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Panthers training camp preview: positional breakdown

Training camp is right around the corner. Nick Parker gives his positional breakdown of the Panthers.

As Panthers training camp is set to get under way, our Panthers writer breaks down the roster top-to-bottom, from quarterback Cam Newton to punter Brad Newton. For a look at some of team's top rookies, click here:


Quarterback


The 2013 Panthers season hangs on one man’s shoulders: Cam Newton. Newton holds the NFL record for most passing yards in his first two seasons, but still the questions remain. ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen recently ranked Newton 18th among NFL quarterbacks.


That’s why Newton’s the wildcard with this team. With the rest of the roster, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. With Newton, you don’t. Newton’s rookie and sophomore seasons were eerily similar -- he threw for 4,051 yards as a rookie, 3,869 as a sophomore. His completion percentage dipped from 60 percent to 57.7 percent, but his interceptions also dropped from 17 to 12. 


Both years Newton got significantly better as the season progressed after turning the ball over early. In 2011, only three of his 17 interceptions came in the final six games; the Panthers won four of those games. In 2012, a similar story ensued as Newton threw just two INTs in his last seven games with the Panthers winning five of their last seven.


Will Newton take a leap forward though in his third year? Or is this a case of what you see is what you get?  


Running back


The most overpaid running back duo in the NFL -- DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart -- both ran for fewer yards than their quarterback a season ago. Williams looks like a shell of the player who ran for over 1,500 yards in 2008. His 737 yards and 4.3 yards per carry were the third-lowest output of his career and came in a year where he received the bulk of the carries (Stewart missed seven games due to injury).


Stewart only played in nine games but also had the worst year of his career, running for only 3.6 yards per carry. Unless one of these guys can figure out a way to get back to their 2008 or 2009 form, this group should not be considered any better than average. The team did draft a home run threat in prolific Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, but he’s more of a scatback and will need to prove value on special teams to make the roster.


Wide Receiver


Newton’s received a lot of flak over the last two years, mostly because of the lofty reputation and the expectation that he’d dramatically improve in Year Two, but the weapons he’s had to work with could definitely use improvement. Steve Smith’s jersey will likely be retired in Bank of America Stadium at some point, and he did have 1,174 yards a season ago. Nevertheless, he’s 34, only had four TDs in 2012 and his numbers were down in every category from a season prior. That would be OK if the Panthers had a promising young receiver to take the burden off Smith ... but they don’t.


Brandon LaFell has shown promise but has never been consistent enough to become a solid No. 2 receiver. Former Giant Domenik Hixon is another weapon added in free agency who could make a solid No. 3 receiver.


Tight end


Greg Olsen enjoyed a career year in 2012, setting a franchise record for tight ends with 843 receiving yards, and it’s hard to envision a slowdown in 2013. He’s only 28 and was fourth in the league in yards for tight ends. His third year working with Newton should enhance their chemistry so, as long as Olsen can stay healthy, the Panthers appear set at tight end for the near future.


They did lose backup Gary Barnidge to the Cleveland Browns in free agency, but there should not be a significant drop off there with last season’s No. 3 tight end Ben Hartsock stepping in. The Panthers rarely go with two tight end sets, after all. Hartsock should be able to fill that role exclusively in 2013.


Offensive line


There’s no question Jordan Gross isn’t the Pro Bowl left tackle he once was, but it should help having Amini Silatolu back for his second year after Silatolu started 15 games alongside Gross as a rookie. The return of center Ryan Kalil, who made the Pro Bowl from 2009 to 2011 before missing 11 games a season ago with a foot injury, will bolster the line immediately and allow Geoff Hangartner to move back to right guard. Byron Bell will be back as the starter at right tackle for his third year. Garry Williams and Jeff Byers can both play multiple positions along the front and have starting experience.


This unit looks far from elite, but the return of Kalil and the increased cohesion should make this unit slightly better than 2012. The Panthers haven’t added any gamechangers on the offensive side of the ball this offseason, so it’s imperative that the offensive line improve for the offense to be better than mediocre.  


