Quarterback Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera improved the Panthers squad dramatically in their first season in Carolina. But 6-10 doesn't quite cut it in the NFL. So how can the Panthers win the NFC South? Here are four ways in which Cam Newton and company can improve in the 2012 NFL season.
First and foremost, the Carolina Panthers can’t expect to win more than six games if they suffer as many injuries as they did in 2011.
Starting middle linebacker Jon Beason has been the most crucial defensive element in the past five years for Carolina. Beason has had more than 120 tackles in all four of his full NFL seasons, leading the Panthers in the statistic in ’07, ’08, and ’09. Unfortunately, Beason tore his Achilles tendon against the Arizona Cardinals in the very first week of the 2011 NFL season.
Also detrimental to the Panther’s defense was the injury of newly signed defensive tackle Ron Edwards. Edwards signed with Carolina before the start of last year’s season, but never played a single down. Edwards suffered a tear to his triceps muscle in his very first practice. The 11-year veteran left a gaping hole in the middle of the D-line that the Panthers were never able to sufficiently fill.
Finally, there was the injury of linebacker Thomas Davis. Davis tore his ACL for the third time in two years last season. The former Georgia Bulldog made 113 tackles in 2008, but ever since, has not played more than seven games in an entire season. Carolina’s 2012 first-round draft pick, Luke Koechly, should add some much needed depth to the outside linebacker position. Koechly was the recipient of the Bronko Nagurski award his senior year at Boston College, given to the best defensive player in the country. I’d say it was much deserved—Koechly led the nation in tackles in 2010 and 2011.
Cam Newton quite possibly had the best rookie season in the history of the NFL. Newton set rookie records for passing yards (4,051) and rushing touchdowns (14). He also passed for 21 touchdowns and rushed for 716 yards.
But when Newton was asked by Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports about his rookie season this past Tuesday, all he could say was, “I was very immature.”
“I’ll be the first one to tell you, the pouting and moping, I kind of overdid it,” Newton said. “I was a bad teammate. I shut off to some people who gave unbelievable effort…That’s where I have to mature.”
Newton led the team to a 6-10 record in 2011, a four-win improvement on Carolina’s 2010 win total. However, it was the first time Newton had ever really experienced losing before. Having won collegiate national championships the two previous years, a sub .500 record was far from the ordinary for the quarterback.
Newton threw 17 interceptions last season, the fifth most among quarterbacks that year. So with a year under his belt and a real offseason to study the playbook (training camps were cut short last year because of the NFL lockout scare), will Newton be able to decrease that number?
To do so, the Panthers must establish a true No. 2 receiver.
Check off the spot for number one receiver—Steve Smith has been dominating this league for years. He may have only had 554 yards and two touchdowns in 2010, but I put 100 percent of that on Jimmy Clausen. After all, you can’t expect anyone to be successful when this guy is throwing you passes.
Smith posted phenomenal numbers in 2011 (79 receptions, 1,394 yards, and seven touchdowns) earning him his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl. But other than Smith as a target, quarterback Cam Newton was left without many alternatives in the air. The next top receiver was tight end Greg Olsen with just 45 receptions.
So who is going to step up and be that solid No. 2 option?
Carolina needs a player who can stretch out the secondary—a speedy, long ball threat who can open up the middle of the field for Smitty and the scrambling option for Cam.
Right now, the two options look like Brandon LaFell and David Gettis.
In his second NFL season, LaFell averaged 17.0 yards per catch, including a 91-yard bomb, the longest touchdown reception in Panthers history. LaFell played most of the year as the No. 3 wideout behind Legedu Naanee (who has since signed a one-year deal with Miami).
A heavy burden is going to be placed on LaFell’s shoulders this season, and if he doesn’t step up to the challenge, expect to see a lot more of David Gettis.
Gettis was drafted three rounds after LaFell back in the 2010 draft. The Baylor graduate was solid competition for LaFell in their rookie season, but Gettis was forced to sit out the entire 2011 year with a torn ACL. Similar to LaFell, Gettis had an 88-yard touchdown catch in 2010, so we know he can also pose as a potential deep threat for Newton.
The Panthers had no trouble putting points on the scoreboard last season, both for their own team and their opponents.
Carolina gave up the sixth most points in the NFL last year, all thanks to the dreadful play of their defensive line and secondary.
Charles Johnson was the only sign of life on the D-Line, but even he was a disappointment. Johnson, the highest paid player in 2011, earned $34 million yet tied for 21st in the league in sack total (9.0). That’s $3.78 million a sack. Are you kidding me? If Johnson wants to be paid Julius Pepper type money, he better start putting up double-digit sacks and blocking extra points.
Believe it or not, Carolina’s secondary was even more discomforting than the defensive line. Ranked 24th in yardage allowed, the Panthers gave up the third highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (98.3) and the highest yards per attempt average (8.4) in the entire NFL.
Funny how one of the best passing teams in the league happens to be the worst at defending it. Don’t the offense and defense practice against one another?
Free safety Charles Godfrey may have ranked second on the team in tackles, but please don’t let that fool you. I wish I could give you the stat for the number of tackles Godfrey should have made last year. The guy couldn’t wrap up a plugged in soda machine.
Thankfully, Ron Rivera has brought in a few guys to test Godfrey and the rest of the bunch. Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, Haruki Nakamura, and former 49er Reggie Smith should both provide an interesting challenge during this summer’s minicamp. Coming from two successful defensive programs, let's hope they have a bit of knowledge to share.