Carolina Panthers: Preseason Standouts Who Will Carry Through to Season
This preseason has seen the emergence of what Carolina Panthers fans are hoping to be franchise players that will lead the team into a new golden era.
Don't get me wrong, the success of proven players like Steve Smith and Can Newton will be mandatory if they hope to make the playoffs this season. However, in order to do that new players will have to step up to help improve a team that finished last season 6-10.
The Panthers are 2-1 in the preseason, with both victories coming against AFC East teams.
In those wins, young players have made a plethora of big plays that changed the course of games in the Panthers' favor.
A youth movement is well underway in Carolina; now it is time to see if their young players will mature into a team that is deserving of a playoff berth.
In fact, Murphy has earned the third receiver slot It would a pretty big surprise if he isn't lining up in the slot on opening day. He has thoroughly outplayed Seyi Ajirotutu up to this point, and there is no reason to believe that will change as the regular season draws closer.
Murphy has been the team's most productive receiver in the preseason, as he has hauled in seven passes for 87 yards. He also scored a touchdown against the New York Jets on a dart thrown by Cam Newton.
His ability to find holes in opposing coverages will make him a threat in the red zone
Ron Rivera's team should run one of the NFL's most effective red-zone offenses, and Murphy could be a big part of that. His presence will also be known on third downs, as Newton will be looking for him on critical plays.
Murphy should be credited with quickly finding his niche with the Panthers. There will always be a market for wide receivers who can quickly adapt to a new system and move the chains; a strong season would give Murphy that label.
Greg Hardy will be given one last chance to hold off Thomas Keiser when the Carolina Panthers face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason finale.
The only reason that Hardy is being given the benefit of the doubt is the potential that he still possesses. Because up to this point, Keiser has won the job outright with his superb play.
It isn't as if Keiser didn't play well when he was promoted from the practice squad last season. In the eight games in which he was active, he registered four sacks. Not bad production from a player who wasn't getting consistent playing time.
The Panthers desperately need another pass-rusher to create havoc opposite Charles Edwards—who has also been menacing in the preseason. If they could manufacture more pressure on the quarterback, it would go along way in aiding a secondary that won't be among the league's best.
Once he is given the starting nod over Hardy, Keiser will become one of the most important players on the team. His ability to rush the passer could be the key in making the Panthers defense respectable in 2012.
The Carolina Panthers are loaded at the running back position, with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.
In free agency, GM Marty Hurney made the surprising decision to sign Tolbert despite the talented running backs that were already on the roster. The move was even more alarming because the team had agreed to an expensive contract extension with Williams in the previous offseason.
After watching Tolbert in the preseason, those who questioned the decision to sign him have been silenced.
The change of pace that Tolbert provides will give opposing defense fits. Williams will burn opposing defenses with his shifty game, before Tolbert gets a few carries and runs right through potential tacklers.
I haven't even mentioned Cam Newton's ability to run the ball, which tells you all you need to know about how dangerous the Panthers' backfield is going to be.
In the preseason, Tolbert has shown that he will be an effective short-yardage back and will also make a difference as a fullback creating holes for Williams and Stewart.
If an injury were to strike one of the Panthers' top-two backs—something that isn't unlikely considering that Stewart sprained his ankle against the New York Jets—Tolbert would be ready to transition into the backup running back role.
Luke Kuechly has played even better than most expected him to so far in the preseason.
Just like his days at Boston College, Kuechly very rarely allows himself to get caught out of position and is a master at diagnosing what is happening as the play progresses.
He always seems to put himself in a position to make plays, and you could count the mistakes that he has made on one hand.
Kuechly alone will improve the Panthers' run defense by at least 20 yards a game, as he is that intelligent of a football player. His presence alone will take the pressure off the secondary, who will not need to make as many drive-saving tackles this season.
If defensive tackles Ron Edwards and Sione Fua are able to stay healthy and clog the middle, Kuechly will have a field day chasing down opposing running backs all season.
He made his mark early on in the preseason, as he forced Arian Foster to fumble in the first week of the preseason. It was by far the play of the game for the Panthers, who fell to the Houston Texans, 26-13.
In the third preseason game against the New York Jets, Kuechly complied 10 tackles and was all over the place on run defense. When it appeared as if Shonn Greene or one of the other Jets running backs had a decent hole, Kuechly would somehow find a way into it and stifle the play.
If he is able to perform at his current level in the regular season, then he will be in the conversation for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
The sky is the limit for Kuechly, especially since he will be playing alongside other talented linebackers like Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and James Anderson.
Ron Edwards missed the entirety of last season with a triceps injury, which was one of the major reasons behind the Panthers' inability to contain opposing rushing attacks.
Without Edwards, Carolina finished 25th in the league in rushing yards allowed, surrendering almost 131 yards per contest.
The health of Edwards—along with the play of Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly—will go a long way in determining the success of the run defense this year. If Edwards is able to stay on the field, he will do what he does best—clog holes.
His ability to take on multiple offensive linemen, while simultaneously clogging potential running lanes, is a skill set that every successful defense needs to have.
The performance of Edwards will go a long way in keeping opponents in unfavorable down and yardage situations. Second-and-longs are much more taxing on an offense than 2nd-and-medium situations, so stifling runs on first down will be crucial in determining how well the defense will perform.
If Edwards is able to keep the opposing offensive guards off of Beason and Kuechly, then opposing running backs are going to have a hard time ripping off big runs against Carolina in 2012.