NFL Nation: Ron Edwards

 Star LotuleleiRuss Isabella/USA TODAY SportsCarolina drafted a defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, in the first round for the first time in team history.

In the first draft of his tenure, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman did something predecessor Marty Hurney never did.

Heck, Gettleman did something Bill Polian never did. He did something Dom Capers and George Seifert did in the brief windows when coaches held general-manager powers in Carolina.

Gettleman drafted a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time in franchise history. He drafted Utah’s Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick.

It’s not a fancy move, but I think this is a great start for Gettleman, who wasn’t bluffing when he said at his pre-draft news conference that he believes the game starts up front and that he likes big defensive and offensive linemen.

In Lotulelei, Gettleman and the Panthers are getting a huge defensive tackle that once was being talked about as the potential No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Lotulelei had a bit of a health scare around the scouting combine, but reportedly later received a clean bill of health.

I don’t know Gettleman well yet, but I know enough about him and his scouting staff that I’m sure the Panthers wouldn’t have taken Lotulelei if they had any doubts about his health.

If they’re right, the Panthers got a steal. If they’re right, Carolina suddenly has a heck of a defense.

Think about it? Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, suddenly has someone to jam up the middle. That’s going to allow Kuechly to roam freely. Same for outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

And picture Lotulelei taking a little blocking attention away from defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who each had double-digit sacks last season? Carolina’s secondary still isn’t loaded with talent, but the front seven might be able to compensate more for that now that Lotulelei is on the roster.

Carolina’s defense suddenly is looking like a major strength. It might even be the best in the NFC South.

That’s a pretty major statement for a defense that was horrible two years ago. Coach Ron Rivera’s tenure got off to a rough start because of the defense in 2011 and coordinator Sean McDermott took a beating from fans.

Things started to improve last season, but there still was a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. The sad part is Hurney, who was promoted to general manager in 2002, might still have the job if he had used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle sometime after 2007.

It was after that season that Kris Jenkins, who had a brief stint as the best defensive tackle in the NFL, left the team. Jenkins (a second-round pick in 2001) had to go because there were chemistry issues between him and the coaching staff at the time.

But Hurney never devoted the resources to fully replace Jenkins. He did overspend for veteran Ron Edwards coming out of the 2011 lockout. Edwards promptly got hurt in that training camp and never really got healthy. Edwards never really contributed in Carolina and the Panthers released him in one of Gettleman’s first personnel moves.

Hurney also tried to address the defensive tackle position by taking Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round of the 2011 draft. But you don’t get stud defensive tackles in the third round. You’re rolling the dice and Hurney didn’t get lucky with McClain and Fua. McClain no longer is with the team and Fua is best suited to be a backup.

There’s only one way to get a dominant defensive tackle (and we’re only going to briefly mention how Capers once gave up the farm to get Sean Gilbert in a trade that went wildly bad back in 1998). If you want success in the middle of the defensive line, you need to draft a defensive tackle in the first round.

The Panthers never had done that before. That means it’s time to review the overall history of this franchise. Since coming into the league in 1995, the Panthers have had only four winning seasons.

Maybe that’s largely because the people who ran the show in the past never saw the importance of plugging the middle of the defense with a big-time talent.

Maybe Gettleman just made a move that can help put this franchise on a path to consistent success.
When the Carolina Panthers signed Ron Edwards coming out of the lockout in 2011, the thinking was he’d give the team the run-stuffing defensive tackle it had lacked since Kris Jenkins left after the 2007 season.

It never came even close to working out that way and now Edwards’ time with the team is over. The Panthers announced Friday afternoon that they have released Edwards. The move frees up $2.4 million for a team that’s working to get under the salary cap.

His time in Carolina was star crossed almost from the beginning. Soon after his signing, he tore his triceps in training camp and missed the entire 2011 season. Edwards returned last season, but his impact was minimal.

Edwards started 11 games in 2012, making 16 tackles and recording one sack. But an elbow injury cut his season short.

At 33 and with a high salary, it was no longer practical for the Panthers to keep Edwards around. They can use some of the savings to try to re-sign defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who had a productive 2012 season.

Former general manager Marty Hurney deserves credit for bringing in quarterback Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. But disappointments like Edwards are the reason Hurney was fired midway through last season and why the Panthers face salary-cap challenges.
Dave Gettleman said almost all the right things as he officially was introduced as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday.

