Several Carolina Panthers need to get on Cam Newton's level in 2012.
2011 was a year of firsts for the Carolina Panthers (6-10).
It was Ron Rivera's first year as an NFL head coach, and he guided a moribund, 2-14 Panthers team from 2010 to a six-win season and out of the NFC South cellar.
It was Cam Newton's first year as an NFL quarterback and he established several NFL firsts at his position along the way to NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
2011 was also a year of worsts for Carolina.
The Panthers fielded arguably the league's worst overall special teams when they surrendered three returns for touchdown, finished 30th in punt return average and had a field goal kicker who seemed to choke whenever the game was on the line.
Despite Rivera's defensive pedigree, the injury-riddled unit that is paid to stop the opposition ranked among the NFL's worst defenses in every major statistical category, finishing in the bottom 25 percent of the league in points, rushing yards, passing yards and total yards allowed.
Room to improve
The Panthers improved by leaps and bounds offensively in 2011 with the addition of Newton and under the direction of offensive coordinator Rob "Chud" Chudzinski.
Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney are looking to the 2012 NFL draft to shore up weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball just as well.
As Newton famously said in his 2011 interview with ESPN The Magazine, there are several Carolina players who need to "get on [his] level" in 2012 if they and the Panthers are going to have a successful season.
Here's a look at five guys who need to step it up in 2012...or get to steppin'.
Captain Munnerlyn (41) breaks up a pass against Minnesota's Percy Harvin.
2011 was a difficult year for Captain Munnerlyn in his first season replacing Richard Marshall as the Panthers’ starting cornerback opposite Chris Gamble.
With Gamble having a Pro Bowl-caliber season in which he allowed the fourth-lowest completion percentage among NFL cornerbacks (45.0 percent), opposing quarterbacks targeted Munnerlyn with a great deal of success.
While Munnerlyn had a solid season as one of the team’s top special teams players, he gave up the worst completion percentage in the NFL(73.8 percent) among starting cornerbacks.
At 5’8” and 186 pounds, Munnerlyn is smaller than most of the receivers he faces and he often looks physically overmatched.
The Panthers will look to upgrade their 28th-ranked defense in the 2012 NFL draft, and while many draft boards show Carolina taking a defensive lineman with the ninth overall pick, Rivera and Hurney would be remiss to pass over top-ranked collegiate cornerback Morris Claiborne out of LSU if he is available.
Munnerlyn was a liability at the cornerback position in 2011 and I don’t see him succeeding as a full-time starting cornerback in the NFL, but he can contribute positively to the Panthers defense in 2012 if he moves back to the nickel position, where he played well in his first two NFL seasons.
Step-It-Up Scale: Seven. Captain is the Panthers' Tim Tebow. He's a good football player but he's not that good at the position he wants to play.
Greg Hardy (76) pressures the Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan.
Greg Hardy is a solid point-of-attack player who holds the line of scrimmage well and plays the run better than the Panthers' NFL-worst 5.62 yards per carry (according to FootballOutsiders.com's next-level stats) around Hardy's listed right end position would lead one to believe.
In fact, because Hardy plays all over the line, the Panthers' abysmal run stats cannot be attributed solely to No. 76. He is arguably a better run-stopper than his partner in crime at the opposite defensive end, sack-artist Charles Johnson.
However, Hardy, who finished with only 4.0 sacks in 2011, lacks an effective upfield rush that would give the Panthers a dual-threat pass rush from the edges.
Despite his svelte physique for an NFL lineman at 6'4", 277 pounds, Hardy may be better served—and better serve the Panthers—by moving inside to use his speed and quickness playing the 3-technique between the guard and tackle, especially if the Panthers are able to acquire another above-average pass-rusher to play across from Johnson.
Outside linebacker Thomas Davis' potential return can help the Panthers' outside pass rush if he is healthy and able to play at a high level, despite multiple knee injuries, but that is a big "if."
Hardy, who will be 24 years old next season, is still young and talented enough to be a long-time fixture on the Panthers defensive line if he is utilized correctly.
Step-It-Up Scale: Five. Hardy has the skills but does he have the will?
