Panthers training camp: 10 things to watch

Panthers training camp: 10 things to watch

Published Jul. 19, 2012 9:41 a.m. ET

The Carolina Panthers open training camp July 27 full of optimism.

Despite dealing with a plethora of injuries, Carolina improved from 1-15 in 2010 to 6-10 a year ago in the rookie seasons of record-setting quarterback Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera. Expectations in the Queen City are high, as most fans expect a trip to the playoffs.

The Panthers have a difficult schedule, but if they are healthy and some of their offseason moves work out, this should be more than just an entertaining season. The team has a chance to win more than it did last fall.

Here are 10 issues facing the Panthers as camp nears:

1. Sophomore slump? Is it possible someone as physically gifted and unflappable as Newton still experiences the dreaded sophomore slump? His numbers (4,051 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes) might not be as impressive in 2012, but it's likely his TD passes could increase. But his overall ability as an NFL quarterback should be improved, and that — as much as, if not more than, racking up better numbers — could result in more victories.

2. Good health. The Panthers' offense had important injuries that kept guard Jeff Otah from playing at all and limited receiver David Gettis' time on the field, but the team was really decimated by injuries to defensive players. Losing two rookie starters at tackle and a rookie cornerback before the season began was bad. Then losing two standout linebackers a week into the season really handicapped the Panthers. The team must be healthier to seriously contend for a playoff spot.

3. Plug those holes. The defensive line was young last season, often starting two rookies (Sione Fua, Terrell McClain) in the interior. The Panthers finished 25th in the NFL against the run, a spot in the rankings where respected playoff teams don’t reside. Carolina drafted Frank Alexander (Oklahoma) — he can play end and tackle — and defensive end Charles Johnson should improve on last season’s numbers. A healthy and stable linebacker corps will help, as well.  

4. Not-so special teams. The Panthers allowed too many big plays on special teams a year ago, surrendering game-deciding punt returns for touchdowns in losses at Arizona and Chicago. They struggled all year kicking and punting the ball. They've tried to address the return game, drafting Joe Adams from Arkansas. He returned five punts for scores and finished his Razorbacks career second all time in receiving.

5. Is Brandon LaFell due for a breakthrough year? LaFell went from 38 receptions as a rookie in 2010 to 36 last season, which is pretty consistent. But his average yards per catch increased from 12.3 to 17, and as he enters his third season, the 6-foot-2 receiver from LSU might be ready to give the Panthers a legitimate big-time second option to  complement veteran Steve Smith.

6. Kuechly and company.  A linebacker from Boston College, Luke Kuechly, was Carolina’s first-round draft pick (ninth overall), but nobody in the organization is under the illusion he will have anything close to the kind of impact Newton did last season. Yet, Kuechly likely will start and can be effective, and his attitude and approach could be infectious. Linebacker might be the team’s most important position with everything else remaining the same. So Kuechly’s impact will be an ongoing storyline all season.

7. Is Rivera up to the task? Ron Rivera had a successful debut season last year as the Panthers’ head coach, taking the team from 1-15 before he arrived to a 6-10 record in which the team was competitive in most losses. But how much of that can be attributed to Newton and the energy he gave the entire organization vs. anything the coach did? We likely will get more clarity on that this fall.

8. More Mare? Kicker Olindo Mare had a decent first half last season, but he struggled down the stretch, and as a result the team brought in CFL veteran Justin Medlock to either compete for the job or at least give the 15-year veteran a serious wake-up call. Mare converted 22 of 28 field-goal attempts. He also missed an extra point for the first time since 2003. Medlock converted 49 of 55 field-goal attempts last season for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

9. Running back city: The Panthers have one of the deeper offensive backfields in the NFL, with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart back to share the load. Joining them and providing the team with significant depth is veteran Mike Tolbert, whom the team signed in the offseason after he spent four seasons with the San Diego Chargers. Tolbert, a short-yardage specialist, has run for more than 1,400 yards and scored 20 touchdowns in his career.

10. Panthers the choice in NFC South? The New Orleans Saints could finish the season a blithering mess given their myriad problems. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new coach and a lot of ground to make up, and the Atlanta Falcons have slightly underachieved in recent years. Thus, the door is open for the Panthers to make a move if they are ready. Are they?