2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Dan Parr
Updated Sept. 4, 2011 @ 4:09 p.m. ET
Coming off one of the worse seasons in franchise history, the Panthers would like to follow in line with the Falcons and Buccaneers and become the next NFC South team to make a quick turnaround immediately following a bad year.
The Panthers will make the attempt with a new man leading them and the first overall pick in this year's draft under center, potentially.
John Fox is out — his contract expired after last season and it was the league's worst-kept secret throughout 2010 that he wouldn't be coming back. Former Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera replaces him.
Rivera long had been waiting for this chance. He had interviewed for head-coaching jobs nine times over the past few years before owner Jerry Richardson gave him the opportunity. He won't be overseeing a major rebuilding effort, however.
The Panthers brought back several of their core players in free agency. They're strong at running back, on the offensive line and in a few spots on defense. There's enough talent and depth for this team to be more competitive. It all depends what they get from their quarterback.
The Panthers rolled the dice on the intriguingly talented and highly scrutinized Cam Newton with the top pick in the draft. Jimmy Clausen, a 2010 second-round pick, struggled as a rookie, and the two college stars are taking part in a high-profile battle this preseason, but Newton is likely to start in Week One.
Carolina's offense was atrocious in 2010. Injuries and a rookie starting quarterback had something to do with it, but the Panthers were ranked last in scoring, averaging 12.2 points per game and gaining 258.4 yards per game. The Panthers chose Rob Chudzinski, who served as the TE coach on the Chargers' staff with Ron Rivera, to become offensive coordinator. Chudzinski has been a coordinator before, holding the job in the college ranks — at Miami (Fla.) — and with the Browns. He's expected to run a variation of a Don Coryell-style wide-open passing attack but might have to alter his scheme to fit the abilities of whoever is playing quarterback.
Quarterbacks: Cam Newton, the first overall pick in this year's draft, can provide an immediate spark for the offense. He's a dual threat with a strong arm and quick feet to make plays on the run. It could take time for him to get comfortable with the terminology and master the offense, however, and some have questioned his desire to be great. Indications are he worked hard during the lockout, but the work stoppage certainly didn't do him or the Panthers any favors in helping him adapt to the pro game. Jimmy Clausen started 10 games last season and really struggled through a difficult situation (1-9 record). There are high-ranking officials within the organization who support him, and he has gotten a chance to compete against Newton in camp. Clausen is tough, willing to play through pain and can make all the throws, but some say he's arrogant and has not won over the locker room. Ex-Cardinal Derek Anderson was signed after the lockout as an insurance policy in case Newton or Clausen couldn't be depended on. Anderson has good size, but his throws are too often off the mark, and his decision making is suspect. Tony Pike, a tall, slim, narrow-framed drop-back passer, is developing as a backup, but he's not a lock to make the roster.
Running backs: Carolina has great depth at running back, and the group is led by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. They'll handle the vast majority of the carries, but Williams signed a big contract to stay in Carolina this offseason and will be the starter. Injuries have kept him sidelined for parts of the past two seasons but, when healthy, he has an elite burst and elusiveness in the open field. He's patient and keeps a low center of gravity. Stewart runs hard and drives through contact. He does not have the speed to run away from fast defenders, but he's very powerful and will break tackles. He has dealt with nagging injuries for much of his college and pro careers, although he has missed only two games since being drafted in the first round in 2008. Mike Goodson has track-star speed and good lateral quickness. Although he doesn't possess great strength or power, he showed he could handle a significant workload when Stewart and Williams missed time last season. Ball security is a concern with him. Durability is an issue with RB Tyrell Sutton. He's not very elusive, but he has made some nice runs in the limited time he has received and has good hands. FB Tony Fiammetta is tough and very strong, and his strength translates to the field. He can deliver a devastating lead block.
Receivers: Carolina has one of the league's more fearless receivers in Steve Smith, a true playmaker. But the talent level and experience drops off significantly once you get past him on the depth chart, and the battle for reps is wide open. Smith is short for his position, but he's intense, and his reckless style leaves him open to taking some vicious hits. He injured a finger in camp but should be fine. The Panthers spent three draft picks on receivers last year. Brandon LaFell and David Gettis flashed, but Armanti Edwards struggled while transitioning from playing quarterback in college, dressing for only three games. Edwards, elusive and quick, is competing for time in the slot along with fifth-round pick Kealoha Pilares, who is more quick than fast. Former Charger Legedu Naanee also could play in the slot or outside as the No. 2 receiver. Familiarity with the scheme should help him in the competition. LaFell has the size, strength and durability to become a productive possession receiver. He has small hands, though, and will drop passes he should catch. Gettis, a track star as a California prep, has separation speed and is very athletic. He suffered a torn ACL in training camp, however, and is expected to miss the season. Major changes were made at tight end in the offseason, as Rob Chudzinski tapped into the University of Miami pipeline. The team acquired ex-Saint Jeremy Shockey — Chudzinski was his position coach in college — and former Bear Greg Olsen. Olsen has a rare combination of size and speed. He's not an authoritative blocker but can pose a mismatch against linebackers and safeties and has good hands. Shockey's lack of durability is a concern, and he's past his prime. He won't have to carry the load with Olsen on board and can contribute as a solid all-around player. Another free-agent addition, Ben Hartsock, is a blocking specialist.
