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.