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Carolina Panthers 2013 Season Preview

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Updated: 8/31/2013 11:59 am

"We're looking at the small things that can make a big difference. It starts here in practice. We can't hold ourselves accountable to a standard in a game if we don't do it in practice," Newton said. "That's been something of a different vibe in practice. It's been working out for us."

The Panthers enter the new season with a chip on their shoulder and teams should be wary of what they could do. After a lowly 1-6 start a season ago, the Panthers were able to come together and finish strong, going 6-3 the rest of the way with four straight victories to close the season.

Carolina hasn't had a winning season since 2008, when it was 12-4 and finished the 2009 campaign at 8-8. So why does Newton have so much confidence for this year's version of the NFC South also-rans? Because Newton knows how he goes the Panthers go, and he's the ultimate weapon much like Randall Cunningham was dubbed by Sports Illustrated back in 1989.

Newton can do it all: Run, pass, break tackles, make something happen with his feet when coverage is tight. The former Heisman Trophy winner helped the Panthers improve on offense last season, especially over the last few weeks. Newton and the Panthers gained 12,008 total net yards in the last two seasons, the most in a two-year span in team history, and the QB produced a career-high 86.2 passer rating in 2012, throwing for 3,869 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also led the Panthers with 741 rushing yards.

But Newton can't do it all. For how talented he is, it's not wise to have your quarterback lead the team in rushing. That's where DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart come into play. Stewart was hurt most of last season and Williams was spotty, rushing for 737 yards in 16 games. Stewart is still not 100 percent and could start the season on the PUP list. If that happens he will miss the first six games of the season.

"We all know what the situation is and we just hope that when he comes back, he comes back healthy," Newton said of Stewart. "We don't want him to rush anything. We know what he brings to the table."

The Panthers play in the tough NFC South with Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. If there are teams who can stop them it will be the Falcons and Saints because their offenses are high-powered behind quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, respectively. The Saints have head coach Sean Payton back after his one-year suspension for his alleged role in a bounty program and it's clear the they still have a bitter taste in their mouths.

Ryan and the Falcons were the best in the NFC a season ago at 13-3, so there's not much talk around the water cooler about Carolina dethroning both Atlanta and New Orleans as the division's best. The Panthers, though, do have second- year stud linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was the NFL's top tackler his rookie season with 164 stops. Kuechly helped turn around Carolina's defense by season's end and earned the praise of his teammates.

"He's done a fantastic job. He just makes plays. He's a young guy who didn't come in entitled. He was real eager to learn. He takes notes," Panthers star wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It doesn't surprise me how much success he's having. I think he hasn't even cracked the surface."

That's a scary thought and the rest of the NFC should start taking notes themselves on the 2013 version of the Panthers.

2012 RECORD: 7-9 (tied for second place NFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Arizona in NFC Divisional Playoff

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Ron Rivera (13-19, third season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Shula (first season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Sean McDermott (third season)

KEY ADDITIONS: LB Chase Blackburn (from Giants), CB Drayton Florence (from Lions), S Mike Mitchell (from Raiders), WR/KR Ted Ginn (from 49ers), WR Domenik Hixon (from Giants),

KEY DEPARTURES: LB James Anderson (released), CB Chris Gamble (released), WR Louis Murphy (Giants), TE Gary Barnidge (Browns), DE Antwan Applewhite (Dolphins)

QB: Arguably the most athletic player in the NFL, Newton has high expectations for his third season in the league. The former Rookie of the Year could be the most important player to his team for how much he's involved with the offense because not only does he play QB, but he's a huge part of the running game. Newton (3,869 yards, 19 TD, 12 INT) has rushed for more than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons and has 22 rushing TDs in that time.

Last season he was the first quarterback to lead a team in rushing since Donovan McNabb in 2000. Only Robert Griffin III (815 yards) ran for more yards than Newton last year. Newton's arm is one of the strongest and his 7,920 career passing yards are the most in a player's first two NFL seasons, passing the previous mark held by Peyton Manning (7,874). Newton is also the only player in NFL history with 30 or more passing touchdowns (40) and 20 or more rushing scores (22) in his first two seasons.

The only way backup QB Derek Anderson will see the field is if Newton goes down with injury and the Panthers have their fingers crossed that won't happen. Jimmy Clausen is still putting along as the third-string quarterback.

GRADE: A

RB: Remember everything that was stated in the previous section in regards to Newton and his running ability. But obviously Newton cannot do it alone and head coach Ron Rivera shouldn't have to rely on the legs of his signal caller.

