10 Best Panthers Not Named Cam Newton
The Cam Newton effect has been well documented, but what other players have contributed to a renewed sense of hope in Carolina?
Let's put aside the allure of potential and concerns of age and focus directly on which players are playing their position best.
Some of these players may not even be in the NFL five years from now and some who are excluded may be Pro Bowlers in the near future.
Here are the top 10 Carolina Panthers not named Cam Newton.
10. Greg Olsen, Tight End
Greg Olsen has been one of the most-welcome offseason additions for the Panthers.
He's immediately come into this offense and become a security blanket for Cam Newton.
On pace for arguably his best season ever, it seems likely that Carolina will soon focus on extending the young tight end. Their only other option is Jeremy Shockey, who's nearing the end of his career.
Olsen isn't a spectacular run blocker, but he has good footwork and sets himself up well on screens—something we saw early last week against Atlanta.
9. Charles Godfrey, Strong Safety
Godfrey has been all over the place for the Panthers this season. With the energizing defensive leader Jon Beason being lost for the season, a void was left, and Godfrey has promptly filled that role.
Whether he's making a tackle in the backfield or dislodging a deep pass, Godfrey is always making a play, and he's been the glue that has kept the defense from completely dismantling despite a slew of injuries.
Godfrey isn't a force in pass coverage, but he's enough of a hitter to make receivers fret before they catch that deep crossing route in the middle of the field. He's a tough guy who always plays to the best of his ability.
8. DeAngelo Williams, Running Back
One half of Carolina's "Double Trouble" duo, it could be argued that Williams is playing better than his counterpart, Jonathan Stewart.
What Williams excels at is the big play. He has great vision and makes the right moves in the open field, often finding himself in the end zone once he breaks through the first level of defenders.
A solid, all-around runner, Williams is dynamic enough that he will find a role in this offense as long as he's in Carolina.
7. Jonathan Stewart, Running Back
Here's the other side of the equation.
Stewart is a big back who picks up the hard-earned yardage between the tackles but has the speed to get to the outside and run.
Stewart runs patiently and is great in short-yardage situations. He consistently bounces off tackles and maintains good balance through contact.
Stewart will be a high priority for Carolina to re-sign in the near future. He's a do-it-all back whose truly progressed as a receiver out of the backfield this season, with nearly 400 yards on 42 receptions to this point.
6. Chris Gamble, Cornerback
Gamble's contributions to this team have been up and down over his career.
In his contract season, Gamble played at a Pro Bowl level. In the following seasons, he failed to play up to the large contract that he had earned.
In 2011, the story has been rewritten. Gamble isn't playing to earn a contract, but he's playing the best football of his career. He's often been the avoided cornerback and rarely gives much room in man coverage.
This year, he's embraced the role of taking on opponents' top receivers and has thus far impressed me and other viewers alike.
5. Jon Beason, Linebacker
Had Jon Beason not torn his Achilles tendon earlier in the season, he may very well be sitting at the 2-spot on this list. Beason is the emotional ignition for the defense, and his game isn't half bad either.
Beason is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. He moves around very well for his size and plays with great instincts.
Beason is a great fit for a 4-3 defense and the type of player that holds extremely high value as a locker room leader.
4. Jordan Gross, Tackle
Gross has been relied on as the blind side tackle for some time now and hardly anyone does it better than him in the NFL.
He's an agile play who plays intelligently and contains the strength to hold up against the more physically dominant defensive ends in the league.
Blocking for Cam Newton isn't easy, but Gross typically makes it seem like it is. Newton scrambles left and right on a regular basis, making it tough on Gross to know where he needs to steer his block, but he's handled the challenge very well thus far.
3. Ryan Kalil, Center
Ryan Kalil has rapidly but silently become one of the top centers the NFL has to offer.
Once a position designated for failed guards, the center has gained more importance, especially for teams introducing a rookie quarterback to the professional level.
Kalil is just as much in control of this offense as quarterback Cam Newton, and he's been just as important to the Panthers' in their rise from the worst offense in the league to most explosive.
2. Charles Johnson, Defensive End
A few years back, Charles Johnson was a pass-rushing specialist who simply played in the shadow of Julius Peppers. Now, he's the team's best pass-rusher and often makes excellent plays against the run as well.
Johnson has the quickness to blow up plays before they get started and the strength to be versatile enough to bump down inside and blow up the interior of the offensive line.
He's not as physically imposing as Peppers, but all Panthers fans appreciate his vocal leadership and play-to-play commitment to the franchise.
1. Steve Smith, Receiver
Alas, we've arrived at No. 1, and there was no chance that Steve Smith wouldn't get seated here. However, it wasn't a destination many foresaw last season, when trade talks involving Smith were aplenty.
Smith was disgusted with the direction of the franchise but gave Cam Newton a chance to prove Carolina was not in such a bad spot. That decision has paid off for Smith, who ranks second in the league in receiving yards, and is by far, the most explosive player in the league right now.
His 25 plays of 20-plus yards ranks first in the NFL. Who ranks second, you ask—Vincent Jackson and Wes Welker with only 19.
What has made Smith's numbers so amazing is the fact that he's doing this all with a rookie at quarterback.
Who would have ever guessed that this would be the result of the 2011 season?