Carolina Panthers: 10 Players Who Need to Play Big for Successful 2012 Season
The Carolina Panthers are in the midst of their first OTAs (organized team activities) in preparation for the 2012 NFL season, and there are several Panthers players besides Cam Newton who need to step up their games in order for Carolina to have a successful season.
Despite missing the 2012 NFL Playoffs with a 6-10 record and third-place finish in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers' 2011 season was undeniably successful considering their 2-14 finish in John Fox's final year coaching the team.
2011: The Good
Cam Newton had a record-setting rookie year, breaking several NFL records and winning 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year honors, and the Panthers closed the season by winning four of their final six games in Ron Rivera's first year as head coach.
The Panthers also had the fifth-highest scoring offense in the NFL and the third-best rushing attack on the legs of Newton and "Double Trouble" tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
And, of course, the Panthers' best player, diminutive wide receiver Steve Smith, had one of his greatest seasons and returned to the Pro Bowl form that earned him the nickname "Mighty Mouse" early in his career.
2011: The Bad
However, what could have been a winning season in 2011 was derailed by an injury-riddled and often over-matched defensive unit and the NFL's worst special teams.
Carolina's defense should be much better in 2012 with the return of middle linebacker and quarterback of the defense, Jon Beason, as well as former Pro Bowler Thomas Davis, after both players suffered season-ending injuries in the first two weeks of the Panthers' 2011 campaign.
The Panthers have also made special teams a priority in the offseason by picking up "teams" stalwarts Mike Tolbert (Chargers' fullback), Haruki Nakamura (Ravens' safety) and Kenny Onatolu (Vikings' linebacker).
Carolina released punter Jason Baker and his NFL-worst 34.1 net punting yards average for salary cap reasons and they drafted Arkansas punt returner/slot receiver Joe Adams, who led the NCAA with four scoring punt returns in 2011, to take over that role for Armanti Edwards.
Rookie sixth-round draft pick, Brad Nortman, and NFL veteran, Nick Harris, will compete for Baker's old position.
2012: The Future
Expectations for the Panthers are higher than they have been in years entering the 2012 season, and anything less than a winning season—my prediction is 10-6—will be considered a disappointment in their second year of building a championship-contending team.
Panthers fans and coaches expect Newton to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump that has plagued second-year quarterbacks in the past and to pick up where he left off in leading the Panthers' run-heavy offense to another big season.
However, football is a team sport, perhaps more so than any other major sport played in the United States, and he will need plenty of help from his teammates if the Panthers are going to have a successful season in 2012.
No player was missed more by the Carolina Panthers in 2011 than middle linebacker, Jon Beason, who injured his Achilles tendon and ended his season in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals.
Beason is currently participating in the Panthers OTAs to the extent his rehab will allow, but if you watch the YouTube video of one of his April 2012 offseason workouts, there is little doubt that he will be back at full speed in time for training camp.
Beason is the heart and soul—and the eyes, the ears and the mouth—of the Carolina Panthers' defense and, when healthy, he is a top-five middle linebacker in the NFL.
In a recent in-depth interview with the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person, Ron Rivera attributed much of the Panthers' defensive deficiencies in 2011 to poor communication and a lack of understanding, particularly up front with the interior defensive line, and Beason is the guy who gets everyone on the same page.
While the Panthers cannot wait to get Beason's sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability back on the field, they will need their star defender to play as big with his mouth as he does with his pads in 2012.
Charles Johnson will need to live up to the $34-million dollar salary he earned in 2011, making him the NFL's highest paid player last season according to ESPN The Magazine's "Money Issue," by becoming a dominant force on the Panthers' defensive line.
Johnson stepped into the role of leading the Panthers' pass rush after Carolina traded Julius Peppers to the Chicago Bears in 2010, racking up 20.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
However, his production slipped in 2011 when he failed to register a double-digit sack total.
