Carolina Panthers: 5 Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2014
There comes a time in a player's life when he exceeds expectations in production. Sometimes it's a fluke and sometimes it's the first step towards putting together a successful career. The Carolina Panthers have a roster of potential players capable of emerging in 2014.
Carolina's upcoming season offers opportunities for a breakout year from seasoned veterans to young players alike. Essentially, it will come down to the right situation presenting itself and how each player performs when given that opportunity during the regular season.
Which players are primed for a breakout year in 2014?
The following slides will discuss five players who could put together their best season yet as a pro and briefly analyze why that possibility exists. Keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed, and the selections here are based on the current roster composition and how I expect the team to perform this year.
Robert Lester, SS
Robert Lester emerged as a pleasant surprise for not only the team, but for weary Panther fans as well. The secondary had a lot of question marks going into the 2013 season—and to a degree, it still does for 2014—and Lester made the most of his opportunity last year after signing as an undrafted free agent.
Lester appeared in 12 games in 2013, starting four of them. He registered 21 tackles and three interceptions. It's easy to speculate what he could have done had he played in all 16 games, but what contributions he did make during his rookie year serve as positive indicators for the young man's future.
It's unknown if he will start this year, as the experience of Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud give them a bit of an edge. However, Lester can learn from these guys while in camp, and if he can win a starting job, he will be in the driver's seat to a great season.
But he can still have a breakout year even in a supporting role.
Entering his second season, Lester will be a bit wiser and not as susceptible to making the mistakes that are commonplace with rookies. The Panthers need a positive sign regarding the future of their secondary, and it could very well start with Lester.
Charles Johnson, DE
It could be argued that Charles Johnson has experienced his breakout season. He started all 16 games in 2012 and recorded 12.5 sacks, a career high, and had he not missed two games last year, he probably could have matched or exceeded his career best in sacks.
As for 2014, Johnson may use motivation in the form of teammate Greg Hardy's legal issues to put together his most productive season to date.
The Panthers need to make a decision about who will anchor defensive end positions next season, and a productive year from Johnson could go a long way toward resolving that uncertainty. And establishing a rapport with rookie end Kony Ealy could help ensure a strong pass-rushing presence from the edge for years to come.
It's unknown if Hardy will miss any games, but when he is on the field, the attention he draws from opposing offenses should help open the door for Johnson to have a monster season. Another thing working in Johnson's favor is that there's little pressure to put up big numbers. He has his contract and has been consistent since becoming the full-time starter.
Putting together a breakout season that sees Johnson close in on 20 sacks could make the front office's decision on whom to keep at defensive end that much easier.
Greg Olsen, TE
Much like Charles Johnson, Greg Olsen may have already experienced his breakout season. However, the receiver corps in Carolina is different than last year's. Olsen has the benefit of being familiar with the system and having built effective chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton.
Last year, Olsen led the team in receiving with 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns. There is no reason to believe he can't continue to improve his productivity and should be counted on again to be Newton's go-to guy in third-down situations.
With the arrival of the veterans signed in the offseason and Kelvin Benjamin's first-round draft selection, the wide receiver unit has its work cut out for it in 2014. It won't help that Carolina receivers will lose time working with Newton until the QB is cleared for practice.
Olsen won't have to worry about that.
Since coming to the Panthers from a trade with Chicago, Olsen has been an integral part of the Panther offense. He eclipsed 800 receiving yards in each of the previous two seasons, and it's not unreasonable to think a 900- or 1,000-yard campaign can be achieved.
Tiquan Underwood, WR
Normally, a new player on Carolina's roster would not earn a spot on this list. However, Tiquan Underwood is young and has yet to put up the kind of numbers that would get him involved in the Pro Bowl discussion or rank him among the league's best playmakers.
Underwood was decent last year in Tampa Bay. Making the most of his chances and having a top quarterback throwing to him can help him obtain a breakout season.
Of course, he will need to earn a spot within the offense. His experience should help him.
If Underwood can beat out the competition and assert himself as a third receiver on the depth chart, he could be an under-the-radar deep threat that defenses overlook, especially if they are dedicating coverage to stopping Jerricho Cotchery and Kelvin Benjamin.
Over the last two years, Underwood has averaged at least 24 catches and 425 yards. He could very well surpass that in his first season with the Panthers.
He should be considered a sleeper player in 2014. Of course, he still needs to make a statement in camp and during the preseason in order to get the opportunity to emerge in the regular season.
Cam Newton, QB
Why is Cam Newton on this list?
Simply put, he is capable of doing so much more from a production standpoint. He has thrown over 3,300 yards in each of his first three seasons. In 2013, he took significant steps in his development as a quarterback and a leader. Much like how last year was about maturing, this year will be about making the most of players around him, which, if he does, will result in a bump in his numbers.
Carolina fans know that Newton is capable of throwing for 4,000 yards. They would like to see his touchdown numbers escalate towards the high 20s or low 30s (if not better). In 2013, Newton didn't run as much as in his two previous seasons, relying more instead on his arm to make plays. With any luck, he should continue that trend in 2014.
Opposing defenses will have to change their game plans because of the new faces on the Panthers offense. If Newton improves his timing and accuracy, he should be able to produce more big plays through the air.
Newton may be established as a Pro Bowl quarterback, but he hasn't reached his ceiling yet. The changes in the offense could help him out in that regard, and he will have three years of experience to draw from in 2014.