RB Mike Tolbert, OT/G Bruce Campbell, C/G Mike Pollak, OLB Kenny Onatolu, S Haruki Nakamura, S Reggie Smith.
Early Draft Picks:
LB Luke Kuechly, OT/G Amini Silatolu, DE Frank Alexander, WR Joe Adams, CB Josh Norman, P Brad Nortman.
RB Mike Goodson, WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey, OT/G Geoff Schwartz, G Travelle Wharton, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, OLB Thomas Williams, ILB Dan Connor.
2012 Carolina Panthers Offense:
Some NFL analysts thought Cam Newton would eventually be a dynamic play-maker in the NFL. Other pundits stated that there was too much of a transition from Auburn's goofy offense to a pro-style attack. No one predicted that Newton would have immediate success - great enough that he would break a slew of league rookie records.
There are too many achievements to list. The most prominent ones are "most passing yards by a quarterback in a debut game" (422); "sixth quarterback to throw 400-plus yards in back-to-back games;" "most passing yards by a rookie in a season" (4,051); "most rushing touchdowns in a single season by a quarterback" (14); and "first player in NFL history with 4,000-plus yards and 500-rushing yards in a season."
It's mind-boggling how prolific Newton was. The question is: Can he do it again, and perhaps even improve upon his rookie campaign? It's a tough one. A pessimist would say that Newton slowed down a bit down the stretch. Consider that he threw for 208 yards or fewer in five of his final six games. A pessimist might also argue that NFL teams now have a season's worth of tape on Newton, so the young quarterback will have to adjust to what the defensive coordinators plan on throwing at him.
The optimist, however, would just point out that Newton has always proven his doubters wrong. He has yet to fail. Newton has also told the media that he has worked on stuff this offseason, and that his improvement is "through the roof."
Newton's progression, of course, depends somewhat on Steve Smith, who had a rebound 2011 campaign after mailing it in the year before (and understandably so). Smith registered 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns last year, but it's fair to expect some regression. Smith is 33 now, and receivers usually begin declining at the age of 32. His performance will be key because the Panthers don't have anyone else at wideout. Their No. 2 receiver is Brandon LaFell, who has serious problems getting open. Tight end Greg Olsen, meanwhile, will have to rebound from a dismal season.
Newton does have someone new to throw to, and that would be former San Diego running back Mike Tolbert. The 245-pounder will be the team's new fullback, acting as a safety valve in the passing game. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams will continue to share carries until Ron Rivera finally discovers that the former is the superior athlete. Williams is only receiving touches because he's paid much more.
Of course, Carolina's running game, especially in the red zone, is mostly Newton. He'll have to do more scrambling this year because the Panthers lost guard Travelle Wharton to the Bengals. Amini Silatolu, a second-round rookie, will step into that spot, though he may eventually end up at right tackle if Jeff Otah can't stay healthy. Otah has played in just four games the past two seasons because of chronic knee problems. If Otah can't play again, Byron Bell will once again start again, which would prove to be disastrous because he's terrible. He was guilty of 12 penalties and seven sacks last year - the latter being a very high number considering Newton's mobility.
Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is solid. Left tackle Jordan Gross struggled a bit in the middle of the season because of an ankle injury, but was solid otherwise. Ryan Kalil is one of the premier centers in the NFL. Right guard Geoff Hangartner is a decent starter with versatility.
2012 Carolina Panthers Defense:
There are several contracts each spring that are very strange. Tampa's Eric Wright receiving five years and $37.5 million, for example, was simply idiotic. One of the weird deals last year was Charles Johnson's 6-year, $76 million with $32 million in guarantees. Johnson, a one-year wonder at the time, somehow obtained more money than Nnadmi Asomugha.
Johnson didn't exactly validate the contract, but he didn't disappoint either. He tallied nine sacks and continued to play the run well, though he had a high amount of penalties (8). But Johnson was far and way the best lineman on Carolina's roster. Left end Greg Hardy performed well at times, but every other Panther lineman struggled mightily, mainly the defensive tackles.
The general consensus heading into the 2012 NFL Draft was that Carolina would heavily consider defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to upgrade the position. Sources told this Web site, however, that Cox was not an option because the front office was comfortable with the situation at the position. It's unclear why. The team spent two third-round picks on defensive tackles last year. Sione Fua wasn't bad in run support, but Terrell McClain struggled in every aspect. Ron Edwards will be back from torn triceps, but he's 33 and offers no pass-rushing ability.
The Panthers passed on Cox, but obtained an even better prospect in linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has been compared to Brian Urlacher in some circles. They needed Kuechly, considering that Dan Connor left for Dallas, Thomas Davis can't stay healthy, and Jon Beason is coming off a torn Achilles and may not be 100 percent until 2013. The third player in the linebacking corps is James Anderson, who had a terrific 2011 campaign in every facet. He has no weaknesses and can remain on the field on every single down.
