WR Domenik Hixon, DT Colin Cole, ILB Chase Blackburn, CB D.J. Moore, CB Drayton Florence, S Michael Mitchell, KR Ted Ginn.
Early Draft Picks:
DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, G Edmnd Kugbila, ILB A.J. Klein. Panthers Rookie Forecast Offseason Losses:
WR Louis Murphy, TE Gary Barnidge, C Mike Pollak, DE/OLB Antwan Applewhite, DT Ron Edwards, DT Andre Neblett, OLB James Anderson, OLB Jason Phillips, CB Chris Gamble, S Sherrod Martin.
2013 Carolina Panthers Offense:
The Panthers go as Cam Newton goes. That could be said for most teams and their quarterback, but Cam Newton is such a huge part of Carolina's offense because he's responsible for a big chunk of the rushing yardage in addition to all of the passing numbers. Newton's impact on the team was seen throughout the 2012 campaign. He opened the year with eight interceptions to just five passing touchdowns in his first seven games, and the Panthers were 1-6 as a consequence. However, Newton caught fire toward the end, maintaining a 10-to-2 aerial touchdown-to-pick ratio in his final six contests. It should not be surprising that Carolina went 5-1 in that span.
So, can Newton parlay his hot finish into a strong start this year? It's possible, but somewhat unlikely. Rob Chudzinski, Carolina's former offensive coordinator, was an integral part of turning Newton's season around. He's now the head coach of the Browns, so Newton will be in a new system in 2013. Perhaps Newton can thrive under Mike Shula. Shula is Newton's former quarterbacks coach, after all - but it might take time.
If Newton does play well, it'll have to be with the same mediocre supporting cast. Carolina has just two legitimate receiving targets: Steve Smith and Greg Olsen. The latter is coming off a nice season (69 catches, 843 yards, five touchdowns) in which he had an expanded role in the wake of Jeremy Shockey's departure. Smith is a different story, however. He was brilliant in 2011, but dropped off a bit this past season, snagging just four touchdowns and seeing his yards-per-reception figure drop by 1.5 yards. Smith turned 34 in May, so his skills will disappear soon - perhaps even this year.
The Panthers have to find a future top wideout soon. Their No. 2 receiver right now, Brandon LaFell, caught 44 balls for 677 yards and four touchdowns in 2012. LaFell probably shouldn't be a starter in this league, as he struggles to get separation. The problem is that Carolina doesn't have anyone else turn to. The team will have to make the receiver position one of its top priorities next spring.
Running back is also a problem for Carolina, which is ridiculous considering how much money the old regime dumped into Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Stewart was pretty sluggish, averaging 3.6 yards per carry in 2012. He always seems to be nursing some sort of injury, so he's pretty unreliable. Williams was slightly better, but he's highly inconsistent. He had plenty of 11-carry, 21-yard-type games, though he did end the season with a 21-210-2 line at New Orleans, which was pretty shocking to say the least.
Stewart and Williams are wildly overrated, but a weak offensive line didn't do them any favors. Right tackle Jeff Otah was a powerful mauler in the ground game, but he was dumped prior to the 2012 season because he couldn't pass a physical. Byron Bell replaced him, but was pretty brutal. He allowed six sacks and couldn't open up many running lanes. Of course, Bell wasn't the only issue up front, as both guards, Amini Silatolu and Geoff Hangartner, struggled for the most part.
Silatolu improved toward the end of the season, so there's at least some hope that the offensive line, with the exception of left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil, won't be completely inept. All five starters are currently projected to be in the opening-day lineup again, though fourth-round rookie Edmund Kugbila could push Hangartner for the right guard job. If he can play well, the only glaring hole will be at right tackle - though that assumes that Kalil will be able to bounce back from a Lisfranc injury that limited him to just five games in 2012.
2013 Carolina Panthers Defense:
To win the NFC South, the Panthers will obviously need to beat the Falcons and Saints. Both Atlanta and New Orleans have elite quarterbacks, which means that Carolina's secondary has to be up to the challenge. Unfortunately for the Panthers, its defensive backfield definitely won't be.
Carolina has one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Cornerback Chris Gamble surprisingly announced his retirement this offseason, which means that the two starters at the position are projected to be Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman. Munnerlyn isn't too bad, but Norman struggled mightily as a rookie last year. He was benched in early December for Josh Thomas, who wasn't much better. Veteran Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore were signed this offseason, but neither is close to being an upgrade over Norman.
The safety position is also in pretty bad shape. Charles Godfrey is a liability, but even he's better than Haruki Nakamura, who was torched on several crucial plays in 2012. He missed the final four weeks of the season with a groin injury, but there wasn't much of a drop-off when he was out. The Panthers were expected to find some competition for him this spring, but all they could do was sign Al Davis bust Michael Mitchell. He's not going to be any sort of difference-maker.
