Don't get me wrong, the off-season can be fun, but in reality it sucks. Luckily, it's almost over and we can get back to preparing for a season brimming with potential but drowning in unanswered questions. At Burnt Orange Nation, where I spend my time writing about Longhorn football, I am seeing a lot of parallels between this year's Texas squad and this year's Panther squad. The biggest similarity seems to be the magnitude of this upcoming season's importance compared to years past. The talent is falling into place for Carolina, now it is about execution. Here are my four keys to Panther success in 2013-14.
4. Special Teams Improvement
A Panther's special teams play has come to be a great bathroom break or snack opportunity for myself and other fans who have been conditioned to expect essentially no results from this unit. In 2012, the Panthers had the third worst special teams play in the entire league. The rookie duo of Brad Nortman/Joe Adams tag-teaming unimaginable levels of disappointment, with 15 yard punts and fumble/catch ratios of 1:1, was so painful that it surely triggered profuse cognitive dissonance from the front office. Luckily, the future looks bright...er. Signing veteran return specialist Ted Ginn and acquiring A.J. Klein and Kenjon Barner will add some much needed talent to this unit. Ginn was the tenth best return man in the NFL last season. Barner, as the third running back, can expect a role similar to Mike Goodson as the number two KR. Stabilizing Graham Gano as placekicker and an offseason of work for Nortman will surely improve the way the Panthers kick the football in 2013. All in all, the Panthers' special teams doesn't even have to be good to be better. However, if this team wants to play football in January, dramatic improvements in the special teams play are necessary.
3. Reliable WR Play
The Panthers' have two quality wide receivers and one quality receiving tight end. Smith, Lafell, and Olsen have proven themselves as the three best targets for Newton. After that, the receiving corp is littered with question marks. The player in this group I'd like to see excel is Domenick Hixon. Swapping Louis Murphy and Hixon doesn't look like much on paper. Both receivers are the same size and have yet to establish themselves as reliable. Last year, Murphy struggled catching the ball and never really connected with Cam. Hixon played well, but in a WR hotbed like the NY Giants, it's hard to have breakout numbers with so many targets. Hixon can potentially be a game changer. I have a soft spot in my heart for David Gettis, because he is a Baylor guy and he shined when I saw him play in 2011, but high expectations for him are unrealistic. I feel the same way about Ginn, who forfeited receiving duties in San Francisco and focused solely on special teams. Any injuries to the three established targets could be seriously detrimental, especially if nobody is able to step up and take their place.
2. Tolerable DB Play
Free agent acquisitions Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore and the re-signing of Captain Munnerlyn highlight a unit that I thought improved exponentially in the second half of last season. The thing about DB play is that it doesn't have to be that good, it just can't be ridiculously bad (see 2012 NE Patriots). DB success correlates directly with pass rush and front seven play. If the pass rush is getting to the QB, then defensive backs won't have to overcompensate in coverage. Josh Norman will be the player to watch this year. His late season struggles led me to believe that the Panthers were going to draft another late round DB last April. I think he has the most to prove in this unit. 2013-14 will be the year that he proves he is either a long term player, or one that needs to be replaced following this season. Avoiding disasters is something I would to see from this 2013's DB unit.
1. Rookie Development
The Panthers' doubling down at DT in a draft where they only had five picks was gutsy, but if it pays off, it could be brilliant. Loutulelei and Short can potentially flip a weakness into a strength this season. It all depends on their ability to establish themselves cohesively with the rest of the front seven immediately. Right now, the Panthers' front seven can play with anybody. Kuechly, Beason, Davis, Hardy, and Johnson all played like potential Pro-Bowlers' at one point or another last season.
Adding power in the middle of the DL could be critical in the long term success of this team. Depth with Dwan Edwards is also helpful for the two rookie DT's, but with the Panthers' ridiculous schedule, they need to get it going right away. I think their is an expected learning curve for OG Edmund Kugbila, whose competition has increased from Georgia Southern talent to Atlanta Falcon talent (I do my best to not comment on OL deficiencies and predictions.)
AJ Klein and Kenjon Barner, like previously stated, can impact special teams right away. I've placed Klein's ceiling relatively high, because I believe he was an underrated draft prospect. I've personally seen him dominate Big Twelve defenses too many times to place any doubt around him. Barner and Ginn as special team returners could be potentially dangerous. His talent needs no sugar coating, but the speed of the NFL versus college ball may require a period of adjustment.
The thing about this Panthers' team is that they could be playing in next season's NFC championship or eliminated from playoff contention in Week 10 and I wouldn't be surprised either way. They have a lot of talent, but talent needs to be coached, conditioned, and placed in the right situations in order to achieve success. I like to think that this could be the year that they prove themselves as elite, but I've learned to accept otherwise.