Will Cam Newton lead the Panthers to the playoffs in 2013?
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are on the precipice of a crucial season, as another sub-.500 record would likely lead to coaching and personnel changes.
Ron Rivera is set to enter his third season as the Panthers' head coach, and his job won't be safe unless he leads the team to the playoffs. Considering the talent level in the NFC South, it's going to be an uphill battle for the Panthers to secure a postseason berth.
If Carolina does make a run at the division title, the play of Cam Newton will be the primary reason. While the Auburn product has been criticized for his leadership, the statistics he generated in two seasons are remarkable.
According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, Newton is responsible for more yards during his first two seasons than any quarterback in history during their first two campaigns. No matter how you slice it, Newton has been nothing short of remarkable since being drafted in 2011.
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Cam brings forward multiple skill sets. He has the size and athleticism to run the read-option and the arm to hurt opposing defenses when staying in the pocket.
The Panthers' future success is directly linked to Newton's continued progression as both a leader and quarterback, so acquiring explosive weapons is critical.
Simply put, if Carolina fails to improve the pieces around Cam, he may never develop into the player he has the potential to be. If that were to happen, it would be nothing short of a tragedy for the franchise.
David Gettleman knows how important the progression of Newton is and will likely address the need moving forward. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that the Panthers don't currently have enough weapons to test the league's premier defensive units on a weekly basis.
During the 2012 season, the Panthers finished 16th in passing offense and ninth in rushing. Those rankings are solid, but they came against the sub-par defenses of the NFC South, so it's a safe assumption that those numbers are slightly inflated.
Newton's most explosive weapon is Steve Smith, who will be entering his 14th season when the 2013 campaign kicks off.
Smith hauled in 73 passes on 128 targets last season, which equates to a completion rate of 52 percent. Considering that Newton and Smith connected on 61.2 percent of their attempts the season before, it's concerning to see a drop off.
Part of the inefficiency can be blamed on the regression of the rushing attack and the lack of complementary weapons, as Newton's options are limited outside of Smith on third-and-longs.
How much longer can Smith defy Father Time and continue to be the Panthers' No. 1 option?
Hopefully Carolina will bring in someone who can take the pressure away from Smith, which would let the franchise's most iconic player age with grace.
After Smith there is a serious drop-off, which is concerning, especially for the franchise's long-term prospects.
Brandon LaFell will enter training camp as the team's second wideout and needs to show improvement in order for the passing attack to take the next step forward.
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At 6'2" and 210 pounds, the LSU product has the potential to develop into a solid possession receiver. In order to do that, however, he will have to be more consistent in catching the ball and must get open quicker, especially if the offensive line doesn't improve.
LaFell finished last season ranked 60th in receiving yards behind Golden Tate, who was targeted eight fewer times. All eyes will be on LaFell this season, as Carolina really needs him to take a step forward.
Through his first three seasons, LaFell has caught 118 passes for 1,758 yards and eight touchdowns. That's an average of just 39 catches and 586 yards per year and that type of production is not acceptable for a team's second wideout.
Currently, the Panthers' third and fourth wideouts are Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn respectively, which does not inspire confidence.
Last season as a member of the New York Giants, Hixon hauled in 39 balls for 567 yards and two touchdowns. If he can bring that type of production to the table again, then he will be a productive slot receiver.
Hixon will need to make some adjustments, as the Panthers' offense is different than the Giants' aggressive passing attack. New York starting quarterback Eli Manning attempted 51 more passes than Newton did this year, and Hixon will have to excel in order to match the 59 targets he received last season.
Ginn was an absolute non-factor as a receiver in 2012, catching just two passes as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. It's dangerous to expect anything from Ginn offensively, as the Ohio State product has been a major bust after the Miami Dolphins made him a Top 10 pick back in 2007.
Tight end Greg Olsen often acts as Newton's security blanket, as evidenced by the 104 receptions, 1,383 yards and 10 touchdowns that Olsen has compiled in two years with Newton.
The University of Miami product has the size (6'5" and 255 pounds) and speed to create mismatches, a trend that continues to dominate NFL offensive game plans. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula should integrate Olsen into the offense even more, as targeting him could open up the field for the Panthers lackluster receiving corp.
While the Panthers don't have the weapons it will take to contend for a Super Bowl, the combined presence of Smith and Olsen should be enough for Newton to take another step forward in year three.