Panther fans are expecting big things from their team this upcoming season and rightfully so. Their team should be coming back even stronger and more confident than they have been in a long while.
Despite their record, the Panthers were one of the most exciting teams to watch last season. Their offense ranked among the top 10 in the NFL, and their rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, had managed to exceed expectations by rejuvenating the franchise and giving hope to all Carolina fans.
After a season in which the Panthers only went 6-10, they are coming back with pretty much the same roster. Hopefully, that means the players are growing into Ron Rivera's system and becoming more comfortable with their roles. And as these players get more comfortable with their roles, they will become even more effective on the field and win more games.
Although I believe the entire team will improve and there will be many players that will have a good season, there are certain players that I believe will have an exceptionally great season in 2012.
Panther fans may have already heard about the confidence that Rivera and the Panther organization has in Brandon LaFell.
Adam Schefter from ESPN reported that the Panthers believe that LaFell will finally have a breakout season. To note, I say "finally" because LaFell will be entering his third year as a Panther. But things are different than they were in his first two seasons.
Before the start of the 2011 season, LaFell wasn't able to earn the second receiver spot over Legedu Naanee. Whatever the reasons were, there seemed to be some doubts about his abilities to fulfill that position, so Naanee started over him.
However, LaFell eventually got his chance to start, and he performed really well. He had 613 yards and three touchdowns. They are not necessarily the best numbers as a wide receiver, but upon watching some of the plays he was in, one can see the big-play ability that Rivera believes LaFell has.
In addition, LaFell had a catch rate of 64.3 percent and averaged 17 yards per catch.
With David Gettis' return and Joe Adams being drafted, there are some who believe that LaFell might lose his starting spot, but I find that hard to believe. We saw how comfortable Newton started to look throwing the ball to LaFell. I expect that comfort to grow and become a great contribution to the Panthers offense.
Speaking of Newton, he's also on my list of Panthers that will have an exceptionally great season. This, of course, might be hard to believe.
Newton is entering his second season as a Panther, and he has the burden of performing as well as (or possibly better) than he did last season. That'll obviously be difficult.
In his rookie year, Newton threw for over 4,000 yards, rushed for over 700 yards and scored 35 touchdowns.
However, Newton also turned the ball over 19 times, which isn't necessarily the most in the NFL, but it didn't help the Panthers win games.
The sophomore year is perhaps one of the most important years for a new quarterback. Newton will have to show the entire NFL that he's not just a one-hit wonder but a long-term franchise and elite quarterback. There's little doubt in mind that he'll be able to do so.
Newton didn't seem especially thrilled about his individual stats as a rookie. If you don't believe me, just watch his postgame press conferences, especially in those first two games where Newton threw for over 400 yards but ended up losing both games.
Therefore, what's going to make Newton's season an exceptionally great one is turning the ball over less and winning more games.
Jon Beason injured himself after his first game of the 2011 season. He suffered from a torn Achilles and was out for the rest of the season.
Beason will be making his comeback this year, and I'm sure he's eager to make a statement and also prove that he still has it in him.
By the 2010 season, Beason led the Panthers in tackles for four consecutive years. I expect Beason to pick up right where he left off in the 2012 season.
Also, the Panthers have added a new linebacker in Luke Kuechly, and I'm sure this addition will motivate Beason to show this rookie how the linebacker position is played in the NFL.
With the addition of Kuechly, there have been some reports that Beason may be moving back to weak-side linebacker. Beason hasn't played weak-side since the first eight games of the 2010 season. He switched back to middle linebacker after Dan Connor was injured and out for the rest of the season.
I'd be surprised if Beason played weak-side, but it depends on how his healing process goes. Either way, I'm sure he'll go back to leading the team in tackles and having a great season.
The Panthers defense will need their Pro Bowl linebacker, not just because he's a great player, but also because he's a great leader.
This is another player that will have a great season. The Panthers' new linebacker will surely attempt to make his presence known in his rookie year.
Kuechly's draft has raised some questions regarding his role as either a starter or backup to Beason or Thomas Davis. Whatever Rivera decides to do with Kuechly, I'm sure Kuechly will play well.
Also, keep in mind that Rivera wasn't planning on drafting a player that wouldn't be a potential starter. In other words, Rivera and Marty Hurney didn't want to draft a work-in-progress.
For that reason, I expect Kuechly to become a key part for the Panthers defense from the very start of the 2012 season.
Kuechly seems pretty anxious on contributing to the team immediately as well. As a rookie, he realizes the need to work hard and prove that he should've been drafted in the first round.
Everyone comes in wanting to be a starter, but they've got a lot of good guys here. I've got to get in here and start working, start earning the respect of the older guys and then hopefully something good happens from there.
According to one report, Rivera hasn't decided where exactly Kuechly will play. But with both Jon Beason and Thomas Davis coming back from serious injuries, Kuechly's role in the defense might not be difficult to figure out, once they get closer to the first game of the season.
Whatever position he'll play, whether he's a middle or weak-side linebacker, Kuechly will have quite a rookie season as a Carolina Panther.
This is a pick for which I might get a lot of disagreements, but I just have a hard time believing that DeAngelo Williams will not have a better season than last year.
That's not to say that if Williams does a little better than he did last season that would constitute him as one of the players on my list. There's a bit more to it than that.
At one point of his career, Williams started to look like one of the best running backs in the league. In his 2008 season, Williams rushed for over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. Of course, it's been a while since we've seen that side of him.
But times have changed. The offensive line will hopefully have a healthy Jeff Otah and a newly acquired Amini Silatolu. Those who haven't seen the videos of Silatolu should take a look at what this guy can do here.
The Panthers' run game started to take off more in the second half of last season, and I'm expecting Rob Chudzinski to pick up right where he left off. Newton was probably the most effective rusher last season, but I expect that to change. I predict that Williams will regain that role in 2012.
Williams hasn't had a 1,000-yard rushing season since the 2009 season. He's already 29 years old, and some people expect him to be in the decline of his career.
However, I believe that Williams will have a great season in 2012 and will make a lot of fantasy players real happy—at least, much happier than they have been in the recent years.