Seventeen defenders, including former Panther Julius Peppers, NFL defensive ROY Von Miller, and two-each from the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, had ten or more sacks in 2011, led by the Minnesota Vikings' Jared Allen with 22.0 quarterback takedowns.
The Carolina Panthers need a better pass rush in 2012 and it all starts with No. 95.
The Carolina Panthers need a dependable No. 2 wide receiver to stretch the field opposite incumbent No. 1 wideout, Steve Smith.
And perhaps no Carolina Panthers player has higher expectations for a breakout season in 2012 than third-year wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
LaFell was solid with 36 catches in his second season despite playing most of the year behind former Panther Legedu Naanee, and his breakout performance came in Week 16 when he had three catches for 103-yards, including a team-record 91-yard touchdown catch and run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In a recent in-depth interview with the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person, Ron Rivera acknowledged that he feels confident about Brandon LaFell heading into the 2012 season, but that he also wants to keep the proverbial carrot in front of the former LSU Tiger and he does not want LaFell "to feel like he's arrived."
Fellow third-year receiver, David Gettis, who tore his ACL in training camp last year, also expects to return to the Panthers' lineup after posting 37 catches in his rookie season in 2010, and he should see plenty of on-field action, too.
Gettis will compete with LaFell for the Panthers' No. 2 wide receiver position and having three reliable and potentially game-breaking receivers for Cam Newton to target is something that should make all Panthers fans happy.
The Carolina Panthers were the NFL's fifth-highest scoring team with 25.4 points per game in 2011 despite having the worst punt-return average in the NFL.
The Panthers' Armanti Edwards' 5.5 yards per punt return average was the lowest in the NFL among eligible players and a full 10.7 yards less than league-leader Devin Hester's 16.2 yard average.
The Panthers hope to solve their starting field position deficiencies in 2012 with the addition of rookie slot receiver/punt returner Joe Adams whom the Panthers selected in the fourth-round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Arkansas.
As I mentioned at the top of this article, Adams led the NCAA in punt returns for touchdowns with four last season while playing in college's toughest conference, the SEC, and he should provide a significant boost to the Panthers' offense simply by putting them closer to the end zone at the beginning of drives.
Much like the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson, who made the NFL's All-Pro first team as a punt returner with four touchdowns as a rookie in 2011, Joe Adams has a great opportunity to contribute to the Panthers as a breakout performer in 2012.
Carolina Panthers tight end, Greg Olsen, has the right stuff to become the Panthers' first Pro Bowl tight end since Wesley Walls.
Olsen and Jeremy Shockey were Cam Newton's security blankets in 2011, combining for 82 catches, 995 yards and nine touchdowns last season, but Shockey has not re-signed with the team and he is not currently listed on the Panthers' roster.
With Shockey's return to the Panthers in doubt according to his agent Drew Rosenhaus, Olsen will be counted on to move the chains and serve as a big target in the red zone in 2012.
Olsen was a second-alternate selection to the Pro Bowl in 2009 after catching 60 passes for 612 yards and scoring eight touchdowns, and he will be counted on to produce similar numbers for the Panthers this season.
Gary Barnidge, who had a career-best 12 catches in 2010, will likely be called on to pick up some of Shockey's missed production as the team's No. 2 tight end, but Olsen is the Panthers' only proven difference maker at the position and Carolina will be counting on him to have a big season.
The Carolina Panthers' head coach, Ron Rivera, developed a sense of familiarity with the San Diego Chargers in his four seasons as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator with the team.
Therefore, it should be no surprise whenever he brings in a former Charger player or coach to join the Panthers.
In the biggest move of the Panthers' offseason besides the 2012 NFL Draft, Carolina brought in former Chargers running back Mike Tolbert to play fullback for the Panthers and, perhaps, as a security blanket to take over Jonathan Stewart's position as the No. 2 running back if he signs with another team following his contract year.