He talked about how he’s confident how he can work with coach Ron Rivera and staff the team already has in place. He talked about how his philosophy is similar to that of former general manager Marty Hurney.

“You have to build through the draft," Gettleman said. “You raise your own. You fill in with unrestricted free agents."

And he talked about how his past experiences should help him with the Panthers.

“I’ve learned from some great, great people," Gettleman said. “I feel more than ever with the background I have and the different philosophies I’ve employed and learned from and the different ways there are to build a team that this is absolutely the perfect fit for me."

But the one thing Gettleman didn’t want to talk about was Carolina’s messy salary-cap situation.

“I need more information, very frankly, I’m not going to say something silly," Gettleman said.

All right, let’s give Gettleman some information. The Panthers currently have $131.7 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that’s likely to be around $120 million.

The Panthers have a bunch of veterans with high salary-cap figures. I left out guys like quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and center Ryan Kalil, who aren’t going anywhere. But here’s a list of guys that Gettleman will have to look at and make decisions on restructuring or releasing:
Gettleman said he soon will begin the process of sitting down with Rivera, the coaching staff and personnel department and making decisions.

“The most important thing you have to do when it comes to the cap is you have to do is put the proper value on the player,’’ Gettleman said. “You get into trouble when you overpay. The litmus test on the cap is when the ink is dry and you’re not happy then you made a mistake.’’

There’s no doubt the Panthers made some mistakes in recent years. While Gettleman emphasized he’ll use a team approach, he said he’s not afraid to make the tough decisions.

“If it’s a situation where I have to make a unilateral decision, that’s part of the gig,’’ Gettleman said.

Gettleman better get used to that in a hurry because Carolina has to make some painful cap decisions between now and March.
The Carolina Panthers added plenty of scouting experience Wednesday when they hired Dave Gettleman as their new general manager.

“I was very impressed with Dave’s experience and think he will be a very good fit for our organization,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said. “He has an extensive background in personnel and comes from an organization in the New York Giants that I hold in high regard and he played an instrumental role in their success.”

There’s no denying Gettleman’s experience in scouting. Gettleman spent last season as the Giants’ senior pro personnel analyst after spending the previous 13 seasons as the director of pro personnel.

Gettleman, 61, also worked in the scouting departments for the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos at times when those organizations were going to Super Bowls.

That’s all great, but Gettleman is going to have to be more than a scout in this job. Gettleman is inheriting a coach (Ron Rivera) that he didn’t hire. And, as I pointed out Saturday, Rivera already is very much on the hot seat for the 2013 season.

Gettleman and Rivera have to get on the same page quickly. Just a suggestion here, but Gettleman might be wise to learn from the mistakes of predecessor Marty Hurney. If you’re going to invest a ton of money on one position (like running back), you might want to make sure Rivera and his staff plan to place some importance on that position.

But that’s not going to be the only challenge Gettleman is going to face. As I pointed out last week, the Panthers are in a brutal salary-cap situation. Gettleman is going to have to become a salary-cap wizard in a hurry because he’s going to have to trim about $15 million between now and the start of free agency in March.

He’s going to have to make some tough calls on veterans such as Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Williams, Ron Edwards and Jordan Gross. Once the Panthers are under the gap, I don’t know that Gettleman’s experience with pro personnel is going to come in all that handy with free agency.

That’s only because the Panthers aren’t going to have any room to pursue free agents. They’re going to subtract some veterans from their roster and replace them through the draft.

Gettleman is going to have to be much more than a scout to get this team straightened out. He's going to have to be a jack-of-all trades and pull things together quickly because this team hasn't won since 2008 and patience is wearing very thin.

Carolina's nightmare cap situation

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
3:02
PM ET
We took a look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap situation. It’s far from ideal, but at least the Saints have some obvious ways to free up cap space.

But I’m now looking at the numbers for the Carolina Panthers, and it sure looks like they’re in a much worse situation than the Saints. There simply aren’t a lot of easy escape routes for the Panthers.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams' contract is among those contributing to the Panthers' salary-cap issues.
I don’t know if former general manager Marty Hurney deserves all the blame or if he was acting on orders from above, but the contracts given to guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, James Anderson and Charles Godfrey in recent years have left the Panthers in a real salary-cap mess.

Whoever ends up as the new general manager is going to have his hands tied in a lot of ways, because most of those contracts include so much guaranteed in base salaries and so much pro-rated money that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get out from under some of the team’s biggest contracts by releasing players.

