The Carolina Panthers are among one of the most dangerous young teams in all of sports. Cam Newton's record-breaking rookie season has people picking the Panthers to win the NFC South for the first time in a while.
But Carolina isn't the only home to an exciting, young sports franchise. Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and Washington, DC all have something to cheer about in the years to come.
A young, professional sports team can mean two things:
1) You have years and years of success in your future, or
2) You have years and years of watching the paint dry
Teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Charlotte Bobcats will sit twiddling their thumbs, while the Carolina Panthers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Nationals bloom into some of the most beautiful flowers of the garden.
Actually, in all four of these cases, the blooming process has already begun.
In Carolina, Cam Newton has single-handedly transformed the once egregious Panthers offense into a well-oiled machine. Look at the comparisons between 2010 under Jimmy Clausen/Matt Moore and 2011 under Cam Newton.
2010: 143.1 yds/game passing, nine passing TDs, 21 interceptions, 57.0 passer rating
2011: 239.3 yds/game passing, 21 passing TDs, 17 interceptions, 84.8 passer rating
It's not comparing apples to oranges. It's comparing fruit to vegetables.
With an average player age of 25 years, the Panthers have the youngest team in the NFL. Newton (22) is obviously the central figure of the future, but when you look up and down Carolina’s roster, there are other young studs that have held their own as a pro.
The Panthers must be considered one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. They can beat teams in the air and on the ground—just pick your poison. Running backs Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert are 25 and 26, respectively, and center Ryan Kalil (27) has already made the Pro Bowl three times.
All Carolina really needs to do is squeeze some success out of Brandon LaFell (25), David Gettis (24) or Armanti Edwards (24). If they can develop one of these guys into a solid No. 2 receiver, the Panthers might not have to worry about their 25th ranked defense.
Carolina’s secondary desperately needs improvement, but aside from those four positions, the Panthers actually have some hope. Jon Beason (27) is coming back from a torn Achilles and will be playing alongside the 2011 NCAA Defensive Player of the Year in Luke Kuechly (21). On the defensive line, Charles Johnson is 25 years young and Greg Hardy (23) finally made a little noise towards the end of last season.
The Panthers won six games in 2011, but in 2012, Carolina is ready to move on to bigger and better things. If they can manage to patch up that secondary, there’s little that can stop them from becoming an NFC powerhouse.
The Oklahoma City Thunder decided to skip all the boring “development” years necessary with most young rosters (Who said patience was a virtue?). The Thunder turned their 23-59 record into 47-19 in just four seasons.
Led by Kevin Durant (23), Russell Westbrook (23) and James Harden (22), Oklahoma City figured out a way to build a “Big Three” of their own through the draft. In a much more organic way than Miami or Boston, the Thunder have established themselves as a powerhouse for decades to come.
Oklahoma City is the seventh youngest team in the NBA and they have already made their way to the NBA finals. It took them less time to play for a championship than it takes a student to graduate high school or college.
The Thunder will have to make some adjustments this offseason, the biggest of which is deciding which 22-year old they want to re-sign, Harden or center Serge Ibaka.
Serge Ibaka came into this league, literally, straight out of Africa. But he has not missed a beat (or Thabeet, if you will) as a professional, proving his talent could be molded to fit the NBA’s style. Centers are so tough to come by these days, but once again, OKC somehow struck gold.
Regardless of losing Harden (there’s just no way they can let Ibaka go), the Thunder will have plenty of offensive firepower to sit atop the West next spring.
The Thunder and Heat could very well turn into the Lakers and Celtics of the 80s. Boston and Los Angeles combined for eight championships in that decade and that kind of consistent success could definitely be recreated in Miami and Oklahoma City through 2020.
The Los Angeles Kings are the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NHL, except they already won their league's championship. The Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 45 years of existence and they did it with the third youngest team in hockey.
Name a player who made a huge play in the playoffs and I guarantee he’s younger than 28. Dustin Brown, the captain? 27. Drew Daughty, the electric defenseman? 22. Anze Kopitar, the flashy forward? 24.
And then there’s Jonathan Quick. Surely the finals’ MVP is a league-veteran. How could anyone below the age of 28 out-perform the great Martin Brodeur? He’s 26? You have a bridge to sell me, too? You’re telling me that the highest save percentage in post-season history belongs to a 26-year-old?
Was anyone on this team even able to grow a playoff beard?
The LA Kings could be the scariest and most talented young team in any sport right now and they will definitely be campaigning for a repeat in the 2012-2013 season.
Bryce Harper (19) can’t even drink a beer (well at least in the U.S.) and he’s become one of the MLB’s most exciting players. Everything he does on a baseball diamond forces you to raise an eyebrow and say, “Did he really just do that?” He crushes the ball, makes diving plays and runs the bases harder than anyone I've seen in quite some time.
I’m one of the people who looked the other way when analysts were debating his career with just eight at-bats in the big leagues, but now, he has my attention. He’s played 17 less games than the rest of the Nationals and he’s already third on the team in HR (7), fourth in RBI (20), and first in batting average.
Then there’s Stephen Strasburg. Equally as dominant at his position, Strasburg is 9-1 this season with an NL-leading 110 strikeouts. He’s ninth in ERA (2.46), seventh in WHIP (1.04), and he’s only 23-years old.
Having already undergone Tommy John surgery, Washington will try and limit his innings this year, but that plan might have to be avoided if the Nationals remain in striking distance of first place in the NL East. Strasburg has already thrown more than half the innings his coaches assigned in spring training.
Gio Gonzalez, however, is one guy who could pick up the slack for Strasburg. Gonzalez has had just as much success, and at 26 years of age, he’s not going anywhere but up. Gonzalez also ranks among the NL’s ten best pitchers in wins (8), strikeouts (97), ERA (2.52), and WHIP (1.02).
Two guys who can put up those kind of numbers make winning a best-of-seven playoff series a piece of cake. The Nationals have yet to make the playoffs since coming to Washington, but these three guys are changing those flight patterns all too quickly.