Showcasing Carolina Panthers' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
After the successful rookie campaign for quarterback Cam Newton in 2011, expectations were raised, at least to some degree, for the Carolina Panthers heading into 2012.
A 1-6 start dashed any hopes they had of making a run at the postseason, but to the credit of the players and coaching staff, they never got down on themselves and wound up winning six of their last nine games to finish a respectable 7-9.
Still, even with the strong finish to 2012, this team has plenty of holes to fill this offseason if it wants to challenge the Atlanta Falcons and even the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South next season.
The Panthers have given head coach Ron Rivera new life by allowing him another year. There was some thinking that the team's disastrous start last season would spell the end for the second-year coach.
There are pieces in place for the Panthers to be a successful franchise, it will just take a tweak or two and an impact player in the draft to turn things around.
Here is a complete look at the Panthers' biggest strengths and weaknesses as they begin to assess where they are heading into the 2013 NFL draft.
The best word to describe Cam Newton in 2012 is inconsistent. His overall numbers looked solid, as he threw for 3,869 yards, 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, an 86.2 quarterback rating and 741 rushing yards.
However, looking game by game, there were instances where he was awful. Against New York in Week 3, he completed just 53.3 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and three interceptions. He had four games with no passing touchdowns and a completion percentage under 55.
Still, there were positive signs as well. Newton threw 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the last seven weeks of the season. His ability to scramble and make plays with his legs never abandoned him.
It is important to remember that Newton played last season at just 23 years old. He is just four months older than Andrew Luck and nine months older than Robert Griffin III. The future is still sky high for Newton, and he will continue to get better and more consistent as he gains experience.
Derek Anderson is a very capable backup. He has had success as a starting quarterback in the NFL before, but his best role is mentoring a younger quarterback and being ready to go should something happen to Newton.
The Panthers will ride Newton as much as they can until he proves that he can't handle it. So far, there is no evidence to suggest he won't be able to.
For years, the Panthers had one of the best running back tandems in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. In 2009, both players ran for more than 1,000 yards and parlayed that success into big contracts with the team.
However, as Newton has come into the mix and started using his legs a lot more, there just don't seem to be enough carries to go around to everyone. It also doesn't help that Williams and Stewart's performance has dropped in the last few years.
After averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2011, Williams dropped all the way down to 4.3 yards per carry in 2012, and he had nearly 100 fewer rushing yards, despite having 18 more carries than he did the previous year.
Stewart played in just nine games last season and was never particularly impressive. He had just 336 yards on 93 carries and never had more than 51 yards in a single game.
Stewart signed a five-year contract extension prior to the start of the 2012 season and is just 25 years old, so if the team does decide to make a change, it could be with Williams, who is four years older and has 351 more carries under his belt.
Meanwhile, Mike Tolbert has proven himself to be a very capable short-yardage running back. He also finished second on the team with seven rushing touchdowns, despite carrying the ball just 54 times.
Big decisions await this group. But considering the depth at the position, it is hard to see the Panthers investing a lot of resources in finding a running back this offseason.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The Panthers are very top-heavy at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Steve Smith continues to be one of the most productive receivers in the NFL, as he led the team with 74 receptions and 1,174 yards. He tied for second with four touchdown catches.
Tight end Greg Olsen had the best season of his career with 69 catches, 843 yards and five touchdowns. He really became the safety net that Cam Newton relied on when nothing else was open to him.
However, once you get past those two players, there is not a lot to be excited about. Brandon LaFell had a solid season with 44 receptions, 677 yards and four touchdowns, but he is not a No. 2 receiver.
LaFell gets receptions underneath that defenses don't prepare for because they are so focused on Smith. There is great value to having a good slot receiver, you just need another weapon on the outside that teams have to respect.
Louis Murphy was the only other wide receiver to reach double digits in receptions for this team. Depth is an issue that will likely need to be addressed at some point, though it is hard to see the Panthers investing one of their first two picks in the position.
The Panthers are solid in the trenches on offense. It is hard to describe them as anything more or less than that, but sometimes you don't need to be better than that to have success on the field.
Cam Newton was sacked 36 times last season, which is a big number, but not all of that is on the offensive line. He tends to hold onto the ball too long, trying to find a play down the field or scrambling around before deciding to run.
One big positive for the Panthers is the youth they have on the offensive line. Aside from Geoff Hangartner and Jordan Gross, they don't have one offensive lineman who finished the season over the age of 27.
When you start building the offensive line around older players, things start to break down and quarterbacks are left to fend for themselves.
This is a big, young group that will continue to get better with more time and experience together. The Panthers are building a strong foundation up front, which is all you can ask from a team that has terrific skill-position players.
Here is the biggest area of need for the Panthers and the one they are likely to address very early in the draft and/or free agency.
They do have very good pass-rushers off the edge in Greg Hardy (11 sacks in 2012) and Charles Johnson (12.5). Where they are sorely lacking is in their presence up the middle. Opposing teams can gut them in that area because they don't have a big run-stuffing body at defensive tackle.
Even Dwan Edwards, who had a strong season with six sacks, has issues defending the run. He has power and is athletic enough to get to the quarterback, but he doesn't bring enough when teams try to run the ball.
If you want to be a great defense, you have to be strong up the middle. The Panthers got a lot better in 2012 thanks to the outstanding performance of rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly. Now they need to upgrade the defensive line if they want to take the next step.
The Panthers got a huge boost in 2012 from Luke Kuechly, who was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording 164 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, eight passes defended and two interceptions.
Kuechly's emergence was critical in the Panthers going from 28th in total defense in 2011 to 10th last season. He changed the attitude that the entire group brought every single week.
When you know that you are set at middle linebacker, everything else becomes easier to fix. The Panthers could stand to add more depth at outside linebacker.
Thomas Davis had a solid season with 103 tackles, but after him, there was a huge drop in production from the rest of the group. Josh Norman was third on the team in tackles, and he is a defensive back.
Jon Beason used to be the face of this defense, but he has played in just five games in the last two seasons combined. At 28 years old, you hope that he is able to come back and be as exciting as he once was—it just doesn't seem realistic to expect right now.
Depth is the key at this position for the Panthers. It is not an incredibly deep draft for linebackers, though there are potential value picks to be had in the third and fourth round.
If you believe that interceptions help define the performance of a secondary, the Panthers were sorely lacking in their production last season.
As a team, they had just 11 interceptions in 2012. Of that total, seven came from the secondary. They also finished 13th in passing touchdowns allowed (22) and tied for 25th in passes defended last season with 65.
If you think that the Panthers need to address the defensive tackle spot with their first pick, as I do, it would make sense for them to see what cornerbacks are on the board in the second round. Players like Johnthan Banks and Desmond Trufant could be around at pick No. 44.
Even if there isn't a true shutdown cornerback available for the Panthers, drafting someone with upside is going to make a difference for this group.
The Panthers were not good on special teams last season. They only attempted 21 field goals, which wouldn't be bad if they were one of the best in the NFL at scoring touchdown (which they weren't), and converted just 16 of them.
Punter Brad Nortman ranked 29th in both average yards per punt and punts inside the 20, and he ranked 31st in net yards per punt.
As for return yardage, the Panthers ranked 14th in average yards per punt return and 22nd in average yards per kick return. Field position is an incredibly important aspect of the game, obviously.
The Panthers were great at racking up yardage last season, but when you look at their scoring output, they didn't convert a lot of possessions into points. Part of that can be attributed to having to go farther down the field because their special teams did not help them out a lot in 2012.