Where 5 Carolina Panthers Stars Must Improve in 2014
Although they had an early playoff exit, the Carolina Panthers turned in an extremely promising season in reaching the postseason after a 1-3 start.
The Panthers were one of the most feared teams in the league on defense and had an offense that was capable of exploding from week after week. While the team definitely had its bright spots, it also had some players who obviously have improvements to make.
Some of the Panthers need to become overall better players while others have potential that they need to realize. There are some positions on this roster that need a lot of work. They may get addressed in April's upcoming draft.
Carolina has a great team, but there are certainly players who need to step up next season.
*All stats courtesy of NFL.com
Offensive Line Must Protect Cam Newton Better
They allowed 43 sacks this past season, which was the ninth most in the league. Newton made many positive strides this season but was hindered by his offensive line at times. Next season, the Panthers return offensive guard Amini Silatolu, who missed most of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. Silatolu will help shore up the interior for Newton and help out his protection.
The Panthers are also likely to invest a draft pick in an offensive lineman. One intriguing prospect who may be a match for their system is Morgan Moses. The Virginia lineman has great measurables for an offensive tackle and could provide a dependable bookend with Jordan Gross at the other offensive tackle spot. He's someone they could nab in the middle rounds and develop into a very good starting tackle.
Cam Newton Must Work on Going Through His Progressions, Making Reads
As I mentioned earlier, Cam Newton's growth this season was well documented. He showed maturation as a leader and great development as a passer, but faltered at times.
His weaknesses were on display Sunday in Carolina's disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. He threw two interceptions, hesitated in making decisions and didn't take his time in making reads.
There were a few occasions where he completed a pass underneath for a small gain, but missed an open receiver downfield in the process. He must eliminate those types of mental mistakes if he is to shake off the chains of being an inexperienced NFL quarterback and assume a role as a franchise leader.
That being said, the Panthers' shortcomings in the passing game are not all Newton's fault. He has suffered from a consistently undependable offensive line and doesn't exactly have the best receiving corps, However, he does have a ton of potential that he has yet to tap into.
Newton has matured since last season, but there is definitely still room for him to grow.
Brandon LaFell Must Limit His Drops
Brandon LaFell is not a No. 2 receiver, plain and simple, However, since the Panthers depend on LaFell as a complement to Steve Smith, he must improve his mechanics as a receiver.
LaFell dropped 39 of 88 passes targeted for him this season, including three of seven in Carolina's playoff loss to the 49ers. That's just not going to cut it anymore. He did make gains in many areas between last season and this season, but he will need to continue that progression if he is to retain a prominent role in the offense.
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams Must Get Back on Track
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams were once the most feared running back tandem in the NFL, but they've since struggled to remain effective when the other is out of the lineup.
The Panthers managed to rank as the league's 11th-best rushing offense with just Cam Newton and Williams for most of this season. They will undoubtedly improve that ranking next season when Stewart is back healthy after he played in just six games this season. When 2014 rolls around, it will be imperative that he returns to form as the same player he was before the nagging injuries.
Williams actually had a bounce-back season in 2013, posting his highest yardage totals since 2009, when he and Stewart each rushed for more than 1,100 yards. It was an overall solid season for Williams, but he had just one game of rushing for more than 100 yards and an underwhelming three touchdowns on the season for his lowest total since 2010.
When next season starts and both Panthers running backs will be back healthy—look out.
Secondary Must Reach Bar Set by the Front Seven
There is no doubt that the Carolina Panthers have one of the best defensive units in the NFL, but their secondary has left much to be desired.
They were exposed at times throughout this season, and showed glaring cracks in their armor against the 49ers in their playoff loss. They couldn't do a thing to stop 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who had eight catches for 136 yards, and the Panthers made a handful of careless mistakes along the way. From penalties to blown coverages, the Carolina secondary has many areas to fix.
The Panthers are likely to look at a cornerback sooner rather than later in the upcoming draft, and that could be key to a turnaround for the secondary. There is talent there, but the Panthers need to discipline themselves and tighten things up in order for this defense to become truly scary.