Rivera may not have a choice with Stewart still iffy. Williams (737 yards, 5 TD) and Stewart (336 yards, TD) combined for 1,814 yards even though the latter missed the last five games with an ankle sprain and appeared in nine games total. Williams capped the 2012 season in style, rushing for a team- record 210 yards against the Saints. Williams is still a viable threat to defenses and helped Carolina rank ninth in the NFL with 2,088 rushing yards (130.1 ypg).

In fact, the Panthers have registered an NFL-best 11,277 rushing yards since 2008 and have eclipsed the 100-yard mark in a game 25 times in the last 30 contests. It's safe to say the strength of the offense is its ground attack. Fullback Mike Tolbert (183 yards, 7 TD) is a proven blocker and goal-line threat and running back Kenjon Barner was drafted in April out of Oregon.

GRADE: B

WR: There's not much receiving wise after the great Steve Smith, who appears headed toward Canton when it's all said and done. Smith (1,174 yards, 4 TD) only had four scores in 2012 and caught 73 passes. Actually, Smith has hauled in 100 or more passes only once in his career (103, 2005), but doesn't mind that he's not the epicenter of the offense. Smith isn't getting any younger and cannot do it alone. He needs assistance from Newton, of course, and a balanced attack. Smith has a franchise-high 43 100-yard receiving games and his seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons are tied for third-most among active players.

The undersized Smith and five-time Pro Bowl selection is first on Carolina's all-time receiving list with 71 total touchdowns, 63 receiving touchdowns, 772 receptions, 11,452 receiving yards, 14.83 receiving average, and 43 games with 100 or more receiving yards. He also has a reception in 91 consecutive games, dating back to 2006.

After Smith, the Panthers have Brandon LaFell, newcomers Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn, and Armanti Edwards, a two-time Walter Payton Award winner given annually by The Sports Network.

GRADE: B (only because of Smith)

TE: Greg Olsen (843, 5 TD) was second on the Panthers in receiving yards a season ago and is a decent option for Newton. Not so much a strong blocker up front, Olsen is still athletic enough to beat coverage and has great size and hands. After his career in Chicago fizzled out,

Olsen has found a home with the Panthers and caught a career-high 69 passes in 2012. Olsen's role expanded as soon as the mouthy Jeremy Shockey left and set new season records for a Panthers tight end with 69 catches for 843 yards, surpassing Wesley Walls. His five touchdown receptions led the receiving corps. Olsen's 2012 campaign marked the fourth in his last five with at least 500 yards receiving. Olsen isn't going to sell jerseys hand over fist and isn't considered a top fantasy player, but he fits well into the Panthers' system.

GRADE: C

OL: For how elusive Newton is he was sacked 36 times in 2012, one more than his rookie season. It's one thing for Newton to shred up defenses with his legs, but the offensive line deserves some blame for not opening holes for Williams and Stewart.

The durable Jordan Gross is entrenched at left tackle and started all 16 games last season, helping Carolina's offense amass 5,771 net yards and 328 first downs. Both of those numbers are the second-highest marks in franchise history. Gross's 151 career starts are a team record.

At left guard is Amini Silatolu, who started 15 games as a rookie, and with another offseason and training camp under his belt should excel even more.

Center Ryan Kalil is back after injury and the released Geoff Hangartner took over the last eight games at center. He was part of an o-line that surprisingly produced 123 rushing first downs, which is the second-highest mark in team annals.

Right guard Garry Williams started nine games in 2012 and the last seven, while right tackle Byron Bell struggled at times and made 14 of 15 starts at the position. The Panthers' line simply needs to play better in order to compete in the NFC South and sacks must be limited.

Guard Edmund Kugbila was drafted in April to provide depth.

GRADE: C-

DL: Left defensive end Charles Johnson (43 tackles) recorded a team-leading and a career-high 12 1/2 sacks last season and is Carolina's top pass rusher. Johnson has posted 33 1/2 sacks over the past three seasons and is the fourth player in team history with 10 or more sacks in multiple seasons. Johnson's seven forced fumbles ranked second in the NFL and his sack total could increase in 2013.

Right defensive end Greg Hardy (61 tackles) was second on the team last season with 11 sacks, a career high, and became the sixth player in Panthers history with 10-plus sacks in a season.

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (52 tackles, 6 sacks) started 14 games last season after singing just a week prior to the season opener. His six sacks were third-most among DTs Edwards will be pushed by rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, while Lotulelei should get the job at nose tackle alongside Edwards, who was re- signed in March.

Defensive tackle Colin Cole was added for depth in February and hasn't played a game in the NFL since 2010 with Seattle. The Panthers ranked 10th in total defense (333.1), the team's first top 10 ranking since 2009. They allowed 110.1 rushing yards and averaged 39 sacks on the season.