Byron Bell (77) blocking the Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan.
That's right, I said right tackle.
I am picking on the position here and not just one player.
Jeff Otah went down to injury again in 2011 and Byron Bell played his heart out for an undrafted rookie free agent out of New Mexico, but he was overmatched more often than not, especially early in the season.
Bell should be a better player in 2012 thanks to all the experience he gained in 2011, and he will have an entire NFL offseason to prepare for next year and can be a solid guard/backup tackle if Otah is either unhealthy or released.
Otah was a first-round pick and he has the size and talent to be a stud in the NFL, but he needs to find a way to condition his body to stay healthy and stay on the field or the Panthers may as well let him go.
Carolina already has one of the league's best offensive lines with Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross leading the way for "Double Trouble"—running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams—and Cam Newton.
However, with improved play at the right tackle position and the addition of running back/fullback Mike Tolbert, the Panthers can potentially become the best running team in football in 2012, whether or not Carolina's crowded backfield remains intact.
Step-It-Up Scale: Three. Bell will be a much-improved veteran after being thrown to the wolves and surviving in 2011.
Otah rates a seven, as he is quickly approaching Thomas Davis-territory with his annual maladies.
Armanti Edwards (14) is tackled after fielding a punt against the Arizona Cardinals.
Armanti Edwards had his chance to be the Carolina Panthers' punt returner in 2011 and the verdict is in.
He blew it. He should not be returning punts. He is simply not a good NFL punt returner.
Edwards is a college football legend in the Carolinas who quarterbacked his FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) Appalachian State Mountaineers to a national championship and one of the biggest upsets in college football history over the Michigan Wolverines at the Big House in 2007.
He also won the Walter Payton Award in 2008 and 2009 as the nation's best offensive player at the FCS level but was drafted as a wide receiver with a seemingly wasted third-round pick in 2010.
Edwards is buried deep on the Panthers depth chart at receiver behind the likes of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, David Gettis, Legedu Naanee and kick returner Kealoha Pilares, who reminds me a lot of the New York Giants' Victor Cruz.
Simply put, Edwards does not have a chance to emerge as a starting wideout on this team and he needs to nearly double his 5.5 yard-per-return average in 2012 if he wants to keep a grip on his tenuous hold of the punt returner position.
I believe this will be Edwards' last year in a Panthers uniform and I am not certain he will make it through final cuts at training camp.
Step-It-Up Scale: Nine. To use a Tar Heels basketball team analogy, Edwards is Stillman White to Devin Hester's Kendall Marshall. He takes care of the ball and that's about it.
Perhaps he will come back an improved player after going on a two-year mission. Yes, White is Mormon and is leaving Chapel Hill for four semesters, but I'm talking about Edwards.
Olindo Mare struggled in 2011 when his team needed him the most.
The Carolina Panthers cut the last original Panther, field goal kicker John Kasay, in 2011 and sent him packing for New Orleans when they decided to free up a roster spot by signing Olindo Mare to handle kickoff and field goal kicking responsibilities
Mare had a solid season, converting 22 of his 28 field goal attempts, but he needs to perform better in the clutch in 2012.
Mare wasted an opportunity to make Panthers fans forget about Kasay, if only for a moment, when he missed a 31-yard, potential game-tying kick as time expired in Carolina's 21-24, Week 8 loss to the visiting Minnesota Vikings.
Mare had another crucial miss from 36 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14 that would have given the Panthers a 26-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter and the Falcons scored two plays later to seal their 31-23 win.
Mare actually had a pretty solid season in 2011, but he missed a pair of chippies when his team most needed him and that's what everyone remembers.
It is hard to say if the veteran kicker had a mental block or if he just had bad luck in missed kicks against Minnesota and Atlanta, but makeable misses are magnified when the game is on the line.
No matter how many touch backs he kicks and how many routine field goals he makes throughout the 2012 season, Mare will have to come through in the clutch or his time in Charlotte will be short lived.
Step-It-Up Scale: Eight. Being a kicker is almost just like being an offensive lineman. No one really notices you until you make a mistake. The big difference, of course, is that offensive linemen are football players.