I think that the defense will make major improvements, going from terrible to average. With Kuechly, injured guys coming back, and the pair of 2nd year DTs, run defense should go from being a weakness to being a strength. (Pass defense not so much, but Rome wasn't built in a day.) And the run offense will benefit from a better, deeper offensive line. The Panthers will be able to run the football, stop the run, and keep their young QB in good situations. Nice formula for 10-6, right?
Except for one little bitty problem: the #2 WR spot. Opposing coaches have a whole year of game film on a guy that they didn't see play much in college. And while Newton will benefit from having an offseason, defensive coaches - including the Panthers by the way - will benefit from having time to put in their defenses more. Teams are going to double and scheme Steve Smith, and when that happens there is not much that a 2nd year running QB who only started 1 season of college ball is going to be able to do in terms of sophisticated reads and decision-making. And the Panthers made things worse by failing to bring back Jeremy Shockey, and also by not replacing him. (I was absolutely certain that the Panthers were going to grab Orson Charles, a major talent, in the 4th, but they chose an undersized situational pass rusher and a punt returner/4th WR instead. Hooray. )
Because of all the things that defenses are going to throw at Newton, he is going to really need a second option in the passing game. Now would be a great time for TE Greg Olsen to finally step up and turn that great ability and potential that he has into production, but there is little reason to expect it from him.
It is amazing: behind Smith, there is nothing but a struggling Brandon LaFell and a bunch of projects (Gettis, Pilares, and I think that it is about time to pull the plug on the Armanti Edwards experiment). It is astounding that the Panthers could have allowed their WR position to get so bad. But if the Panthers fail to build on the promise of the 2011 season, the lack of WRs will be a major reason why.