GRADE: C+

LB: Kuechly stole the show in his first season and was the first rookie to lead the NFL in tackles since 49ers star Patrick Willis did it in 2007. That's what a linebacker is supposed to do: See the ball carrier and attack. Kuechly started all 16 games in 2012 and the last 12 at middle linebacker, where he will most likely be the next few years.

Chase Blackburn is right behind if Kuechly goes down or suddenly loses interest. Speaking of injuries, weakside linebacker Jon Beason (27 tackles) is back and ready to roll. Beason has been limited to five games over the past two years after playing in all 16 games in his first four. The oft-injured Beason said he was "happy to be back out there" during training camp and the Panthers hope he can revert back to his durable days from 2007-2010. Beason, nicknamed "The Beast," missed 27 out of a possible 32 games after inking a five-year contract before 2011 and all eyes will be back on the three-time Pro Bowl pick. He underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee last October and said he is going to "go hard" like he used to.

Thomas Davis (105 tackles) was second in tackles last season and will play the strong side. Davis has a history of knee issues, too, and returned last season after a third ACL injury. Durability and health are key to this unit, which aided the Panthers in holding opponents to 36.1 percent on third down. Iowa State's A.J. Klein was drafted in April for insurance.

GRADE: B-

DB: Some new faces will be in the Panthers' secondary this season, but cornerback Captain Munnerlyn's isn't one. First of all, to have a first name Captain means something. Munnerlyn (61 tackles, 2 INT) entered the starting lineup after a season-ending injury to veteran Chris Gamble, who was released in the offseason, and had two interception returns for touchdowns. The Panthers tied a team record with three interceptions returned for TDs in 2012.

Free safety Charles Godfrey (69 tackles, 2 INT) is the other familiar face in the defensive backfield and he was tied for the team lead in picks with two. He also returned an INT for a score against New Orleans.

Expected to start at left cornerback is veteran Drayton Florence. Florence, who broke his arm in Week 2 last season and returned in Week 11, spent 2012 with Detroit and totaled 19 tackles, one interception and seven passes defensed in eight games. He is expected to bring leadership and stability, while safety Mike Mitchell joined the Panthers after four seasons with the Raiders.

It will take an entire offseason and training camp for this unit to understand each other's tendencies and not much is expected from the secondary, especially playing in a division with the pass-happy Falcons and Saints.

GRADE: C

SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano made 9-of-11 field goals in the final six games last season, while Justin Medlock booted 7-of-10 attempts through the uprights. Gano is the favorite to earn the job, while punter/holder Brad Nortman is back for his second season in the league. As a rookie for Carolina, Nortman averaged 43.0 yards on 76 punts and landed 20 inside the 20-yard line. His longest was a 63-yard boom and 19 of his punts were a fair catch.

Speedy receiver/return man Ginn was added in the offseason to improve field position and J.J. Jansen is slated to be the longsnapper. Edwards and Joe Adams could also see time in the return game if Ginn fails to produce.

GRADE: C

COACHING: Rivera met with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson in January and it was decided that he will return for a third season. But 2013 could be his last if the Panthers fail to meet expectations. Carolina was 6-10 in Rivera's first season, but the team rallied at the end of 2012 to finish 7-9. The four-game winning streak to end the season gave hope to Rivera.

"We played a lot of young players who gained valuable experience that should help us in the coming season," Rivera said. "There are a lot of positives to take away from last season, but they are only meaningful if we learn from them in 2013."

McDermott is back running a defense that was 10th in total yards allowed, 13th against the pass, 14th in rushing yards allowed and 18th in rushing yards per attempt. He is getting back Beason, who could make a difference as long as the injury bug doesn't surface, and has a talented front four. Drafting Lotulelei, who has drawn comparisons to Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, can only make defensive results improve and some new faces in the secondary are supposed to tighten up loose ends.

As for offensive coordinator Mike Shula, he understands this offense after serving as quarterbacks coach the previous two seasons. The Panthers recorded an NFL-best 165 plays of 20-plus yards and that total should increase this season. Shula, a veteran of 25 years as a coach, has played a major role in the development of Newton and has even more control.

GRADE: B-

THE SKINNY: Newton set the bar high this offseason by saying the time is now for the Panthers to take that next step. They certainly could with a new offensive coordinator and key contributors on the mend.

Playing in the NFC South does no favors for Carolina and a third-place tag in the division is the proper prediction. But that doesn't mean this team won't compete for a playoff spot even though the Panthers will play seven games this season against teams that finished 2012 with a .500 record or better. Six opponents even made it to the postseason, a destination not entirely far- fetched for the Panthers.

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