The Panthers would lose cap space if they released Smith, Stewart or Godfrey. They’d basically break even on Anderson.

Beason and Williams could be candidates for release, but only if the Panthers designated them as June 1 cuts and spread their cap hit over two years, instead of one.

The Panthers currently have $136 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Let’s look at some guys who could be on the cap bubble.

Beason: The logical scenario for him is a contract restructure to knock his cap figure down. Beason currently has a $9.5 million cap figure and $3.75 million of his $5.25 base salary for this year is guaranteed. Beason also has $12 million in outstanding pro-rated money.

Williams: He has an $8.2 cap figure. He also has $9.6 million in outstanding pro-rated money. They only way the Panthers would benefit from releasing him would be to designate him as a June 1 cut and take a $4.8 million hit for him this year and the same in 2014.

Chris Gamble: It’s sad to say, but the Panthers almost have to cut their best cornerback, because he can provide more cap relief than anyone on the roster. Gamble has a $10.9 million cap figure. The Panthers could free up $7.9 million by releasing him.

Jordan Gross: The Panthers could clear up $6.7 million by releasing him, but I don’t think that’s practical. Do you really want to leave Cam Newton without a left tackle to protect his blind side. Good left tackles usually don’t hit the free-agent market, and the Panthers have too many other needs to use their first draft pick on a left tackle. They can restructure Gross and knock his $11.7 million cap figure down a good bit.

Ron Edwards: The aging and often-injured defensive tackle almost certainly will be gone. The Panthers instantly would clear $2.5 million by releasing him.

Jimmy Clausen: A lot of people assume the third-string quarterback will be gone. But there is no cap space to be gained by releasing Clausen, because his base salary ($575,000) is guaranteed and he still has $322,500 in pro-rated money. Besides, backup Derek Anderson is scheduled to become a free agent. The Panthers aren’t going to have the room to re-sign him. They might as well keep Clausen and bump him up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

Haruki Nakamura: The Panthers signed him as a free agent in 2012, and Nakamaura didn’t really work out. The Panthers could free up $1.8 million by releasing him.

The bottom line here is the Panthers are in a brutal spot. They're not going to be able to do much of anything to improve themselves in free agency. They're going to be subtracting from their roster, and the only viable way to add to it will be through the draft.

Who's No. 2 in the NFC South?

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
10:57
AM ET
Brees-Newton-FreemanGetty Images, US PresswireWill it be Drew Brees, Cam Newton or Josh Freeman that elevates his team to NFC South No. 2?
Unless Mike Smith gives Roddy White his Twitter password back, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t going to say it.

And Larry Bird isn't participating in 3-point competitions these days. So I’ll take it upon myself to ask the most relevant question in the NFC South right now:

Who’s playing for second place?

Let’s not worry about hurting feelings here. The Falcons are going to run away with the division, unless it suddenly is discovered they’ve been running a four-year bounty program and there are mass suspensions.

Everyone else is playing for second place, which might be the most open race in the NFL right now. Take a look at the NFC South standings. After the Falcons at 6-0, you’ve got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 2-3, and the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers each at 1-4.

Does anybody really want second place? From the looks of things, nobody is stepping forward to claim it.

I know there are small pockets in Louisiana (and parts of Alabama and Mississippi) and the Carolinas that think the Saints and Panthers can come off their bye weeks, make a huge run and get into the playoffs. Tampa Bay fans have learned to aim low, but there might be even a few of them who think the Bucs can go on a run.

What makes anyone think the Bucs, Saints or Panthers still can make the playoffs? Certainly nothing we’ve seen so far this season.

I strongly doubt we’ll see two NFC South teams in the playoffs this season. But, going back to the original question, someone has to finish second.

Let’s take a look at each of the candidates and then take a look at their odds of finishing second in the division:

Carolina: Back in the preseason, I picked the Panthers to finish third in the division, but I thought they had a chance to go something like 9-7 and maybe even slip into the playoffs. In the back of my mind, I even thought there was a chance the Panthers could leap the Saints or Falcons.

After all, they had quarterback Cam Newton coming off a wonderful rookie season. They had injured guys such as Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and Ron Edwards coming back on defense, and they used a first-round pick on linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers already had a good offense, and any improvement on defense, theoretically, would make them a good team.

