There is no denying the optimism that is surrounding the Carolina Panthers as the regular season draws closer, and part of the reason for that optimism is due to the strong play of their rookies in the preseason.
In the NFL, teams that draft well tend to perform well on a consistent basis.
While the Panthers haven't always dominated on draft night, their performance in the last two installments have been nothing short of great.
Prior to the 2011 Draft, critics said that Cam Newton wasn't a good enough passer to succeed in the NFL. A little over a year later, those same pundits are praising Newton, who broke numerous rookie records during his rookie campaign.
It is difficult to one-up a draft in which a team finds their franchise quarterback, but GM Marty Hurney did his best to do just that.
The Carolina Panthers struck gold with their first-round pick when they selected Boston College product Luke Kuechly.
Although he only played collegiate football for three seasons, Kuechly left Boston College as the leading tackler in ACC history.
In an era in which analysts are always first to point out the negatives, Kuechly got by relatively unscathed in the pre-draft process. The only knock on Kuechly was that he is a linebacker, a position that isn't considered as important as others.
After dominating in the preseason—which included forcing Arian Foster to fumble and racking up ten tackles against the New York Jets in the first half—Kuechly appears ready to greatly improve the Panthers' run defense.
Last season, Carolina finished 25th in rushing yards allowed, not exactly the ranking you expect to see from a team that is considered to have a shot at the playoffs.
Now that the preseason is over, many analysts have shared the thought that Kuechly is the favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. It would surprise no one if the young linebacker is running away with the award by the middle of the season, and if the Panthers get off to a hot start, it could very well come to fruition.
The sky appears to be the limit for Kuechly, who never seems to be out of position and diagnoses plays in a way that makes other linebackers jealous.
At the end of the 2011 season, it was clear that the Carolina Panthers needed to improve their guard play in order to make their rushing attack even more potent.
GM Marty Hurney chose to address that need in the second round, when he selected Amini Silatolu.
Silatolu flew under the radar because he played his college ball at Midwestern State. On a day-in and day-out basis, he didn't face the same level of competition as many of the other guards in his class did.
In fact, Silatolu's mix of quickness and strength could propel him to an all-pro career if he works hard.
Up to this point, Silatolu has performed well and will open the season as the starting left guard.
Considering that the Panthers will be depending on him to open up holes in the middle of the line, Silatolu's performance on the interior will be crucial to the success of the offense as a whole.
As a general rule, when a team selects a guard in the second round, that players is going to get a chance to prove himself early on. That is exactly what has happened in Carolina, although the poor play of Mike Pollak didn't hurt in Silatolu's ascension into the starting role.
The Carolina Panthers rewarded Charles Johnson with a six-year $72 million contract in the summer of 2011. They did so because they believed in Johnson's ability to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The problem thus far is that Johnson doesn't have a legitimate pass-rusher to line up opposite him. This allows opposing offenses to double-team Johnson, without having to worry about the consequences of blocking the rest of the defensive line one-on-one.
The Panthers hoped that 2010 draft pick Greg Hardy would progress into that good pass-rusher, which hasn't been the case thus far.
The need was addressed in the third round when the Panthers selected Oklahoma product Frank Alexander in the fourth round.
Depending on the play of Hardy and Thomas Keiser, Alexander could see the field a lot during his rookie season.
During his time at Oklahoma, Alexander proved to be capable of being a force against the run and the pass. While he shouldn't be expected to be an impact player on a consistent basis as a rookie, Alexander appears to have the potential to be a steal in the third round.
If the Panthers hope to improve on defense, they will need to get more pressure from their front four. Alexander will be one of the defensive ends that will be counted on to improve the pass rush, especially if Hardy continues to disappoint.
Joe Adams was responsible for the most exciting play in college football in 2011, and could very well be known for producing the most exciting play of the 2012 NFL season when all is said and done.
Entering his first season, Adams is expected to spend most of his time returning punts. If he is able to bring a couple back to the house, then he will have done his job.
As his career progresses, the hope is that his quickness and speed will help him distinguish himself as a solid slot receiver.
The performance of those on special teams is often overlooked, which is a shame. Now that the contributions of kickoff returners have diminished due to the placing of the ball at the 35-yardline, punt returners are more likely to break a game open than kick returners.
If the Panthers make the playoffs this season, it would be safe to assume that Adams contributed at least a few exciting plays that tilted the scale in Carolina's favor.
While it's too early to compare Adams to Devin Hester, one would assume that GM Marty Hurney is hoping he will begin to emulate Hester.
If the Panthers had to address one aspect of their team in the offseason, it was their secondary.
Unfortunately for Panthers fans, it's going to be at least another year before that dream is realized.
Chris Gamble is the team's first corner, and Captain Munnerlyn will start the season as the second cornerback. Gamble is a solid option, but Munnerlyn wouldn't be a top option on the majority of NFL teams.
In the fifth round of the draft, the Panthers selected Josh Norman in hopes that he could supplant Munnerlyn as the second corner.
Unfortunately for Norman, he struggled with injuries during training camp and struggled to say on the field during most of the preseason.
Nagging injuries robbed Norman of the preseason that he needed to open the season as a starter, but if Munnerlyn doesn't perform well, Norman will be starting sooner rather than later.
Brad Nortman beat out Nick Harris for the punter job in the preseason, as the Panthers have decided to go with young players on special teams.
Nortman has performed well in the preseason, but won't handle kickoffs like some punters do for other NFL teams.
Punters are often overlooked, but that is a mistake. If Nortman is able to consistently help the Panthers win the field position battle, wins will follow.
It remains to be seen how Nortman will perform in offensive punting situations, in which the goal is to down the ball as close to the goal-line as possible. If he is able to put opposing teams in unfavorable positions with solid punts, then he will prove that keeping him around was the right decision.
DJ Campbell made the team—meaning all seven draft picks made the opening day roster— although he will be used primarily on special teams.
Not much should be expected from Campbell outside of his special teams duties.
If he is solid there then he will add value to the team as a seventh-round draft pick.