Excluding the defensive tackle position, Carolina's area of greatest defensive weakness is the secondary. Chris Gamble is a good player, but the Panthers had absolutely nothing across from him. Captain Munnerlyn was used last year, but he didn't play very well. The Panthers will be hoping that 2011 fourth-round pick Brandon Hogan will be ready by September, but he recently told the media that he's not 100-percent recovered from ACL surgery, which took place in December 2010. It's also worth noting that fifth-round rookie Josh Norman has looked like a stud in OTAs. He could push for the starting job.
The safety situation is just as dubious. Strong safety Charles Godfrey struggles in coverage, while free safety Sherrod Martin is a liability against the run. The Panthers signed two possible replacements in free agency (Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith), but it's likely that neither new addition will pan out.
2012 Carolina Panthers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Panthers need to develop a strong homefield advantage. They were just 3-5 as hosts last year, with their only wins coming against the mediocre Redskins, and dreadful Jaguars and Buccaneers. They should have been able to defeat the Vikings, Titans and Falcons.
The John Kasay era concluded a year ago. The last original Panther retired and was replaced by Olindo Mare, who went just 22-of-28, with 0-of-2 from 50-plus. Carolina did not bring in any competition for the 39-year-old.
The front office spent a late-round pick on punter Brad Nortman because Jason Baker was awful last year.
Carolina had atrocious special-teams play last year. Kealoha Pilares returned a kickoff for a touchdown, but the team surrendered a whopping three punt returns for scores.
The Panthers have their work cut out for them. Five of their first seven opponents are the Saints, Giants, Falcons, Cowboys and Bears. And no, it doesn't get easier. The second half of the season is laden with tough foes like the Broncos, Eagles, Chiefs, Falcons, Chargers and Saints.
2012 Carolina Panthers Analysis: There's some good news and bad news. The good includes the Saints' Bountygate scandal, several players returning from injury and Cam Newton's possible progression. The bad includes a really tough schedule, awful defensive and special-teams units and Newton's possible sophomore slump.
Newton obviously has a huge say in how Carolina fares in 2012. The Panthers could be a playoff team, but they could also struggle if defensive coordinators find a solution for Newton. There's a better chance the former scenario will occur.
Goals Entering the 2012 NFL Draft: The Panthers have their franchise quarterback in place. Now, they have to build around him and improve their defense. Upgrades can be acquired at almost every position on the stop unit.
2012 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Many projected Fletcher Cox to Carolina because defensive tackle apparently was its biggest need. The Panthers instead opted for Luke Kuechly, the top player available at No. 9 overall. Kuechly didn't fill an obvious hole, but Carolina could not rely on the injury-prone Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, who is coming off a torn Achilles.
The fact that the Panthers didn't select a defensive tackle whatsoever is quite puzzling. I was told by a reliable source to "move on" from mocking Cox to Carolina a few days prior to the draft because the team believed that defensive tackle was not a need. The front office believed in Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, and it had Ron Edwards coming back from injury. That sounds like a huge misevaluation of talent.
On a positive note, I liked some selections the Panthers made. Amini Silatolu should bolster the offensive front. Joe Adams projects as a nice deep threat for Cam Newton. And Josh Norman, filling the cornerback need, was a steal in the fifth round.
2012 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
9. Luke Kuechly, OLB, Boston College: A Grade
Luke Kuechly might be the best defensive player from this class. He's a stud, so the Panthers made a great move by selecting the top prospect on the board. With Jon Beason and Thomas Davis being so unreliable, Carolina had to address the linebacker position.
40. Amini Silatolu, G/OT, Midwestern State: A Grade
Amini Silatolu was projected by some to be a late first-round pick, so he provides great value at No. 40. Silatolu can play guard and tackle, both of which are areas of need. There's a hole at guard because Travelle Wharton was cut, while Jeff Otah can't seem to stay healthy.
103. Frank Alexander, DE, Oklahoma: B Grade
Mike Mayock had Frank Alexander as his No. 94 player. The Panthers have to improve their pass rush, so while I don't love this pick, it definitely makes sense.
104. Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas: A- Grade
Joe Adams is a fast receiver. With Steve Smith entering the final stages of his career, the Panthers needed someone to take his spot in a few years. Adams, who provides decent value here, could be that guy.
143. Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina: A+ Grade
I can't believe Josh Norman lasted until the fifth round. He should have gone in the third. Mike Mayock had him ranked No. 58. Norman fills a big need at cornerback across from Chris Gamble.
207. Brad Nortman, P, Wisconsin: B- Grade
It's hard to get excited about a punter, but the Panthers needed one.
216. D.J. Campbell, S, California: B Grade
The Panthers need some safety depth and D.J. Campbell fits the range in Round 7. Solid pick.
What a difference a franchise quarterback can make. Carolina was absolutely dreadful in 2010, finishing 2-14 and constantly getting blown out. Cam Newton, however, exceeded expectations, and while the Panthers were just 6-10, they were in position to win several more contests. They'll definitely be in the playoff mix next year.