Defensive tackle


What looked like their weakest area on the roster heading into the draft may have emerged as their strongest depth-wise. The Panthers went defensive tackle heavy, taking Star Lotulelei with their first-round pick and Kawann Short with their second-round pick. Both should factor in the rotation immediately, competing alongside veteran nose Dwan Edwards. Edwards is fresh off a career year with 6.5 sacks and should be helped by the infusion of depth and talent. They did lose Ron Edwards in free agency, but third-year players Sione Fua and Frank Kearse have started in the past and provide depth.


If Lotulelei comes anywhere close to living up to his billing, the Panthers should be far better up the middle.


Defensive end


The depth isn’t particularly strong at defensive end but the Panthers have to be thrilled entering the season with Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Frank Alexander to build around. Johnson had the best year of his career in 2012 with 12.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles (second-most in the NFL). Hardy became a monster in the latter half of his third year in the league with nine sacks over his final nine games. He even suggested in the offseason that he’s going for 50 sacks this season. The suggestion is completely absurd, but shows where Hardy’s confidence is and how he feels opposing offensive tackles stack up.


While Johnson and Hardy get all the press, Alexander quietly enjoyed a strong rookie season, registering 2.5 sacks in a backup role. More importantly, though, he had 17 quarterback pressures, just six shy of Hardy’s 23.


However, there’s no real proven depth behind those three, with an unproven quartet of Mario Addison, Craig Rohl, Wes Horton and Louis Nzegwu looking to fill out the roster.


Linebacker


The Panthers found a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber middle linebacker in Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles with 164 after moving to middle linebacker when Jon Beason went down in the fourth game. Beason won’t get that spot back when he returns, but should be more than capable of playing strongside this season if he can beat out free agent pickup Chase Blackburn.


Blackburn played strong and middle with the Giants and is coming off a career-high 98 tackles. Combine that trio with one of the NFL’s better comeback stories -- weakside linebacker Thomas Davis -- and linebacker should be the least of the Panthers’ worries entering training camp in a week. Rookie A.J. Klein provides flexibility with the ability to backup at all three linebacker spots, and Jordan Senn adds depth as well. The back four looks shaky, but this front seven could prove to be fairly stout.


Cornerback


The Panthers were pretty cap strapped in free agency, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t reel in any big-time secondary players. Their theory for improvement seems clear: put more pressure on the quarterback.


Carolina lost veteran corner Chris Gamble, but brought in Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore for depth to challenge alongside Captain Munnerlyn. Neither are spectacular and the Panthers will have to rely heavily on their pass rush to keep them from being out on an island. The Panthers do have some promising young players here, too. Josh Norman started 12 games as a rookie while Josh Thomas and James Dockery each started a couple games in their second year. They'll all need to progress to replace the loss of Gamble.


Safety


When you think of the 2012 Panthers’ safeties, one play stands out: Roddy White beating Haruki Nakamura in the Georgia Dome in a play that set up the game-winning catch of a pivotal comeback victory for the eventual NFC South champion Falcons. That play was but one of many bad ones for a group that was the weakest position on the roster.


Charles Godfrey was decent manning one of the safety spots, but they were never able to find a suitable match alongside him. Nakamura was never the answer and was hurt to end the season -- the Panthers adjusted by sliding Godfrey over to free safety and moving rookie D.J. Campbell to strong safety, where he showed some promise. Still, Campbell’s only entering his second year and free agent pickup Mike Mitchell was an annual backup in Oakland. The Panthers must be confident that someone will step up and man strong safety, though, because they passed on a host of safeties in the draft.


Regardless, this is the unit with the biggest question marks heading into the season.


Special teams


There’s little room for debate: The worst special teams unit in the NFL had to go to the Panthers last year.


The punting game was miserable, finishing last in the NFL with a 36.5 yard net average. The kicking game wasn’t any better, finishing last in the NFL in made field goals at only a 76 percent clip. Punter Brad Nortman and kicker Graham Gano are back to handle those duties; however, rookie punter Jordan Gay and rookie Morgan Lineberry are set to challenge for starting jobs in camp.


The return game was slightly better, but they were still 22nd in in kick return yardage. The Panthers did add a significant weapon in free agency in wide receiver/returner Ted Ginn. Ginn has three kickoff returns for TDs in his career, as well as three punt returns for TDs, so he should compete for the starting position immediately. Barner’s time at Oregon proved he’s electric with the ball in his hands and he’ll be given the opportunity to challenge Ginn at both spots.