With the Carolina Panthers' bye week coming up, it's time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture for the franchise. It's easy to get caught up in the tough losses, but let's look into the future for a moment.
Carolina is currently a 2-6 football team, and at a quick glance, it seems the Panthers are in need of adding some major pieces to their franchise. However, that is not the case; the infrastructure is there—even though a solid amount of it is sitting on the injured reserve.
Most importantly, the Panthers have a franchise quarterback who's pretty darn good. We know of Cam Newton's value, but who are the other nine most valuable players to the Carolina Panthers franchise?
Cam Newton is the franchise quarterback and undoubtedly the most valuable player to the franchise. He has produced like no rookie we have ever seen and has already stepped into a leadership role and won the confidence of his teammates.
Newton is the type of player that you build around, and he's already won over the respect of the countless analysts that doubted him coming out of Auburn. If there is one player on this roster that is key to a possible Super Bowl run in the future, it's this young quarterback.
Jon Beason is to the Panthers' defense as Cam Newton is to the Panthers' offense. Without their Pro Bowl linebacker, the defense has fallen apart. He is the heart and soul of this team and leads vocally and through his actions.
Beason's absence has been felt mainly in the run game, where he stretches sideline to sideline and delivers upon arrival. That's not to say he's not great in coverage, though. Having a solid inside linebacker is key to any defense and when Beason is healthy, he's more than solid.
Putting pressure on the quarterback is paramount in today's NFL. Masters of the pass rush, such as Minnesota's Jared Allen and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, cannot be completely stopped by even the best of left tackles.
Johnson can be dominant at times, but more importantly, he is consistent. Johnson brings it every play and has tallied a sack in all but one game this season. Although Greg Hardy is on the rise, Charles Johnson is already at the top; he simply needs to continue to produce and help fans forget about that unmentioned guy who plays for Chicago.
What's a young quarterback's best friend? Is it a strong running game, a shutdown defense, a veteran group of receivers? In Cam Newton's case, it's center Ryan Kalil.
Kalil has made the transition to the NFL infinitely easier on Newton. Having a center to make adjustments at the line is a huge assistance to a rookie quarterback. It is extremely significant that the Panthers have Kalil locked up, because continuity at center is great for a quarterback's career—think Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday.
Smith is once again one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL, and his success is obviously tied to the arrival of Cam Newton. Newton's ability has re-ignited the fire in Smith and he makes that obvious every time he catches a ball.
Although Smith won't be around for many more years—he's already 32—he will play a key role in this offense while he remains in Carolina. Tutoring the younger receivers will be just as important of a role for Smith, but making a Super Bowl run while he remains in his prime will be priority No. 1.
Anderson has played a pivotal role for the Panthers with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis out of the lineup. He has become one of the defensive leaders, but he's a young, developing player.
Anderson has huge potential based on his natural physical skills as well as his football intelligence. It's hard not to see a little Jon Beason in him when he's shouting out pre-snap signals. He's a player that flies to the ball, and when Beason and Davis are in the lineup with him, they form arguably the strongest 4-3 linebacker corps on the NFL.
Gamble has been one of the league's most underrated cornerbacks this season. He's been the largest beneficiary of the new coaching staff and has been a shutdown corner all season.
Gamble certainly has the ability, but he's seemed mentally absent in the past. That story has changed in 2011, when he's been one of the lone bright spots on this injury-riddled defense. Gamble will play a key role in the future as the man to match up on the opponent's top receiver.
Protecting Newton's blind side is of utmost importance and Gross has consistently done that. Up until his recent performance against Minnesota's unstoppable defensive end Jared Allen, Gross had given Newton plenty of time to do his thing each and every play.
Gross, at age 31, still has quite a few years left on the tank, and he'll need to continue to play at a Pro Bowl level in order to put the Panthers in contention in the NFC.
Hardy is the most physically imposing player on this defensive line since Julius Peppers' departure. He's only 23 years young, and there is no limit on how good he can be. He has the athleticism, technique and a high motor that will make him a coveted player down the line.
I already mentioned how important it is to have one great pass rusher on a team, but having two makes a defense that much more dangerous. It gives a defensive coordinator much more flexibility with their play-calling, and it makes a team significantly more effective on third down.
You could easily make the argument for DeAngelo Williams' place on this list, but Stewart is four years younger, and there may be no position where age is more important than it is for a running back.
Stewart runs with conviction every time he is handed the ball, and when the offensive line is healthy, he is extremely effective. He's had a few big runs called back due to phantom holding calls this season, but by watching him, you can see how explosive he is. As he's gotten healthier, his second gear has become much more impressive, and he's well rounded enough to become the franchise back.
Strong safety Charles Godfrey, tight end Greg Olsen and right tackle Jeff Otah will also play a big role in the future of the Panthers. Otah's skills are undeniable, but he has been unable to stay healthy throughout his career.
Godfrey is another young player who plays with infectious energy, but he needs to improve his consistency in pass coverage to become an indispensable piece of this defense.
Olsen is a young tight end who has great chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton. I don't see the franchise letting him go any time soon.