As it turns out, the Panthers are a bad team. The defense is no better. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who some thought would be a head coach after last season, probably will be coaching tight ends somewhere next season. The Panthers have no rhyme or reason on offense. They’ve got $80 million tied up in running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, but they’re letting them be rag dolls as they take hits when Newton fakes to them on the read option. Speaking of Newton, the Panthers long ago should have made a decision on whether they want him to be a running back or a real quarterback. They still haven’t decided.

Bottom line: I give the Panthers a 25 percent chance of finishing second in the NFC South and a zero percent chance of getting to the playoffs. This team might have more individual talent than New Orleans or Tampa Bay, but it’s starting to look as dysfunctional as the 2010 squad coached by John Fox. Even people in the building aren’t showing much optimism the Panthers can turn things around.

New Orleans: Nobody said it would be easy because we all knew the Saints were encountering something never seen before. They had their head coach (Sean Payton), assistant head coach (Joe Vitt) and general manager (Mickey Loomis) suspended in the bounty drama. They were supposed to have some players suspended as well, but we have yet to see that due to the appeals process.

Still, I thought the Saints could win the division or at least finish second to the Falcons and make the playoffs. I thought any team with Drew Brees at quarterback automatically set the low end of the bar at .500, and I thought Steve Spagnuolo’s defense might lead to some improvement on that side of the ball.

None of that has happened, and the Saints started 0-4 before finally pulling one off against San Diego.

Bottom line: I give the Saints a 35 percent chance of finishing second in the NFC South and a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. They are coming off the San Diego win and a bye, and they do play Tampa Bay on Sunday. They also get Vitt back as their head coach after the Tampa Bay game, so there is at least a glimmer of hope for the Saints -- but it’s a small one.

Tampa Bay: No NFC South team entered the season with fewer expectations surrounding it. At best, the hope was the Bucs would be better with Greg Schiano replacing Raheem Morris as the head coach. The Bucs are better. They already have won two games (and at least been competitive in their others), and that’s a lot better than last season, when they lost their final 10 games, most of them very badly.

Sure, there have been some valleys. Until Sunday’s victory against Kansas City, it didn’t look like the Bucs had any idea of what they wanted to be on offense, and that symptom could return when they face better teams.

Bottom line: I give the Bucs a 40 percent chance of finishing second in the NFC South and a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. That really has little to do with the fact the Bucs have one more win than the Panthers and Saints at this point. It’s based on one simple fact: Outside of the Falcons, the Bucs are the only team that has shown improvement since the preseason. That’s why, among this group, they’re the ones who still could realize more upside this season.

Defense still holding Panthers back

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:22
AM ET
Andre BrownAP Photo/Bob LeveroneAndre Brown and the Giants exposed Haruki Nakamura (43), Josh Norman -- and Carolina's whole D.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers got their best defensive player back from injury, patched the middle of their defensive line, picked up the best linebacker in the draft and found an alleged “steal’’ at cornerback in the fifth round.

Put all that together with talent like defensive end Charles Johnson and cornerback Chris Gamble and it was supposed to add up to a team that’s a playoff contender.

It might be time to re-think that.

After watching Carolina’s defense in a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, I think the Panthers look a lot more like the 6-10 team they were a year ago.

Their defense looked worse than last season. Their defense was horrible.

“We missed tackles," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We were soft in coverage. You can’t do that against a good football team."

No doubt the defending Super Bowl champions are a good team. But the fact is the Panthers can’t play this kind of defense and have any chance of going to the postseason.

The Giants weren’t even a fully loaded team. Starting receiver Hakeem Nicks, starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw and starting tackle David Diehl missed the game due to injuries.

Like it mattered?

Andre Brown stepped in for Bradshaw and ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ramses Barden stepped into Nicks’ spot and produced nine catches for 138 yards. Raise your hand if you had heard of Brown or Barden before Thursday night.

Yeah, it helped that they were playing with quarterback Eli Manning. But it was Carolina’s defense that turned Brown and Barden into superstars.

The Giants scored on their first four drives and had a 20-0 lead by halftime and the game was pretty much over. Heck, it might have been over by the time the Giants built a 10-0 lead with 3:46 left in the first quarter.

“You get smacked in the face, you have to turn around and throw a punch," Rivera said. “Sometimes, we don’t know how."