Bears sign DT DeMario Pressley
Dolphins sign WR Legedu Naanee
Panthers sign S Reggie Smith
Panthers re-sign LB Jordan Senn
Raiders acquire RB Mike Goodson from Panthers for OT/G Bruce Campbell
Panthers re-sign DE Antwan Applewhite
Panthers sign C/G Mike Pollak
Vikings sign OT/G Geoff Schwartz
Panthers sign RB Mike Tolbert
Bengals sign G Travelle Wharton
Panthers sign OLB Kenny Onatolu
Cowboys sign G Mackenzy Bernadeau
Panthers sign S Haruki Nakamura
Panthers cut DT DeMario Pressley
Cowboys sign ILB Dan Connor
Panthers re-sign QB Derek Anderson
Panthers cut G Travelle Wharton
Panthers re-sign G Geoff Hangartner
Panthers re-sign OLB Jason Phillips
Defensive Tackle: Carolina spent a pair of third-round picks last year on defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Fua wasn't that bad as a rookie, but McClain was awful, constantly getting abused against the run. The Panthers could spend a second-rounder on someone like Brandon Thompson in April.
Cornerback: There are many reasons why the Panthers ranked dead last versus aerial attacks in terms of YPA (8.4). One of which is the cornerback position; they don't have anything across from Chris Gamble. Drafted Josh Norman
Left Guard: The Panthers cut Travelle Wharton as a cap casualty. Signed Mike Pollak; traded for Bruce Campbell
Strongside Linebacker: Can Thomas Davis ever stay healthy? He's played in just two games the past couple of seasons, thanks to his third-career torn ACL suffered in Week 2. Linebacker depth is also needed if Dan Connor departs via free agency. Drafted Luke Kuechly
Right Tackle: Jeff Otah has played in just four games the past two seasons because of knee and back injuries. He's unreliable, so if the Panthers don't believe he can stay healthy, they could use the No. 9 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on Riley Reiff or Jonathan Martin. If not, they should use a later selection on insurance. Drafted Amini Silatolu
Two Safeties: Sherrod Martin played the worst game I've ever seen from a safety in a Week 17 loss at New Orleans. He can't be allowed to start again. Charles Godfrey isn't much better. Signed Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith
Wide Receiver: Steve Smith took the year off in 2010, but actually tried hard last season, proving that he can still perform on a high level. However, he turns 33 in May, so there could be a big decline coming. The Panthers need a new No. 2 receiver at the moment regardless. Drafted Joe Adams
Kicker: Olindo Mare, 39 in June, was just 22-of-28 (78.6%) in 2011.
2012 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Mike Tolbert, RB, Chargers. Age: 26. Signed with Panthers (4 years)
If you play fantasy football, you know about Mike Tolbert. He is a power runner with solid pass-catching ability.
Mike Pollak, C/G, Colts. Age: 27. Signed with Panthers
Mike Pollak was in and out of the lineup in 2011 due to inconsistency, but he played well at times. He won't kill you if you have to start him at guard or center.
Haruki Nakamura, S, Ravens. Age: 26. -- Signed with Panthers (3 years)
Reggie Smith, S, 49ers. Age: 25. -- Signed with Panthers
Kenny Onatolu (RFA), OLB, Vikings. Age: 29. -- Signed with Panthers (3 years)
Carolina Panthers Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Dan Connor, ILB, Panthers. Age: 26. Signed with Cowboys
Don't expect Dan Connor to be back with the Panthers; otherwise, he'll have to play behind Jon Beason. Connor is talented and young, and could easily be a starter somewhere else.
Travelle Wharton, G, Panthers. Age: 31. Signed with Bengals
Travelle Wharton is mediocre in pass protection, but he's one hell of a run-blocker. He was cut because he was owed almost $6 million in 2012. Wharton will be a good signing for power-blocking teams.
Geoff Hangartner, G/C, Panthers. Age: 30. Re-signed with Panthers
The Bills jettisoned Geoff Hangartner, but he bounced back and actually performed pretty well for the Panthers at right guard.
Geoff Schwartz (RFA), OT/G, Panthers. Age: 26. Signed with Vikings (1 year)
Geoff Schwartz played well in 2010 at both right tackle and right guard, but he missed all of 2011 with a hip injury.
Legedu Naanee, WR, Panthers. Age: 28. -- Signed with Dolphins (1 year)
Antwan Applewhite, DE, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Re-signed with Panthers
Mackenzy Bernadeau, G, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Cowboys (4 years, $11 million)
Thomas Williams, OLB, Panthers. Age: 27.
Jeremy Shockey, TE, Panthers. Age: 32.
Omar Gaither, OLB, Panthers. Age: 28.
Jason Phillips (RFA), OLB, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Re-signed with Panthers (1 year)
DeMario Pressley, DT, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Bears
2012 NFL Free Agent Rankings Coming Soon
Divisional Rival History: Atlanta Falcons: The host has won six of the past eight meetings. The Falcons had a fluky comeback at Carolina in 2011 though. New Orleans Saints: The road team has inexplicably won 11 of the previous 17 matchups. The Saints have swept the past two years though. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After losing 11 of 14 meetings to Carolina, the Buccaneers swept the Panthers in 2010. Things were back to normal in 2011.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2012 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)