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With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lockout, we are looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we take a look at the Panthers.
Top three story lines
1. The Panthers have a decision to make at quarterback. They spent the first overall pick on Cam Newton, but will they hand him the starting job right away? Will Newton have to compete against Jimmy Clausen? Or will they avoid a potentially problematic competition and announce that Clausen will open the season as the starter, with a plan in place to bring Newton along slowly and let him dictate when he's ready to play? Each option has its pros and cons. The Panthers will be making a huge investment in Newton and will have to be careful about how they proceed with him.
2. Whoever is under center might not get the opportunity to throw to WR Steve Smith. Smith responded to reports about his status with the Panthers in an interview with PFW earlier this week and said that he has not demanded a trade. He admitted, however, that he wants to be in a "competitive situation." Smith, 32, wants a chance to play for a title contender. The Panthers are coming off a 2-14 season and they could be breaking in a rookie quarterback for the second season in a row. In other words, Carolina is not on the verge of a Super Bowl win. Smith is signed through 2012, and said he could see himself staying with the Panthers, but his future with the team is up in the air.
3. Ron Rivera waited a long time to get his first chance at becoming a head coach. He interviewed eight different times to fill vacancies but failed to get the job until Panthers owner Jerry Richardson gave him an opportunity to lead an NFL team. Rivera will be watched closely as he tries to pull Carolina from the bottom of the NFC South. Rivera, the former defensive coordinator of the Chargers and Bears, inherits a club with some solid veteran talent in certain areas, but it had the worst record in the league last season and has no proven player under center. He has his work cut out for him in a division that featured three teams with double-digit wins last season.
2011 free agency
Unsigned players: S Gerald Alexander (4), OLB James Anderson (5), WR David Clowney (3), OG C.J. Davis (2), OLB Thomas Davis (6), OLB Nic Harris (2), DT Nick Hayden (2), MLB Abdul Hodge (5), S Marcus Hudson (5), OL J.J. Jansen (3), DE Charles Johnson (4), DT Ed Johnson (2), TE Jeff King (5), DT Derek Landri (4), PK Rhys Lloyd (4), CB Richard Marshall (5), WR Charles Martin (2), QB Matt Moore (4), OG Chris Morris (4), QB Keith Null (2), OT Rob Petitti (5), TE Dante Rosario (4), OLB Jordan Senn (3), QB Brian St. Pierre (7), RB DeAngelo Williams (5), OLB Jamar Williams (5), CB C.J. Wilson (4). (Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.)
Analysis: The Panthers would greatly benefit if the league decides to operate under the same rules in free agency that it did in 2010. That would allow them to lock up, or at least receive draft-pick compensation for, key players like Anderson, Charles Johnson, Marshall and DeAngelo Williams, who each received restricted free-agent tenders before the lockout. Those players would draw considerable interest on the open market and could price themselves out of the Panthers' range. Thomas Davis, who hasn't played a down since Week Nine of the '09 season, has said he would like to return to the Panthers and the team appears interested in having him. He's coming off two knee surgeries, though. Clowney, Hudson, Jansen, King, Landri, Lloyd, Moore, Rosario, Senn and Wilson were also tendered, according to the Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald.
2011 rookie class
First-round QB Cam Newton (No. 1 overall) — One of the most athletically gifted quarterbacks to enter the league, the Panthers have staked their future on Newton. He'll have a tough adjustment to make, coming from a simplified college offense to the pros.
Third-round DT Terrell McClain (No. 65 overall) — He should get an opportunity to contribute, if not start, right away. McClain needs to become more consistent and there are questions about his toughness, but he's very strong and quick.
Third-round NT Sione Fua (No. 97 overall) — A former wrestler, Fua is hardworking and is adept at gaining leverage. He can hold the point and is agile for his size.
Fourth-round CB Brandon Hogan (No. 98 overall) — Hogan has the skills needed to become a starter. He comes with some risk — Hogan has found trouble off the field and is coming off a knee injury — but he has a passion for the game.
Fifth-round WR Kealoha Pilares (No. 132 overall) — With a solid build and good hands, Pilares would be a nice fit in the slot. He's not a deep threat and is more quick than fast.
Sixth-round OLB Lawrence Wilson (No. 166 overall) — Wilson fits best on the weak side and could contribute immediately on special teams. He's quick and agile, but can get neutralized when blockers get into him.
Sixth-round C-OG Zack Williams (No. 203 overall) — He has some versatility and will serve as a swing backup on the interior. He has ideal girth to hold his ground.
Seventh-round OT Lee Ziemba (No. 244 overall) — Ziemba struggles against good speed off the edge and is best suited to back up at right tackle. He has good size and length.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Panthers be by the work stoppage?
On a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Panthers rate a 10. They have a first-time head coach with two new coordinators and several starting spots could be open competitions. Plus, they could be starting a rookie quarterback who needs all the practice time he can get. There are veteran leaders on both sides of the ball in OLT Jordan Gross and MLB Jon Beason, but this group doesn't have the benefit of a single commanding presence like the Saints do in Drew Brees. The Panthers are very young and the lockout hits them as hard as any team in the league.