That’s the really disappointing part -- that the Panthers don’t know how to throw a punch. The whole offseason was supposed to be about the defense getting better.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, the leader of the defense, was coming back from missing most of last season with an injury. Same for defensive tackle Ron Edwards. The Panthers went out and drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round and they’re starting fifth-round pick Josh Norman at cornerback. They also brought in free-agent safety Haruki Nakamura and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

That was supposed to fix everything. Instead, it looks like the Panthers fixed nothing.

“One thing we’re trying to do is get out of this rut," Rivera said. “We’re trying to get away from how things used to be and trying to create a vibe. We’d love to have that type of vibe a team like the Giants have."

The only vibe coming out of this game was a bad one.

“If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," quarterback Cam Newton said.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," Cam Newton said.
Newton (16 of 30 for 242 yards and three interceptions) and the offense were far from perfect, but they weren’t the root of all evil. The offense never had a chance because the defense was so bad from the very start.

“We never stopped the bleeding on defense," Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They came out and did everything they wanted. Nobody really made a play tonight."

Maybe the Panthers can turn it around. Maybe the defense can bounce back and Carolina can contend for a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.

But it’s not looking really promising right now. It’s looking as if the Panthers should have done a lot more to patch up their defense in the offseason. Maybe Ron Edwards really is just a guy. Maybe there was a reason why Buffalo released Dwan Edwards at the start of the preseason.

Maybe the Panthers, who like to preach about building through the draft, should have drafted a good interior defensive lineman sometime in the last few years. Heck, the last good defensive tackle they drafted was Kris Jenkins in 2001. George Seifert was calling the shots then, so you have to assume the Panthers fell into that one.

Kuechly overran several plays against the Giants, just as he did in the first two games. Norman got lit up by New York’s receivers.

“I thought Josh Norman was a little soft and that’s uncharacteristic of him," Rivera said.

Makes you wonder if starting a fifth-round pick at cornerback right off the bat really is a good idea. Then there’s Nakamura. The Panthers went out and signed him simply because he was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore.

There was a reason why Nakamura was a backup in Baltimore. Go look at the film from Thursday night. Watch him standing still 30 yards off the line of scrimmage and not giving the cornerbacks any help. Watch the angles he took on a couple of tackle attempts that didn’t even come close to being successful. I'm having a hard time believing that Sherrod Martin, who was benched in favor of Nakamura, is any worse.

“What this was was a lesson that you get from your big brother," Rivera said. “They came in and slapped you around and dragged you through the gravel a little bit."

Yep, even after all that offseason work, Carolina’s defense is still the little brother. If that defense doesn’t somehow grow up soon, it’s going to be another long season in Carolina.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 36, Panthers 7

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
11:32
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 36-7 loss to the New York Giants on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.

What it means: The Panthers aren’t the team on the rise that many, including myself, thought they were. They’re 1-2. There’s still hope and plenty of time to get things on track. But, right now, the Panthers aren’t looking like anything close to a playoff team.

The new and improved defense? Carolina’s defense was terrible last season, but it was easy to write that off to injuries. This year was supposed to be different with linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards returning from injuries, and the addition of linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman in the draft. None of that seemed to matter against the Giants. The Panthers couldn’t stop the run or the pass. The Giants scored on their first four possessions, and the Panthers never were in the game.

What I liked: I can’t really think of anything, other than Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who had a pretty good night.

What I didn’t like: Most of this loss can be pinned on Carolina’s defense. I doubt Carolina could have won this game even if its offense was perfect. But the Carolina offense was far from perfect in the first half. The Panthers had a few nice plays but couldn’t sustain any sort of drive. Wide receiver Steve Smith was barely a factor. The Carolina defense was better in the second half, but it was too late to really matter.

Who's on the hot seat? Perhaps Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The injuries were a built-in excuse for the Carolina defense last year. But there's no excuse now. It's not good when your defense is so bad that it keeps Cam Newton and a talented offense from ever getting into a rhythm.

Who else is on the hot seat? Probably rookie return man Joe Adams. He failed to handle a punt in the fourth quarter, and that gave the Giants the ball. He didn't look good all night. Adams has plenty of upside, but it might be time to sit him and let someone else (Armanti Edwards or Kealoha Pilares?) handle returns. It doesn't have to be a permanent thing. But Adams looks like a kid who needs a little more time to get comfortable.

What’s next: The Panthers play the Falcons on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.
We continue our season previews and predictions with the Carolina Panthers.

