Carolina Panthers: Six Players Poised for an Impressive Campaign in 2013
The Carolina Panthers and the rest of the league are inching closer to the start of the regular season. While there are OTAs and the preseason to get through before Week 1 opens in early September, there are a few players on the roster who could find themselves having a great 2013 season.
There has been offseason changes, but the roster will return many of last year's starters—some of whom have been scratching the surface the past couple of seasons or are looking to recover their former glory.
So, which Carolina players are poised for a breakout campaign in 2013?
The following slideshow will break down and analyze those players who could have a season to remember this year and help carry the Panthers to a successful year.
When a young quarterback throws for more than 7,000 yards in his first two professional seasons, it seems unnecessary to peg him as a player who could have a breakout season in his third year. However, despite the records and accolades he established though 32 games, there is a lot of work to be done.
He followed up a remarkable rookie campaign with a comparable sophomore season. While there was a drop in his passing yards (4,051 in 2011; 3,869 in 2012), he did reduce his number of interceptions thrown by five. The most glaring stat was his inability to improve upon his touchdowns thrown, as he threw 19 compared to the 21 he had in 2011.
Still, it was a decent season all around and the Panthers did improve by one game.
Entering the 2013 season, Newton will need to do more than just put up big numbers. He will need to find the maturity to be a leader of the team. His antics during blowout losses or postgame press conferences reflected his immaturity and showed he wasn't ready to lead.
If he can show the kind of heart and leadership he did in last year's finale at New Orleans, not only will he have a breakout year but he could sneak the Panthers into the postseason. Newton will work with a slightly different game plan as Mike Shula takes over as offensive coordinator, but if the talented quarterback can make better decisions and not force anything, he should be able to see improvements in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
If the offensive line stays healthy and gives him time in the pocket, that will help his cause, too. If the running game is improved and takes the focus off Newton, he should be able to have a memorable third season.
The elder statesman of the team and fiery leader has always possessed big-play potential. He posted 1,000 receiving yards back to back with Cam Newton under center, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2011. Had his touchdown totals been up last year, he could have possibly made a return trip to Hawaii.
There is no reason to believe that Smith cannot repeat his production for a third year in a row. History has shown that when a quality quarterback is throwing Smith the ball, he can have a big season. During eight years with Jake Delhomme as the Carolina field general, Smith recorded five 1,000-yard seasons.
Smith could have had a few more catches but it seemed like a lot of the throws in his direction were forced. Dealing with constant double teams didn't help—he caught only about 53 percent of his targets and was limited inside the red zone.
Carolina has added Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, who could help by taking some of the pressure off Smith. It may even help to spread the ball around. With the plethora of receiving threats in the Carolina offense, less could be more for the diminutive veteran.
If Smith can find some more favorable matchups and continue to bring his competitiveness each week, he could have a big year. Another 1,000-yard season isn't unlikely but it would be nice to see him bring his touchdown numbers higher than his season average (five).
Greg Olsen quite possibly had his breakout year last season. But he could very well repeat that success in his third year with the Panthers and second as the featured tight end. One year removed from playing alongside Jeremy Shockey and splitting the production, Olsen recorded career highs with 69 receptions and 843 receiving yards.
If he had scored a few more times, he could have been in the mix for a Pro Bowl appearance.
The good news is Olsen is doing what he was brought in to do when the Panthers traded for him prior to the 2011 season. He has been a reliable short-yardage target and has even stretched those short passes into long gains. The biggest knock against him in 2012 was not being more of a threat inside the 10-yard line.
However, he should be able to duplicate, if not improve, his stats in 2013. The Panthers are looking to re-establish their power running game, and with that in mind there are more opportunities for play-action passes that could see long completions for Steve Smith or short-to-medium gains from Olsen.
Olsen is very capable of finding the end zone, having scored no fewer than five times each season since 2008. If Newton settles down, establishes himself in the pocket and makes better decisions, expect Olsen to challenge his season-high touchdown mark of eight, set in 2009.
The offense will return to a more rush-oriented scheme. With that in mind, the success of the passing game will depend on Newton, Smith and Olsen. If everything goes right, all three will have a tremendous season and could propel the offense into a top unit within the league.
Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy
What does a pass-rushing tandem do for an encore? Put up bigger numbers of course! That could very well happen for both defensive ends as Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are coming off good seasons in 2012.
Johnson set a career-high in sacks when he recorded 12.5 last year. Hardy was equally impressive, with 11 of his own. What makes their combined 23.5 sacks stand out even more is they were able to do it with a questionable defensive line.
That will not be the case in 2013, as the Panthers used their first two draft picks on two quality defensive tackles who will strengthen the interior defensive line. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should provide enough pressure on the inside to take away double teams and free up either one of the two edge pass-rushers.
A lot of people expect the Carolina defense to be a force in 2013, especially up-front. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is so certain of it that he didn't address the secondary during the draft. Even head coach Ron Rivera isn't worried.
Asked Ron Rivera if he was comfortable going to camp with secondary as currently constituted. He said he was.
— Joe Person (@josephperson) April 27, 2013
Having two big, effective tackles up the middle and with the linebacker unit behind them, Johnson and Hardy could find themselves with multiple opportunities to pressure opposing quarterbacks and annihilate the backfield.
Carolina has something a lot of teams don't: Two defensive ends who can rush the pocket and put up double-digit sack totals. What is even more scarier is they are still young and seem to get better each season.
Jon Beason has been limited by injuries and appeared in only five games the past two seasons. While many feel his time in Carolina is drawing to a close, he could have a great season at outside linebacker. Beason is a competitor and is determined to come back.
He has a great support network in teammate Thomas Davis, who knows what it's like to miss a lot of playing time because of injuries. He will probably be limited in workouts and may not see too much of the field during the preseason but if he comes back and is able to play at full health, he will be another valuable asset to the defense.
In four full seasons, Beason has recorded more than 100 tackles. Having him lined up next to Luke Kuechly could turn the Carolina linebacker unit into one of the league's best. Beason is ready for this season and feels optimistic about his return. He was quoted in the Charlotte Observer last month, saying, "I’ll be better. I can’t even fathom not being better than I previously was."
Just like the improvements on the defensive line will help Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, so too will it help Beason and his fellow linebackers. The goal of the defensive upgrades is to free up the linebackers and allow them to make plays at the line of scrimmage.
It would be interesting if Beason is able to stay healthy and have a big year. If he does, it presents the team with a big decision.
Beason has a lot of football left in him and he could not only have a breakout campaign but be in line for Comeback Player of the Year honors.