The Carolina Panthers will be looking to improve on a rather promising 2013 campaign when they take the field in the Fall. Part of their rise to the top last season was the growth of their players both individually and as a unit.
When they begin their quest for their second consecutive NFC South title, the Panthers will depend on a few of their younger players to take the necessary steps forward and contribute even more to the team's production.
A.J Klein showed a boatload of potential last season and could prove himself even more now that he will be at the top of the depth chart.
Robert Lester will also be moving up the depth chart now that Quintin Mikell is a free agent, and he will have a chance to show his skills as a starting safety in this league. He had a promising year in 2013, and it will be interesting to see how he builds upon that going forward.
There are many players with a chance to explode in 2014, and any one of these guys could be a headliner next season.
With Brandon LaFell likely leaving in free agency, Domenik Hixon’s role in the Carolina Panthers’ offense automatically increases. They will probably be drafting a wide receiver as well, but Hixon would fit nicely as a slot receiver given his speed and quickness.
He’s shown flashes of being a dangerous receiver during his days with the New York Giants, and he could turn that into a very prominent role in the team’s offense. They have a ton of speed on the offensive side of the ball, so Hixon could also be used out of the backfield in some formations.
His versatility and consistency are what will make him a great addition to the offensive rotation in Carolina.
A.J. Klein did very well during his stint as a starter last year, and he has likely garnered a starting role for next season. Klein’s natural instincts as a linebacker are reminiscent of the Panthers’ star defender Luke Kuechly.
His ability was especially on display in Carolina’s 10-9 victory over the 49ers last season. Klein had five tackles, a sack and a stuff in that game, and he truly showed his worth as a starting linebacker in this league.
Pairing him with Kuechly would be a murderous combination, and the young linebacker will learn a lot from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Kawann Short had a very strong rookie campaign in 2013 and showed a lot of promise as a run-stuffing defensive tackle in this league. Short will be counted upon to take the place of Colin Cole, who could be leaving in free agency, and should do a great job filling in for the veteran defender.
Having him start next to Star Lotulelei will make for one of the toughest defensive lines against which to run the ball, and given their youth, they could become what Kevin and Pat Williams were for the Minnesota Vikings all those years ago.
Short is a potential-filled defender waiting to explode, and 2014 will be his first opportunity to do so.
Robert Lester is another player who could benefit from someone leaving in free agency, as the man ahead of him on the depth chart is Quintin Mikell. Lester is a proven hitter who is competent in coverage, but who has room to improve.
At Alabama, Lester was a very integral part of the Crimson Tide’s defense, and got better week after week. If he’s given the opportunity to start, Lester will surely improve as he plays more and more snaps, quickly turning him into the playmaker Carolina’s secondary desperately needed.
He had three interceptions and four pass defenses in a limited role last year, and he can build on those numbers if he’s given the opportunity to play in a more serious role.
Lester has the potential to be great, and will be a much-improved player for the Panthers in 2014.
Josh Norman proved himself as a very talented cornerback during his rookie season in 2012, but only played in seven games this past season after sustaining a knee injury.
Norman posted pretty great numbers as a rookie and was all set to have an even better year in 2013 before he got injured. Now that he will be back and healthy, Norman could once again prove himself as the top corner in Carolina and would bolster an already talented defense.
The secondary was a point of weakness for the Panthers last season, and if Norman comes back and plays anything like he did before, then those problems will be patched right up.