You can see the Panthers’ preview page and predictions if you click here. Our expert panel gave the Panthers a couple of second-place votes, but the consensus is that they’ll finish third in the NFC South. That’s the same thing I predicted.

Here’s what I wrote about the Panthers:

Five things you need to know about the Panthers:

1. What sophomore slump? I can't understand why people even suggest that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton might have a sophomore slump. It simply isn't going to happen. Did you happen to notice what Newton did last season, when he was selected the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year? Newton set all sorts of records and, most important of all, he did it in a lockout year in which he couldn't work with his coaches until training camp. Newton has had an entire offseason program with his coaching staff, and he's a year older and wiser. There's no way he takes a step backward. If anything, he takes several steps forward.

2. Looking to break out: Aside from Muhsin Muhammad, the Panthers never have had a real complement to Steve Smith. But that's about to change. The Panthers firmly believe third-year pro Brandon LaFell is ready to be a solid No. 2 wide receiver. LaFell was held back as a rookie because former coach John Fox was opposed to the team's youth movement, and his offense didn't feature the passing game. The Panthers brought LaFell along slowly last season, but he showed some promise as the year went on. After seeing LaFell in the offseason program, they are convinced he's comfortable in the offensive system and ready for a breakout season.

3. The comebacks: Much has been made about defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis missing almost all of last season due to injuries. You can't understate the significance of that because those are three key players, and the defense fell apart without them. The fact that Beason and Edwards are back is reason enough to think Carolina's defense will be significantly improved. Edwards should give the Panthers the kind of run-stuffer the Panthers have lacked since the departure of Kris Jenkins, and Beason is the defense's leader. Davis is coming off his third torn ACL, and the Panthers are realistic with their expectations. If he can contribute as a situational player, that will be viewed as a bonus.

4. Backfield in motion: A lot of people seem to be worried about how the Panthers are going to use DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the same backfield. Let offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski figure that one out. Chudzinski previously coached Tolbert in San Diego and lobbied the Panthers to sign him as a free agent. General manager Marty Hurney listened, even though he had signed Wiilliams to a big contract last year and later would sign Stewart to a contract extension. Chudzinski, called "The Mad Scientist'' by his players, must have big plans for all three. The Panthers are listing Tolbert as a fullback, but they freely admit he'll get time at tailback. Are there enough carries to keep all three happy? Chudzinski must believe so, or else he would have been lobbying for more wide receivers or tight ends.

5. The next step: One of the best moves I saw this preseason was when coach Ron Rivera called out defensive end Charles Johnson. Rivera said Johnson has been doing what's required, but not anything extra. It's not difficult to figure out what that was all about. Rivera sees a player who's accounted for 20.5 sacks the past two seasons just getting by on natural ability. The Panthers had a guy like that once. His name was Julius Peppers, and he was sometimes very good, but never consistently great. The Panthers want Johnson to step up and be great.
Since last week’s signing of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, it’s been a pretty quiet few days around the NFC South. Well, that just changed.

The NFL just announced that Carolina defensive tackle Andre Neblett will be suspended without pay for the season’s first four games for violating league policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Neblett made Carolina’s roster as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He has appeared in 19 career games and got four starts last season when the Panthers were devastated by injuries at defensive tackle.

With Ron Edwards, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain all returning from injuries, Neblett would have gone to training camp with a chance to compete for a backup job. He still will go to training camp because his suspension doesn’t start until the beginning of the regular season, but the Panthers could look at other candidates to replace him. Neblett will be eligible to return to Carolina’s active roster Oct. 1, following a Sept. 30 game against Atlanta.

NFC South: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

ATLANTA FALCONS: Clayton has the Falcons going 11-5. He also has them as the only NFC South team going to the playoffs. I think the first part is right, but I’m not so sure on the second (more on that later). The Falcons went 10-6 last season, and it was a somewhat disappointing 10-6 because the team went 13-3 in 2010 and thought it had made upgrades. This time around, the Falcons didn’t make any big trades to jump up high in the draft and they didn’t sign any big-name free agents. That’s because the coaching staff and front office believe the roster is very talented and that changing both coordinators and the offensive and defensive schemes was the best way to improve this team.

