The Carolina Panthers franchise is looking to take the next step and become a playoff contender, but the 2012 season has a rough start and Carolina will need its rookies to start strong.
The Panthers went 6-10 last season but there is a lot of excitement around the team, most of which has been created by Cam Newton's extraordinary rookie season.
This season Carolina will look to take the next step and make the playoffs, but its schedule is about as rough in the beginning as it possibly could be.
The Panthers' first four games are against three division rivals and the Super Bowl champions.
Tampa Bay is a team that is looking to use its strong offseason to help continue a tradition of the worst team finding success the next year.
Atlanta went to the playoffs last season and is sporting a high-powered offense that will look to score its way back to the postseason.
New Orleans has had a rough offseason legally, but the team quietly improved through the additions of LB Curtis Lofton and DT Brodrick Bunkley.
The Panthers already have to face each team in the division, so let's throw in the New York Giants, who just won the Super Bowl.
Luckily, Carolina drafted well and will look to its rookies to help be the difference between a 6-10 team and maybe a 10-6 team.
LB Luke Kuechly will help upgrade the defense, P Brad Nortman will give the defense better field position and DE Frank Alexander will provide a pass rush off the bench, but there are three others who Carolina will especially need in the beginning in order to start the 2012 season strong.
Josh Norman may be behind Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn on the depth chart, but he will be a starter in the first four games of the season.
The only team who might have mostly two wide receiver sets is Tampa Bay, but New Orleans, Atlanta and New York will all have at least three wide receivers on the field for most of the game.
He will need to use his size and speed to help the defense force turnovers and force teams to run the ball.
There is also little depth behind Norman with Brandon Hogan on the IR, so his coverage skills will be needed even more.
He did not win the battle for the No. 2 cornerback position during camp, but exceptional play against some of the best offenses in the NFL could move him up faster than even he could expect.
How Josh Norman plays could have a significant impact on both the outcomes of the first four games and the outcome of the entire season.
Amini Silatolu has the advantage of playing between two Pro Bowl linemen in Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, but he will be tested early on what he has learned.
Both New Orleans and the New York Giants feature talented defensive lines that could dominate a game, especially the Giants' line.
It is likely that the first part of the season will feature numerous shootouts, and Silatolu will need to be at his best.
Silatolu has done fairly well this preseason, though against the New York Jets he showed that stunts can give him trouble. When the lineman moved out to stunt Silatolu would shift his focus to helping Jordan Gross and he would miss the other stunting lineman coming through the line.
Otherwise, Silatolu looks ready. He will provide some tenacity and nastiness to the offensive line and should thrive against the weak run defenses of the NFC South.
The rookie the Carolina Panthers will need most is Joe Adams.
Joe Adams was a solid receiver at Arkansas, but his specialty is on punt returns. His speed and elusiveness make him a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
The Panthers will need to score an abundance of points in the first four games, and it will be a huge advantage for Carolina if the offense is starting at midfield or better. He may even have to take one all the way.
His ability to change the momentum of the game with one play is why he must be on his game and start the season strong.
If Adams and the other rookies show they are ready to play come the opening game, Carolina will have a great chance of coming away with a few wins in what is easily the hardest quarter of the team's schedule.