The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it’s time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
2012 Record: 7-9. Missed the playoffs
Which player is under the most pressure?
The early success of Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III have piled the pressure on top of Cam Newton. Similar to Wilson and Griffin, Newton had phenomenal numbers as a rookie and was poised to transform the quarterback position for generations to come. Well, that lasted one year. Wilson and RG3 played the part of the athletic quarterback just as well as Newton, and also led their teams into the playoffs. Newton, who was once viewed as the new-wave athletic quarterback, now looks like the outdated model in need of a makeover in just his third season.
Newton will only overcome the media criticism of being a me-first player by winning — something he has struggled to do in his first two seasons with just six and seven wins, respectively. There is light at the end of the tunnel though as Carolina did win six of their last seven games to end last season and losing is rare territory for a player that has won a national championship at every level.
What is the position battle to watch?
This isn’t so much of a position battle, but rather one in which both players involved need to step up and make an impact as a pair. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams each surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on their own in 2009 but have barely combined for the same total over the last three seasons. Last year, Newton had 741 yards on the ground and was the leading rusher on the team. There is too much money tied up in that backfield for the quarterback to be the most productive rusher. The tandem of Williams and Stewart need to get back on track if the Panthers want to get back in the winning column. The last season the Panthers didn’t finished with a losing record was 2009, when each player broke the 1,000-yard mark.
What is the team’s biggest obstacle?
The franchise’s biggest obstacles actually have nothing to do with the Panthers. Those two obstacles are named Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. Sure, there are things they can do to try and overcome those obstacles, but they didn’t seem to be overly aggressive in trying to do that do this offseason.The Panthers brought in two new corners to bolster the leagues 18th-best scoring defense, but there is a reason Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn were on the open market. To make matters worse, the Panthers’ best corner and career interceptions record holder, Chris Gamble, decided to retire this offseason, ending his nine-year career abruptly.
As it stands now, Josh Morgan and Munnerlyn will enter the preseason as the starting corners but I’m not sure that is good enough in a division in which Drew Brees and Matt Ryan threw for a combined 9,896 yards last season.
Which rookie stands the best chance to succeed?
This is a rookie group that has the best chance to succeed because of their first two picks, who are both defensive tackles. The 14th overall selection, Star Lotulelei, has drawn comparisons to Haloti Ngata. While that may be a stretch, he is still a great talent in his own right. At 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, Lotulelei will impact the rush defense immediately by eating space and moving the pile with his brute strength. He must develop his technique and pass-rush skills if he wants to be a consistent three-down player. With the 44th overall pick, the Panthers doubled-down with Kawann Short from Purdue. Much like Lotulelei, Short is a big body that can plug gaps up front, but Short provides a little more versatility to his game. As a junior at Purdue, Short tallied 6 1/2 sacks and that ability will be beneficial in the pass-happy NFC South. As a tandem, Lotulelei has more raw potential, but Short’s ability to impact both phases of an opponent’s offense will be invaluable.
What is the team’s biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
Neither one of these guys are going to become Pro Bowlers in this offense, but signing two new receivers for Newton had to be a priority this offseason. The Panthers came away with Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon. Both aren’t the shiniest sports cars, but each could have an impact in this offense, which is in need of playmakers other than Steve Smith at wide receiver. Look for Ginn to catch some quick bubble screen-type passes to spread the field and keep the defense running from sideline to sideline. Ginn hasn’t developed into the big-play receiver he was at Ohio State, but with the spread offense in Carolina, Newton can get him the ball early and let him make plays in space. Hixon is a bigger receiver that did well in spot duty for the Giants last season. He started three games with the Giants in 2012 and caught 12 balls for 177 yards in those games. With Smith drawing attention down the field, Hixon should get some chances to go up and get the ball in one-on-one coverage. Like I said, neither one of these guys are going to raise any eyebrows when scrolling through the media guide, but both are nice fits for an offense that needed help at wide receiver.