Greetings! I don't post on here very often. But, I felt compelled to post an article the night before the veteran players report to Spartanburg. Every year, I think to myself, "If this, this, and this can happen, then the Panthers will have a great season." Right now is obviously an exciting time to be a Panthers fan. A couple of new weapons have been added to the #7 ranked offense. A couple of key players are returning from injury on the defensive side of the ball. The special teams unit has been overhauled this offseason with a new punter, a new punt returner, and several special teams kamikazes who will serve as blockers and gunners. Most of the coaching staff remains intact from last season, and they have had a full offseason to work with the personnel on the roster. The 2012 Panthers possess continuity and all reports indicate that the team has really good team chemistry and morale. The regular season schedule will be atrocious, and there will be open competition at a couple of different positions. However, in my opinion, the success of the Carolina Panthers will be determined by the performance of several players who are poised to take the next step towards being great. So, I've compiled a list of 10 players who need to step up their game in order to help the Panthers reach the postseason.
Note: I did not include any recently signed free agents, any players returning from season-long injuries, or any players whose roster spot or place on the depth chart remains in question.
10) Jordan Gross
Gross was battling an ankle injury throughout last season. Despite that and a horrific performance against Jared Allen, Jordan Gross had yet another solid, but unspectacular campaign. So, why did I add Gross to this list? Well, Gross just recently celebrated his 32rd birthday. The question that I have is: how long can Gross continue playing at the same consistent level that he's been playing at over the course of his NFL career? While many may argue that Gross still has several good years left in him, there is a remote possibility that Gross could start regressing. I don't expect Gross to return to his 2008 Pro Bowl form. However, if Gross can continue to hold his own this season, then he will have done more than enough to keep his team in contention for the postseason.
9) Greg Olsen
Olsen is a very good receiving tight end whose production was limited by having to share receptions with Jeremy Shockey. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the front office made the right decision to trade for Olsen last summer. However, Olsen did fail to meet my exceedingly high expectations for him last season. With Rob Chudzinski calling the shots on offense, I thought that Olsen capable of making an Antonio Gates-esque impact on the Panthers offense. However, Olsen his share of drops and ball security issues last season. With Shockey out of the picture, one would assume that Olsen would receive more targets. However, with Mike Tolbert essentially replacing Shockey in the starting lineup and the return of Gary Barnidge, Olsen may not be able to see all of those extra targets. Olsen now has had a full offseason in an offensive system that is pretty much tailor-made for him. I don't expect him to turn into an elite blocking tight end. But, if Olsen can take more advantage of the opportunities that are given to him and become a more reliable safety blanked for Cam, then he will have done his part in contributing to a winning campaign.
The current regime places an emphasis on drafting players who can make an immediate impact on the field. The expectation of many is for Silatolu to be the day 1 starter at left guard. There isn't any question that Silatolu is a nasty and intense competitor who has a very high ceiling. However, my concerns for Silatolu are how well he will adjust to the speed of the game and how he will adapt to a new position. Recent FCS offensive lineman Will Rackley and Vladimir Ducasse have struggled thus far in their brief NFL careers. Like Silatolu, these two lineman have also attempted the position switch from tackle to guard. Granted, Silatolu dominated his competition at the Division II level. Silatolu has the skill set to play at left guard, and has the luxury of being sandwiched in between Gross and Ryan Kalil. However, Silatolu has some really big shoes to fill in replacing Travelle Wharton. I know that the scouting department did their due diligence on evaluating Silatolu, and he has the potential to become one of the best offensive guards in the NFL. I just don't know what to expect from him in his rookie season. If Silatolu can positively contribute to the offensive line in 2012, then he will have done his part in contributing to a winning season.
I didn't want to list any of the other safeties because, quite frankly, I'm uncertain about their status on making the 53 man roster. One player that the front office has locked up long-term in Godfrey. Godfrey has been a starter for us since his rookie season. He has shown some flashes over the course of his first few years in the league of being a legitimate starting safety. However, Godfrey had somewhat of a down 2011 campaign. Granted, there wasn't much of a supporting cast surrounding him. And, hopefully, with a full offseason in Sean McDermott's defensive system and the addition of secondary coach Steve Wilks, Godfrey can rebound in 2012 and show why he was given a contract extension before the start of last season.
