After breaking down the Falcons first seven opponents including a pair of division rivals, it’s time to look at the last NFC South opponent in the Carolina Panthers to see what battles are raging this summer in camp.
With a few exceptions on the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers look to feature essentially the same starting lineup from 2012 to 2013. Their focus will be on individual players and units improving, and head coach Ron Rivera and his staff finding a way to inspire those players to new heights this summer.
Like the Buccaneers, much of the focus will center on quarterback Cam Newton. Newton has flashed the ability to be a potent weapon at the quarterback position, leading the team in rushing last year with their ample use of the read-option. But offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski took the top gig with the Cleveland Browns and will be replaced by former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. Shula intends to keep the read-option as a potent addendum to the offense, but may not feature it as much as Chudzinski. The Panthers moved away from the read-option to a more conventional rushing attack down the stretch, and it appeared to pay dividends. Shula also intends to employ a simplified, more up-tempo attack to try and match wits with offenses like the Saints and Falcons.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, once considered to be among the league’s top pair of running backs hope that this lesser emphasis on Newton’s running will propel them back to being among the league’s top rushing group. They are joined by fullback Mike Tolbert and rookie speedster Kenjon Barner this year to provide more talent at the position. With a more traditional rushing attack, the Panthers should be able to get their ground game back on track and then focus their passing attack on what Newton does best: attack down the field via play-action.
Helping him do that is Steve Smith, still one of the league’s elite receivers. Greg Olsen emerged with a career year in 2012 as one of the league’s premier vertical tight ends as well. The Panthers however need to see someone else step up. Brandon LaFell is their top option, as he’s flashed the ability to make plays down the field. But he needs to be more consistent this season, and that starts in training camp. He’ll be joined by speedsters in Ted Ginn, David Gettis, Domenik Hixon, Armanti Edwards, Joe Adams, and Kealoha Pilares. Most of those players have had far greater impact on special teams than offense over the years, but if one can emerge as a viable fourth option to stretch the field it will round out what could be a potent play-action based attack in Carolina.
Up front, the Panthers should get a boost from the healthy return of Ryan Kalil, who missed all of last year with a foot injury. He joins left tackle Jordan Gross as the stalwarts up front. But the Panthers will need some of their younger players to step up. Byron Bell has been mediocre at right tackle, and Amini Silatolu was the same as a rookie left guard last season. At right guard, Geoff Hangartner is expected to start. He’s better suited to being a swing guard and backup center than a starter. He’ll be pushed by rookie Edmund Kugbila. But Kugbila is coming from a Division II school in Valdosta State, traditionally is a tough transition for rookie linemen as the team saw last year with Silatolu. So unless he can buck that trend this summer, it seems that the Panthers are stuck with the merely serviceable Hangartner, thus putting more pressure on Kalil, Silatolu, and Bell to provide the necessary boost.
Defensively, the Panthers feature a few changes, particularly at defensive tackle. They used their top two picks at that position, taking Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short to fix a position that has been a problem area since the heyday of Kris Jenkins. Lotulelei is a powerful tackle that should beef up their run support which was markedly improved in 2012 after a horrid 2011 season. Short is more of a disruptor, but they hope he can hit the ground running after many questions were raised about his motor at Purdue.
They’ll be joining an already solid group of linemen that shined in the nickel last year. Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks), Greg Hardy (11 sacks), Dwan Edwards (6 sacks), and Frank Alexander (2.5 sacks) formed a solid quartet on passing downs, dominating the Falcons in both outings last year. Hardy functioned much like Justin Tuck did with the Giants in years past playing both inside and outside, and had similar impact. If both rookies shine, the Panthers defensive line potentially could class the division as the best in 2013.
The defensive improvement last year was lead by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly began the year on the outside before making the switch inside following the season-ending injury to Jon Beason. Beason returns to play the weak side, while Thomas Davis will man the strong side. Davis had a good year, managing to play in 15 games with 12 starts, after missing a combined 39 games due to successive ACL tears the three previous years. It will be important for him to remain healthy again in 2013. Beason too has been bitten by the injury bug (missing 27 games over the past two years), and needs to come back healthy. But the Panthers depth should be decent with newcomer Chase Blackburn capable of playing both inside and outside, and rookie A.J. Klein having similar value.
Cornerback is the other position that features some changes. Gone is long-time starter Chris Gamble, who had an injury-shortened 2012. The team added veteran Drayton Florence to replace him. Florence has been a serviceable starter in the past, but has been exposed in recent years when asked to be more than a nickel back. He’ll be competing for reps with youngsters like Josh Norman, Josh Thomas, Captain Munnerlyn, and fellow newcomer D.J. Moore.
Norman and Munnerlyn are the incumbents, starting a combined 23 games last year. Norman has the most upside of the group, flashing ball skills but for the most part struggling as a rookie. Munnerlyn has shown value in the nickel, but is a questionable full-time starter on the outside. He may not be 100% for when camp starts later this month. Thomas started the final four games after Norman was injured and was decent. He’ll need to step up this year. Moore struggled to earn consistent reps in four seasons with the Bears. Someone will have to emerge to replace Gamble as the team’s top corner to try and slow down the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, and Marques Colston within the division.
Safety is even more of a problem area as the team may be headed for another year with Haruki Nakamura manning a starting spot. He’ll be competing with ex-Raider Mike Mitchell, D.J. Campbell, and rookie Robert Lester to start opposite Charles Godfrey. Godfrey relative to the others is a proven player, but by and large is just an average safety on his better days. The team has shown interest in veteran free agent Quintin Mikell, and if signed before camp would be a great pickup to stabilize the position. Otherwise, the Panthers could be in for a long year given the youth, inexperience, and general lack of quality of their secondary.
That puts more pressure on their offense and running game to be more sustaining to keep their weak pass defense from getting exposed. Essentially, Rivera will have to try and pull a page from Mike Smith, and similar to the 2010 Falcons try and be a ball-control offense. But considering their passing attack is more geared to being explosive, it may not be the ideal recipe for success. How Rivera deals with this conundrum will determine whether he’s still coaching the team come 2014.