The Panthers failed to address both cornerback and safety because they concentrated on upgrading the interior of the defensive front in the 2013 NFL Draft. What they had at defensive tackle was even worse than their secondary problems, so it's hard to blame them for using that strategy. They spent their first two picks on Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Lotulelei, once projected to be a top-five selection, fell a bit because of a heart scare that wasn't deemed to be very serious. He's a big run-stuffer who will be able to get to the quarterback on occasion. Short, meanwhile, is a pure pass-rusher. He provided good value in the middle of Round 2.
Short will bolster an already-decent pass rush that accumulated 39 sacks in 2012. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were responsible for 23.5 of those sacks. The two stud ends will have to play just as well this season to assist their poor secondary. If one of them gets hurt, the Panthers won't completely be in trouble because Frank Alexander is a quality reserve, but it'll definitely help expose how abysmal their defensive backfield is.
Carolina's secondary is the only weak part of the defense, as the linebacking corps complements the defensive line well. Luke Kuechly, chosen ninth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, struggled at weakside linebacker as a rookie, but dominated once he moved into the middle. He'll stay there this season and will have Jon Beason and Thomas Davis flanking him again. Beason and Davis are very effective when healthy, but they've both dealt with numerous injuries in recent years. The Panthers signed Chase Blackburn from the Giants and used a mid-round pick on Iowa State's A.J. Klein for insurance.
2013 Carolina Panthers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Panthers need to develop a strong homefield advantage. They were just 3-5 at home last year compared to being 4-4 on the road. They're a pathetic 8-16 as hosts in the past three seasons.
Carolina's kicker is Graham Gano, who replaced Justin Medlock this past season. Gano was 9-of-11, but could easily regress in 2013 because he has struggled throughout his career.
The front office spent a late-round pick in 2012 on punter Brad Nortman. He was brutal as a rookie, tying for last in net-punting average. He barely got any of his attempts inside the 20 either.
Carolina handled opposing returns well, but struggled to do anything on its own. That's why the team signed Ted Ginn away from the 49ers.
The Panthers have their work cut out for them. They have six games against teams that made the playoffs last year (Falcons twice, Seahawks, 49ers, Vikings, Patriots). That doesn't include battles against the Saints (twice), Giants and Rams, all of whom should be better in 2013.
2013 Carolina Panthers Rookies:
Go here for the Panthers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2013 Carolina Panthers Analysis: Cam Newton and the Panthers made some great progress toward the end of the 2012 season, but it's fair to wonder if their momentum won't carry over to 2013 with a new offensive coordinator. Newton's mentality has such a big impact on how the team does, so the new coaching situation could help derail Carolina this season. Having said that, Carolina will be competitive enough to fight for a playoff spot.
Please note that the overall grade is not an average of all the individual grades. Other things are taken into account like team needs and goals.
Goals Entering the 2013 NFL Draft: Adding some help around Cam Newton would be nice, but the Panthers have to repair one of the worst defensive units in football. If they want to pass the Falcons and Saints, they'll need to at least slow down Matt Ryan and Drew Brees just a bit.
2013 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Panthers had just five picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, but they seemed to be off to a very good start during the first two days. They lucked into having Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd fall right into their laps, thanks to the inept teams drafting in front of them. They opted for the former and then went back to the same position in the second round with Kawann Short. I had no issue with this, given how terrible the defensive tackle group was for Carolina last year.
The problem I have with the Panthers' draft class was their failure to address their woeful secondary. Sure, they'll have much more of a push up front, but Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will still be able to torch their putrid defensive backfield.
I understand that Carolina had limited options because of its five selections, but not spending one pick on the secondary was pretty inexcusable.
2013 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
14. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: A Grade
I think Sharrif Floyd would have been a better pick because A) he's a superior pass-rusher and B) he doesn't have any sort of health concerns. But this is still a great pick for the Panthers because they needed tons of help on the interior of their defensive line. Star Lotulelei would have gone in the top 10 if smarter teams were drafting there, so Carolina is reaping the benefits, much like other smarter teams will in the second half of the draft.
44. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: B+ Grade
Back-to-back defensive tackles for the Panthers? Well, it makes sense considering how terrible they were at the position. Short's range was around 28-45, so there is pretty solid value with this selection. The only concern I have here is that the Panthers don't pick again until Round 4, and they have yet to address their woeful secondary.
108. Edmund Kugbila, G, Valdosta State: C Grade
This is a reach, as Edmund Kugbila was widely viewed as a sixth- or a seventh-round prospect. The Panthers needed some competition at the guard position, so maybe Kugbila can eventually claim a starting job.
148. A.J. Klein, ILB, Iowa State: B Grade
I thought A.J. Klein would be a fourth-rounder, so this is a nice value selection. Klein won't project as a starter, but he'll provide depth for a Carolina team that wasn't very deep at linebacker.
182. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: B Grade
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both immensely overpaid, so one of them will have to go soon. Once that happens, Kenjon Barner will be a nice change-of-pace back. No surprise that he went around the sixth frame.