More or less? I think 11 wins sounds just about right. If Clayton is wrong, it may be because the Falcons win 10 games.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Clayton has the Saints going 9-7 and not making the playoffs. I’m assuming Clayton believes all the offseason turmoil will take a toll on the Saints, and I understand that thinking. But I think the Saints are still a team that can win 10 games and go to the playoffs. Yes, it will be difficult without coach Sean Payton. But the Saints upgraded at linebacker with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should make the defense better. We all know that Drew Brees and the offense are going to be very good. The Saints also are adopting an us-against-the-world mentality, and I think that will motivate them nicely.

More or less? Clayton could end up being right because the team certainly faces some challenges. But I think there’s enough veteran leadership and motivation in place that this team won’t tumble too much.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Clayton has them going 8-8. I think he’s being a little conservative. If things break right and the Saints do stumble or the Falcons get caught up in all the pressure they’re facing, I could see Carolina winning as many as 10 or 11 games. The Panthers already have the kind of offense that can score points with just about anybody, and the offense should only be better in Cam Newton’s second season. The defense remains the big question mark. But linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are back from injuries, and the Panthers drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly with its first-round pick. That’s going to help a lot.

More or less? If the Panthers can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they should be better than a .500 team.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Clayton has the Bucs going 6-10. That would be a two-win improvement over last season, which ended with 10 consecutive losses. But I think the Bucs have their eye on something better than 6-10, and I think this team is capable of more. The cupboard isn’t bare here. The Bucs have stockpiled some nice young talent in recent drafts. Those players haven’t completely proven themselves yet. But I think players such as quarterback Josh Freeman, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn can prosper under the guidance of new coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs also gave themselves an infusion of veteran talent by signing receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright. That should bring veteran leadership that was lacking.

More or less? I think the Bucs have a chance to finish closer to 8-8.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Panthers in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): With the Saints dealing with turmoil and the Falcons facing enormous pressure, it’s at least possible the two teams that have dominated the NFC South in recent years won’t win it in 2012. The Panthers are the next logical choice, and there are all sorts of reasons for optimism.

Coach Ron Rivera’s entering his second season and so is quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year despite not having an offseason with his coaches and their playbook. Newton should only continue to improve, a scary thought for a guy who lit up defenses with his arm and his legs last season. He has Steve Smith still going strong, a backfield that includes Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and has added fullback/tailback Mike Tolbert.

There are far fewer questions about Carolina’s offense now than there were a year ago. It’s obvious the Panthers are going to score some points on offense. But the defense will tell the story. If this team is going to make the playoffs, Jon Beason and Ron Edwards must make strong comebacks from injuries and rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly must make an instant impact.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): Anything less than last year’s 6-10 record would be a huge disappointment. Although I don’t think it’s likely, it’s at least possible that Newton will take a step back. If he does, then maybe Smith no longer looks so young and maybe that loaded backfield doesn’t look so good. Then, there’s the matter of a defense that was so bad a year ago. A lot of people seem to assume the return of Beason and Edwards and the addition of Kuechly will solve everything. But maybe Beason and Edwards aren’t the players they were before their injuries and maybe Kuechly doesn’t live up to his billing.

If all that happens, then the Panthers really aren’t going to be any different than they were the last couple of seasons.

Pressure point: Panthers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
10:00
AM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Panthers and why.

There probably isn’t a defensive coordinator in the league who has faced more criticism than Sean McDermott the past two seasons. He was fired by Philadelphia after the 2010 season, and his defense was dismal in his first season in Carolina.

McDermott got a bit of a pass because Carolina had a bunch of injuries on defense, it was the first year for a new coaching staff and rookie quarterback Cam Newton and a suddenly explosive offense gave fans a nice distraction. But, no matter how many points Newton and the offense scored, the Carolina defense had enormous trouble protecting leads in a 6-10 season. The excuses won’t fly this time around.

Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are returning from injuries and the Panthers added linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round of this year’s draft. McDermott has the personnel necessary to put together a respectable defense. The injured players and Kuechly join a nucleus that includes defensive end Charles Johnson and cornerback Chris Gamble, and the pressure is squarely on McDermott to put a good defense on the field.

If he can do that, Carolina could be a legitimate playoff contender. If not, McDermott could be on the hot seat.

Panthers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
PM ET
Can the defense be as good as the offense?

Quarterback Cam Newton and coordinator Rob Chudzinski arrived last year and instantly gave the Panthers the most exciting offense in franchise history. It could have been a special season. It wasn’t, though, and that’s because the defense was dismal.