Tolbert should provide consistency to the Panthers' fullback position after utilizing a fullback-by-committee approach in 2011 and he will provide Cam Newton with another weapon in the backfield after catching 54 passes for two touchdowns last season and rushing for 1,225 yards and 19 touchdowns in the past two seasons.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Tolbert will be expected to open holes for Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in addition to his expected special teams duties where he starred for the Chargers.
Carolina Panthers right tackle, Jeff Otah, was the team's first-round draft pick at No. 19 overall in the 2008 NFL Draft and, when he is healthy, gives the Panthers one of the best offensive lines in the NFL playing alongside fellow All-Pros Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross.
The Panthers need their athletic, 6'6", 330-pound tackle to protect the pocket for Cam Newton and to open holes Carolina's running attack which should be featured prominently in 2012.
This is a make-or-break season for Otah's future with the Panthers and he needs to show he can remain healthy for an entire season, or at least most of it.
Otherwise, the Panthers will be searching for his replacement in next season's draft if they do not just give the job to his 2011 replacement, Byron Bell.
Ron Edwards has yet to play a down for the Carolina Panthers since joining the team in 2011 after tearing his triceps in his first training camp practice last year.
However, the 11-year NFL veteran will be expected to help shore up what was arguably the weakest interior defensive line in the league in 2011 behind then-rookie starters Simone Fua and Terrell McClain.
Many expected the Panthers to draft a defensive tackle with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but coach Rivera felt confident enough in the unit's resurgent play late in the season to draft a linebacker, Boston College's Luke Kuechly, with their first pick.
Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse played admirably in the last five games of the season after Fua and McClain were both lost to injuries in Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts, and the Panthers will have Jon Beason back to make sure there are no communication issues up front, so there is some hope for the unit.
However, a solid season from Edwards will go a long way in improving the Panthers' 25th-ranked run defense.
This slide could have been about either Charles Godfrey or Sherrod Martin, but I like Godfrey's big-hit ability and I lack confidence in Martin's coverage skills.
The NFL's safety position is often the defense's last line of defense and the Panthers' safeties were among the league's worst tacklers at their position in 2011 with Godrey ranked 77th and Martin ranked 82nd among 88 qualifying NFL safeties last season.
Neither Godfrey, the Panthers' incumbent strong safety, nor Martin, the starting free safety, is guaranteed his starting position in 2012 after the Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith to compete for playing time in the secondary.
The Panthers also have Jordan Pugh, who has started three games for the Panthers in his first two seasons, and rookie cornerback Josh Norman, a big defensive back at 6'2' tall, who I believe will earn his way into the Panthers' defensive lineup in some way, shape or form.
Simply put, the Panthers' safeties need to become better tacklers in 2012 to cut down on big plays and long touchdowns by the opposition.
Luke Kuechly is the wild-card of the Carolina Panthers' defense.
Kuechly was everywhere in his three-collegiate seasons at Boston College, leading the ACC in tackling every year and ending his career as the conference's all-time leading tackler.
Along with Jon Beason, James Anderson and, hopefully, Thomas Davis, Kuechly adds serious talent to the Panthers' already elite linebacker corps.
It is just not determined where he will play just yet, with Rivera playing Kuechly at the weak side, or Will, linebacker position and eventually planning to play him at an inside backer position.
One thing is for sure, though, Jon Beason has no plans to relinquish his middle linebacker spot anytime soon.
However, if the Panthers are ever able to transition to a 3-4 defense—a move that will require a dominant nose tackle which the Panthers do not currently have on their roster—the combination of Kuechly and Beason playing on the inside could rival the Chicago Bears longtime duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
A big rookie season from the Panthers' top selection in the 2012 NFL Draft will make the Carolina defense a much improved unit no matter where he lines up.
You can follow Jimmy Grappone on Twitter @imapone24. Also, check out Jimmy's new Writer Fan Page on facebook.com and be sure to "like me."
Please check out my full archive on b/r and bring on the comments!
Recent articles by Jimmy Grappone: