- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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Final Power Ranking: 23
Preseason Power Ranking: 31
Biggest surprise: The critics said the Panthers were taking a huge gamble by drafting quarterback Cam Newton first overall in April. They said he wasn’t an accurate passer and might take a long time to pick up an NFL offense after running a “simple’’ one at Auburn. Throw in the fact that the Panthers had a new coach, a new offensive scheme and that the lockout prevented offseason workouts, and it's clear why the expectations for Newton at the start of the season weren’t very high. But all that got tossed out the window as Newton came out and threw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games. His accuracy and intangibles turned out to be better than even the Panthers dreamed. Newton got better as the season went on, and Carolina’s offense became highly entertaining for the first time in franchise history.
Biggest disappointment: The injuries on defense were stunning. New coach Ron Rivera came with a defensive background and inherited some talent on that side of the ball. The early expectation was that Carolina would be good on defense, but it would take the offense time to develop. It played out in the exact opposite way, as Carolina had a dismal season on defense. It started early in training camp when free-agent defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who was supposed to solve Carolina’s problems against the running game, went down with a season-ending injury. It got even worse once the regular season started. Middle linebacker Jon Beason and outside linebacker Thomas Davis each went down early with season-ending injuries. The Panthers never recovered from that.
Biggest need: Edwards is expected to make a full recovery, and it’s the same story for rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, who each had their seasons cut short by injury. But even with those three back, the Panthers can’t afford to sit still when it comes to the middle of their defensive line. They haven’t been able to stop the run in recent years, and that needs to change. At least one more big body, via the draft or free agency, is needed to make sure this problem doesn’t persist. With Davis suffering his third ACL tear in two years, the Panthers also need to add an outside linebacker who can bring some speed as a run defender. If the Panthers can improve their defense, they could be playoff contenders next season.
Team MVP: It’s Newton in a landslide. Although he certainly wasn’t perfect in a 6-10 season, he had one of the best seasons ever by a rookie quarterback. Newton became the first rookie to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, finishing with 4,051. He had 21 touchdown passes, becoming one of only five rookies in history to throw for 20 touchdowns in a season. Newton also ran for 14 touchdowns, the most ever by a quarterback. If Newton was that good as a rookie, imagine what he can do after having a full offseason to work with the coaches.
Best comeback: There was speculation throughout the lockout that veteran wide receiver Steve Smith would leave the team. Smith later admitted even he wasn’t sure he’d be back. But Smith, 32, was back, and he had one of the best seasons of his career. He had 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. He quickly developed a chemistry with Newton, and looked as quick as he did earlier in his career. There’s no doubt Smith was revitalized by Newton’s arrival. The quarterback could end up adding years -- and some huge numbers -- to Smith’s career.