The Panthers finished 7-9, but they were way better than that. They nearly defeated the Falcons in Atlanta, fell just short of the Buccaneers in overtime and played the Seahawks, Cowboys, Bears and galvanized Chiefs (post-Jovan Belcher death) to within a touchdown. Given that, as well as Cam Newton's budding confidence that he gained during his 5-1 finish down the stretch, Carolina fans have lots to look forward to in 2013.
Buccaneers sign DT Andre Neblett
Bengals sign C Mike Pollak
Panthers sign WR Domenik Hixon
Panthers sign ILB Chase Blackburn
Bears sign OLB James Anderson
Panthers re-sign DT Dwan Edwards
Panthers sign WR Ted Ginn
Panthers re-sign CB Captain Munnerlyn
Panthers sign S Michael Mitchell
Panthers sign CB D.J. Moore
Giants sign WR Louis Murphy
Panthers re-sign QB Derek Anderson
Panthers sign CB Drayton Florence
Browns sign TE Gary Barnidge
Eagles sign OLB Jason Phillips
Panthers re-sign TE Ben Hartsock
Panthers cut OLB James Anderson
Panthers cut CB Chris Gamble
Panthers re-sign OLB Jordan Senn
Panthers cut DT Ron Edwards
Panthers sign DT Colin Cole
Two Cornerbacks: Carolina needed to find an upgrade across from Chris Gamble. Gamble was cut, so two corners are needed. Re-signed Captain Munnerlyn; signed Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore
Two Defensive Tackles: The Panthers really have nothing at defensive tackle, especially with Dwan Edwards about to hit free agency. They need two upgrades at the position, and they could start with Sheldon Richardson with the 14th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Drafted Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short; signed Colin Cole; re-signed Dwan Edwards
Free Safety: Hiro Nakamura could stop time. Haruki Nakamura can't stop anyone. He has to be upgraded. There will be plenty of options in Round 2 this April. Signed Michael Mitchell
Right Tackle: Cam Newton needs better protection up front. Right tackle Byron Bell replaced Jeff Otah and was exposed as a liability. He needs to be upgraded. Also, a potential successor for left tackle Jordan Gross needs to be found soon. Gross will be 33 in July.
Right Guard: Another upgrade for the offensive line. Geoff Hangartner is versatile to play all three positions inside, but he's not that good. Drafted Edmund Kugbila
Wide Receiver: The Panthers could use a better No. 2 than Brandon LaFell, but their primary need for a receiver is for an eventual replacement for Steve Smith as the top option. Signed Ted Ginn
Punter: Brad Nortman had the second-worst net punting average in 2012.
Kicker: Graham Gano went 9-of-11 to replace the waived Justin Medlock, but he shouldn't be trusted.
Linebacker: Some depth should be added here because Jon Beason and Thomas Davis cannot be counted on to stay healthy. Signed Chase Blackburn; re-signed Jordan Senn; drafted A.J. Klein
2013 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Ted Ginn, KR, 49ers. Age: 28. Signed with Panthers
Ted Ginn didn't score a special-teams touchdown for the first time since 2008, but was still effective taking back punts.
Chase Blackburn, ILB, Giants. Age: 30. Signed with Panthers (2 years)
Chase Blackburn was OK at times last year, but killed his team in some games. He needs to be upgraded.
Domenik Hixon, WR, Giants. Age: 28. -- Signed with Panthers
D.J. Moore, CB, Bears. Age: 26. -- Signed with Panthers
Michael Mitchell, S, Raiders. Age: 26. -- Re-signed with Panthers
Drayton Florence, CB, Lions. Age: 32. -- Signed with Panthers (1 year)
Carolina Panthers Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Chris Gamble, CB, Panthers. Age: 30.
Chris Gamble played in only four games this past season because of a shoulder injury, but he's still a pretty solid cornerback. However, he's 30 so his best days are behind him.
Dwan Edwards, DT, Panthers. Age: 32. Re-signed with Panthers
Dwan Edwards can do a decent job of getting to the quarterback on occasion, but he has to be limited to passing downs because he gets gashed against the run.
Ben Hartsock, TE, Panthers. Age: 33. Re-signed with Panthers
Ben Hartsock offers nothing as a pass-catcher, but he's one of the better blocking tight ends in football.
Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Panthers. Age: 25. Re-signed with Panthers
Captain Munnerlyn was benched early in the season, but eventually regained his starting job when Chris Gamble got hurt. He did an OK job.
James Anderson, OLB, Panthers. Age: 29. -- Signed with Bears (1 year)
Sherrod Martin, S, Panthers. Age: 28.
Antwan Applewhite, DE/OLB, Panthers. Age: 27.
Louis Murphy, WR, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Giants
Gary Barnidge, TE, Panthers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Browns (3 years)
Jason Phillips (RFA), OLB, Panthers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Eagles (2 years)
Andre Neblett (RFA), DT, Panthers. Age: 25. -- Signed with Buccaneers
Jordan Senn, OLB, Panthers. Age: 29. -- Re-signed with Panthers