this offseason, and I think they should. It makes sense financially and it allows Carolina to finally seek out his replacement. If they do, they may manage to convince Connor to continue his career with Panthers. Otherwise, they'll need to use one of their higher draft picks to find someone who's starter material.
Filling in for Davis last season was the tandem of Jason Williams and Jordan Senn. After the Cowboys waved him in early in the 2010, the Panthers picked up Williams off waivers a month later. He started twice in four games before going down with an ACL injury, and entered 2011 backing up James Anderson on the depth chart.
Following the injury to Davis, Williams picked up a pair of starts in weeks three and four, where he was largely unimpressive. A solid special teams player, Williams isn't starter-material in the NFL, but does provide the Panthers with some depth.
One of the more surprising storylines of 2011 was the late emergence of Jordan Senn. After two seasons of special teams duties in Carolina, Senn was finally given some playing time to help a decimated defense. He showed progress, and was given a chance to start Week 7 against Detroit, and never let go of it. He compiled 67 tackles in seven weeks and actually recorded the most sacks in the NFL from Week 15 through Week 17.
He put up one of the most impressive defensive performances of the season in Carolina's Week 15 win over Houston, recording 14 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. There's no telling where he'll fall on the depth chart next season—it could be anywhere from Davis' replacement to once again buried on the depth chart.
Apart from Senn's spectacular finish, Anderson was really the only real bright spot at the position in 2011. He recorded a franchise record 145 tackles and has lead the team in that category each of the last two seasons. As paltry as the Panthers were against the run, Anderson excels at it clogging up running lanes with the best in the league.
However, he's not the most mobile player in Carolina's defensive unit, which hampers his ability to get after the quarterback or play well in coverage. Still, he's one of the better linebackers in the division, and most effective when he can play in his natural position on the weak-side.
2011 Performance Grade: C
You can point the finger at injuries here. Despite how well some of the reserves played, you can only get but so much production out of second and third-stringers. Linebacker is one of the "need" areas the Panthers should pursue this offseason—but they need depth rather than starting talent.
If Beason and Davis both return healthy, they'll be drastically better without having to add anyone. The question mark is Davis. How will he play after missing 39 games over three seasons, and if he's not healthy, what should the Panthers do?
UP NEXT: Defensive Tackles