McClain was often poked at for the collapse of the Panthers defense. The main issue with McClain coming out of South Florida was that he needed help on his technique and fundamentals. And, well, it certainly showed on the field last season. Before looking rather impressive in his final two starts before landing on injured reserve, McClain was a complete sieve as an under tackle. To be fair, McClain was thrown into the fire last season, and would have been better served in a rotational role. Also, Ron Rivera felt pretty content with his defensive tackle situation, as none were taken by the Panthers in this year's draft. There is no doubt that McClain possesses the physical ability of an NFL starter. While McClain may never become an elite penetrating three-technique, he can do his job this season by simply filling his gap and letting the linebackers and pass rushers make the plays.
5) Luke Kuechly
Kuechly was, arguably, the safest pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He has the size, athleticism, tackling ability, coverage ability, instincts, and intangibles to become an elite linebacker. With the health uncertainties of Thomas Davis, Kuechly will more than likely be a Day 1 starter and an immediate impact player on defense. The question that I have is how well will he adjust to playing on the weak side as opposed to in the middle. Granted, Kuechly played that position his freshman year at Boston College, and he is certainly capable of excelling at that same position in the NFL. But, I wonder how efficient will he be at covering tight ends such as Jimmy Graham. Also, he seldom blitzed during his tenure at BC, and he will certainly be asked to do so here in Carolina. I'm not saying he can't do it, and I think he has enough versatility to succeed at any of the three linebacker spots. But, in order for the Panthers defense to regain its credibility, Kuechly is going to have effectively play his part and fill his role in the Panthers defense (which I think he'll be able to do).
4) Olindo Mare
If there's anything positive to say about last year's signing of Mare, it's that its's nice to finally have a place kicker who can finally handle kick-offs. There is absolutely no question that Mare possesses NFL leg strength. However, the inaccuracy on long attempts and failure to deliver when the game is on the line leaves something more to be desired. Given his contract situation, the Panthers will likely role with Mare for another season. Perhaps Justin Medlock will be capable of kicking Mare out of Charlotte (pun intended). But, all I can really do now is keep my fingers crossed.
As opposed to having an open competition, Ron Rivera has already named LaFell the starting receiver opposite of Steve Smith. LaFell really made some strides last season. Also, advanced statistics have told us that he is a more than capable possession receiver. LaFell's undersized hands and inability to create separation will certainly serve as a detriment to LaFell. I certainly found the reports of LaFell dropping numerous passes during OTA's to be quite alarming as well. Can LaFell become the next Muhsin Muhammad? I don't know. I'm happy for LaFell that he now has the opportunity what he can do as a full time starter. The addition of Louis Murphy had also has me feeling a little more comfortable about our situation at wide receiver. LaFell will have to fill his part by being a reliable possession receiver for Cam to throw to.
2) Greg Hardy
At 6'4, weighing 299 lbs., and attaining 14% body fat, Hardy is probably in the greatest football shape of his life. He has reportedly adopted a pro work ethic and could be poised for a huge 2012 campaign. Outside of Charles Johnson, no one on the Panthers defensive line was able to efficiently defend the run or put consistent pressure on opposing QBs. For Hardy, a lack of defensive line depth and having to stay on the field for such long durations likely hindered his efficiency as a starting defensive end. There is no doubt in my mind that Hardy has the talent to become an elite talent, both rushing the passer and even defending the run. Hardy could be the wild card factor who could emerge out of nowhere much like Johnson did a couple of seasons ago. Hardy simply needs to keep his head on straight and stay focused.
1) Cam Newton
If you've been following this blogging site for awhile now, or if you followed the Panthers at all last season, then I don't need to explain to you how much of an impact Newton made on the Panthers organization. While there is still room for improvement in his game, Newton has only scratched the surface of his potential. It seems as if Newton is taking the right approach and is doing everything in his power to avoid a sophomore slump. I don't expect him to throw for as many yards or to have as many rushing touchdowns this season. However, I expect Newton to take the next step as both a passer and a leader. Part of the key to a successful 2012 Carolina Panthers campaign is for Newton to have a higher completion percentage, a better touchdown-to-interception ratio, and, of course, a higher tally in the win column!