The Carolina Panthers are looking to build on a 6-10 season that could have easily been a 10-6 season had a handful of plays gone their way.
Rising star Cam Newton will be looking to prove that a "sophomore slump" is only something other quarterbacks have to worry about.
Steve Smith will continue to show that a 5'9" receiver can play just as big as a 6'5" receiver.
These two offensive stars will help the "machine" going, but like any well-oiled machine the smallest cogs matter just as much as the big ones.
The Panthers have four key cogs that, while they may never receive recognition on SportsCenter, will heavily influence the production of the offense and the defense.
The key role player of the Carolina secondary will be Haruki Nakamura.
Nakamura was acquired during the offseason and was to provide competition for incumbent Sherrod Martin. Not surprisingly, Nakamura provided more competition than Martin could handle—he was the backup of Ed Reed after all.
The veteran out of Cincinnati will not only provide improved coverage, but hopefully he learned from Reed the importance of being vocal. Martin lacked in both these categories and it often cost the Panthers. Panthers fans must still cringe at the thought of Marques Colston getting by Martin for a score at the end of the first half in the final game of the season.
Carolina faces a tough Tampa passing game that features Vincent Jackson, and Nakamura will need to be on his game with that 6'5" target roaming.
Nakamura may never make a highlight interception that makes the "Top Plays" segment, but if he can take command and improve the No. 24 pass defense, he will be a star in Carolina's book.
Dwan Edwards has not been a Panther for even a week, but he will be a key role player in the 2012 season.
Edwards was cut by Buffalo as part of the final moves to get to the 53-man roster, and it could not have worked better for Edwards. In Buffalo he would have sat behind Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams,but in Carolina he is expected to start next to Ron Edwards as the three-technique, according to the Associated Press via FoxSports.com.
Edwards' acquisition came at a price, though, as the Panthers decided to cut 2011 third-round pick, DT Terrell McClain. It may have been premature given that McClain was a rookie last season, but as the Associated Press reported, General Manager Marty Hurney thought there was a "lack of consistency" and Edwards was the "ultimate pro."
Paired with Ron Edwards, Carolina will now feature two solid veteran defensive tackles in Week 1, compared to two rookies last season.
Edwards will need to be able to collapse the pocket to allow the Panthers' freakish linebacker corps to make plays on Josh Freeman in Week 1. If Edwards does his job, the Panther linebackers should have a busy day in the backfield. And even though Edwards may not record a sack, if Jon Beason and company are looking like they are in a game of Madden then he will get his praise come the victory celebration in the locker room.
LaFell has the potential to go from a role player to a star, and it will start with Tampa bay in Week 1.
The big-bodied receiver from LSU worked to earn the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Steve Smith. His reliable hands and nack for big plays make him the ideal guy to improve an already dynamic offense.
LaFell had five catches of over 30 yards last season in 14 games. This proves he can be as much of a deep threat as Smith even.
LaFell has a chance to take that next step against a weak Tampa Bay defense.
Tampa Bay probably remembers its final game against the Panthers in 2011 where Carolina rushed for 270 yards, so the defense that is already missing DT Brian Price (trade) and DE Da'Quan Bowers (injury) will probably stack the box as often as possible.
This will leave LaFell with many one-on-one opportunities that he could exploit, especially against a Tampa Bay secondary with no notable corners. His play could force Tampa to play more coverage which would open the box for a Panthers run game that finished No. 3 in the league last season.
An outstanding performance by LaFell would go a long way in helping Carolina win, but—more importantly—a strong performance now could re-shape how defenses plan against the Panthers as they will have two playmakers instead of just Smith.
Though just the first game, the young receiver could establish himself as the missing yang to Smith's Yin putting the Panthers offense on the path to greatness in 2012.
Coming into training camp, Mike Tolbert may have been one of the more questionable offseason acquisitions. Carolina had a stable of backs that could already be considered the league's best and then there was Cam Newton who set the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback at 14.
There probably should not have been much commotion about the signing to begin with as the Panthers signed him for $2.1 million per year, which is well below what one would expect a running back to make. Also, it was reported on the Panthers home page (through NFL.com) that Rivera thought of Tolbert as a fullback.
With the opening game against Tampa Bay on the horizon, few people are questioning Tolbert and a big first game could silence the critics for good.
Tolbert is a bruiser that can also catch the ball and block. More importantly, he shares many similar characteristics of Jonathan Stewart, who happens to be injured again.
The Associated Press (via The Washington Times) reported that Ron Rivera is optimistic Stewart will play against Tampa. Stewart is trying to recover from an ankle injury suffered against the New York Jets.
Good news, Panthers fans, Tolbert is on the team and is ready to rumble. Because he and Stewart are similar, Tolbert can fill the role while Stewart recovers back to 100 percent and the Panthers will not have to worry about loss in production.
If Tolbert shows that he can handle the load like he did in the preseason, Carolina will no longer think that it has a three-headed monster, but the Panthers will know they have a three-headed monster and the only thing that would stop this trio would be the end zone.
These role players may not be the focus of the team, but each one has a chance to take himself and the team to the next level.