That had to be hard to take for coach Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator. The offense remains pretty much intact, and it has added fullback/running back Mike Tolbert, so there should be plenty of points again next season. But the Panthers have to stop other teams from scoring so much if they really are going to contend in the NFC South.

They took a big step by drafting middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who should start right away. But this offseason wasn’t as much about rebuilding the defense as it was getting key components healthy. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, whom the Panthers signed last year to fix their run defense once and for all, is expected back at full strength after missing all of last season with an injury.

Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason also are coming back from injuries that kept them out most of last season. Beason should step right back in as the leader of this defense. Davis is a question mark because he’s coming back from his third torn ACL. Anything Davis can give this defense will be a plus.

But adding Kuechly and getting Beason and Edwards back means the Panthers should be able to put a respectable defense on the field on a consistent basis.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
6:15
PM ET
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The 2012 NFL draft won’t be remembered as the flashiest in NFC South history. That honor belongs to the 2011 draft -- probably forever.

It’s tough to top a draft in which quarterback Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina, Atlanta traded up for receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. Aside from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pretty good splash, this year’s NFC South draft wasn’t filled with drama.

Instead, it was filled with very deliberate picks that addressed big needs all around the division.

BEST MOVE

No pick set the division's tone for this draft better than Carolina's selection of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9 overall.

There’s nothing really flashy about Kuechly, but the Panthers didn’t need flash this time around. They got that with Newton, and he gave them a prolific offense. But that offense was only enough to carry the Panthers to a 6-10 record last season. Carolina couldn’t play defense, and opponents have run all over the Panthers the last few seasons.

A lot of people thought the Panthers should go with a defensive tackle in the first round. But there were two reasons they didn’t. They weren’t enamored of any of the first-round prospects at that position. They also feel pretty good about what they already have at defensive tackle. Ron Edwards, a big free-agent pickup last year, is coming back from an injury that kept him out last season, and the Panthers think he can anchor their defensive line. They also used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last year.

The Panthers believe they have the personnel to clog up the middle. Kuechly should be able to come in and do what he does best. He can roam the field and be the kind of tackling machine he was in college. This guy had as few flaws as any player in the draft and is ready to make an instant impact. It remains to be seen whether Keuchly or Jon Beason will play the middle and which one will slide outside. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, the Panthers now have a deep linebacker corps that should be able to stop just about any running game.

RISKIEST MOVE

You could say the Saints made a risky move by using their first draft pick on a player who didn’t even play his college ball in the United States. They drafted Regina (Canada) defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with the No. 89 overall pick in the third round.

The fact Hicks didn’t play against elite completion means there is obvious risk with this pick. But why not take a shot when you’re this late in the third round? Hicks has tremendous upside, and he was good enough to be recruited to LSU before leaving for Canada. The Saints have a great history of discovering gems (Jimmy Graham, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston) later in the draft. They took a risk, but it might pay off.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Doug Martin
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Bucs made headlines with their first-round draft picks, S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin.
Hicks should at least have a chance at some playing time early on. The Saints don’t have much behind Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis at defensive tackle. Hicks could end up in the rotation very quickly, and the Saints could end up looking very smart for taking this risk.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Bucs haven’t been exciting in any way in quite some time. But they provided virtually all of the excitement within the division in this draft. General manager Mark Dominik shrewdly made some trades that gave the Bucs the ammunition to move up twice and come out of the draft with three instant starters.

Get over the fact that Dominik used the No. 7 overall pick on a safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron. The Bucs weren’t sold on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne for reasons we don’t know. They were sold on Barron, and safety might have been the weakest position on their roster heading into the draft. Trading down from No. 5 to No. 7 started a process in which Dominik was able to manipulate the draft with trades that gave him two other starters -- running back Doug Martin and outside linebacker Lavonte David.

The Bucs traded back into the first round to get Martin late Thursday night. They were without a second-round pick Friday night. But they saw David sitting there, they had the ammunition, and they pounced. No NFC South team needed more help from this draft than the Buccaneers, and Dominik made sure they got help that will matter right from the start.

FILE IT AWAY

Atlanta’s selection of Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round might not seem like a big deal on the surface. For now, Ewing is probably nothing more than a special-teams player. But the Falcons also were looking a year or two down the road when they made this pick. Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli is coming off a major injury, and he’ll turn 32 in June. It was time to find someone to groom as Mughelli’s eventual successor.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider