NFL Team Previews: Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers ushered in a new era last year as Cam Newton took over at quarterback and gave Ron Rivera’s first year as head coach an electric quality to it, as the Panthers improved from 2-14 to 6-10 and it seemed like they won more than that, given how Newton dominated the Sunday evening highlight shows. Now the expectations are increased in Charlotte. Will the wins follow? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Panthers…

OFFENSE: Newton is well-protected on his blind side by left tackle Jordan Gross and the line has a solid anchor in center Ryan Kalil. Both Kalil and Gross are among the best in the league at their positions and gives the line some stability as Carolina has to do some shuffling and development at the other spots. But the blind side is secure, and Newton’s athleticism will cover for a lot of mistakes in pass protection.

Carolina has a package of running backs that can also compensate for a few shortcomings up front. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart remain as good a 1-2 punch as there is in the NFL, and the Panthers went out and added fullback Mike Tolbert in free agency. Whether using their free agent money to add to an area of the team that’s already strong was debatable, but Tolbert’s talent running inside, blocking and even catching passes can’t be disputed. It’s the receivers that are the question marks. Even as a #1 target Steve Smith is a loose cannon, so you never quite know what to expect. You do know what to expect of everyone else in the receivers corps and that’s nothing.

DEFENSE: Rivera’s a defensive coordinator by trade and he’s got a good group of linebackers, anchored by middle man Jon Beason, and the team picked Luke Kuechly out of Boston College to play the weakside. I like the choice of Kuechly. He’s not a big-play man, but a steady tackler who will fit into a 4-3 scheme perfectly. That’s a description that fits this group in general.

The big plays on defense have to come up front in the 4-3 and that’s an area that’s a potential problem. Individually, the ends are pretty good, especially Charles Johnson. But they need to come up with more sacks, and the inside of the defensive front is a soft spot. The secondary is a similar mixed bag. Chris Gamble’s a solid talent at one corner and Charles Godfrey is an asset at strong safety, but the other two spots are vulnerabilities. If Rivera can fix the problems in both the front and back of the defense, this can be an extremely good group. More realistically, the head coach will have to aim for producing a unit that can at least be manageable and allow Newton and the running game to produce the wins.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 7.5—You can see the optimism surrounding this team in the posted number, since you need a minimum two-win improvement just to squeak out the Over. That’s a reason for caution, but in the end I can’t see Carolina winning any fewer than seven games and a 10-11 win season is a reasonable hope. There’s more room the Over side when evaluating this team for 2012.