Offensive linemen: Carolina's front five wasn't at full strength last season because of injuries, and the offense could get a boost if the group reasserts itself as one of the league's better units, particularly when it comes to run blocking. The Panthers have a homegrown offensive line in which they have invested high picks and salaries. C Ryan Kalil, one of the more athletic and technically sound centers in the league, is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances. OLT Jordan Gross was a little rusty early last season — he was returning from suffering a broken leg in November 2009 — but he shook it off before too long and made the Pro Bowl. He's a leader. Gross has good contact balance, and he's smart. The Panthers are hopeful Jeff Otah will assume his usual spot at right tackle after missing all of last season. He's recovering from the knee issues that sidelined him in '10. His game is built on strength and power. Garry Williams started 11 games at right tackle last season but will return to a backup role. Williams has no particularly impressive traits. At guard, Travelle Wharton is returning from injured reserve. He was forced out with turf toe around the middle of last season, but the versatile veteran will start at left guard. Geoff Schwartz is slow-footed, but he protects well inside and shows good strength and toughness. He's dealing with a hip injury and will have to hold off Mackenzy Bernadeau to start at right guard.
The Panthers will have a 4-3 base defense, but expect them to mix in odd fronts and bring extra pressure with the blitz. Head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott both served as assistants for the Eagles under the late Jim Johnson, who was known for running aggressive defenses with a deep collection of blitz packages.
Defensive linemen: Coming off a breakout 2010 season, Charles Johnson was the top free-agent defensive end on the market, and he cashed in, signing a six-year deal to stay with the Panthers. He's not a freakish athlete like the player he replaced, Julius Peppers, but Johnson is a relentless pass rusher and gives great effort. Second-year veteran Greg Hardy slipped in the draft over character concerns, but he was disruptive as a rookie, and the coaching staff views him as an every-down player. Hardy was sidelined at the start of training camp because of injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash, but he has returned to practice and is expected to start opposite Johnson. The Panthers traded their '10 first-round pick to be in position to draft Everette Brown in the second round in '09, but with only six sacks to his credit since then, the team released him Sunday. Eric Norwood is set to play a situational role. Norwood impressed the new coaching staff with his physical play. He's undersized even after gaining seven pounds in the offseason. The interior defensive line was a soft spot last season, and it continues to be a concern. After drafting Cam Newton, Carolina addressed the position with its next two picks, spending two third-rounders on Terrell McClain and Sione Fua. Veteran Ron Edwards was also signed in free agency, but Edwards will spend the season on injured reserve after suffering a torn triceps in training camp. Fua is hardworking and agile for his size. He'll play over the nose and could start. If the Panthers can keep McClain motivated, he has the strength to push the pocket and disrupt plays in the backfield as the three-technique. He eventually could replace Corvey Irvin, who is in the lead to start at three-technique. Kentwan Balmer was picked up off waivers and will also battle for snaps at three-technique.
Linebackers: A versatile, intense and productive player, Jon Beason is one of the top middle linebackers in the league. He can take on and shed and is explosive on contact. He finds the ball quickly and gets downhill in a hurry. Beason underwent surgery on his left Achilles Aug. 23 and it's not yet clear if he'll be ready to play by Week One. Dan Connor and Omar Gaither are options to fill in for him. The Panthers re-signed James Anderson and Thomas Davis to be the starters on the weak and strong sides, respectively. Anderson is coming off a breakout season. He flows to the ball quickly and has good speed. Davis was playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2009 before two ACL tears sent his career off course. The Panthers showed great confidence in him, signing him to a five-year deal, and they expect he's ready to make an impact. Connor has the work ethic and downhill quickness to be a good run-stuffing 'backer. However, he lacks ideal bulk to play inside, and his durability is a concern.
Defensive backs: CB Chris Gamble, who has been a starter since he entered the league in 2004, was benched last season and fell out of a favor with ex-head coach John Fox after he missed practice to tend to a personal matter. Gamble is still the team's top corner and could benefit from a fresh start with a new staff. He has good size and length and has the speed to run with receivers. It's not yet clear who will start opposite Gamble following Richard Marshall's departure via free agency. Rookie Brandon Hogan is still recovering from ACL surgery. If he can put some off-field issues behind him and get healthy, Hogan has the instincts, quickness and competitiveness to become a starter. Captain Munnerlyn lacks ideal size to play outside, but he has proven to be a nice late-round find. He has been the nickel back in the past but is the leading candidate to replace Marshall. Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin make up the starting safety tandem. Godfrey, who led the Panthers with five interceptions last season, is solid in run support and drives through contact. He doesn't have great recovery speed and can be exposed against the deep ball. Martin is less physical than Godfrey and will miss some tackles. The third-year veteran is fluid in his hips and has good short-area burst.
The Panthers parted ways with PK John Kasay, who was with them since their expansion season, and replaced him with former Seahawk Olindo Mare. Carolina wanted a placekicker who also had the leg strength to produce touchbacks on kickoffs consistently, and Mare has a stronger leg than Kasay. A bumbling offense meant more work for P Jason Baker in 2010. He's consistent, but he doesn't have a booming leg. Armanti Edwards, who had some nice preseason flashes, and Captain Munnerlyn are the top punt returners, and the speedy Mike Goodson is the primary kickoff returner.
Quick turnarounds have not been uncommon in the NFC South, but the Panthers will need much better QB play in order to challenge the Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers, each of whom won 10 or more games in 2010. Cam Newton's potential is well-documented, but it's going to take some time before he plays close to it.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.