Experts' Picks (Consensus: fourth)
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 The Panthers have some good individual talent. But I see too many holes to imagine this team thriving in a division that includes Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. There isn't a playmaker besides Steve Smith on offense, and the defensive backfield is a huge question mark. I see 7-9.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 This is the year Cam Newton could take the next step as a quarterback and leader of the franchise. If he does that, the Panthers could be in the playoff hunt.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 Finished last season with a flourish, and it would not be a surprise if they surprised teams this season.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 There's more pressure on Cam Newton to start winning more games for the Panthers. Unfortunately, there aren't enough pieces around him to see that happening.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Panthers' offense needs to start 2013 the way it finished 2012.|
Five things you need to know about the Panthers:
1. The offense will be more balanced: In the second half of last season, the Panthers figured out that using a traditional running game, instead of relying heavily on the read-option, made them a better team. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula is well aware of that fact, and I look for him to try to use DeAngelo Williams as his main runner and let quarterback Cam Newton focus more on throwing the ball. Newton has unique running skills, but I think we'll see them only when he scrambles to get away from pressure.
2. Ron Rivera starts the season on the hot seat: After Rivera went 7-9 in his second season as the coach of the Panthers, it took owner Jerry Richardson several days to decide whether he was going to keep Rivera for a third season. Rivera is back, largely because his team won five of its last six games last season. But he needs a winning season to keep his job.
3. The front seven could be special: At least on paper, the defensive line and the linebackers could be among the best in the league. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy each reached double-digit sacks last season. They're going to be helped by the arrival of rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. With the two rookies in the middle of the defense, linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Jon Beason should be able to roam freely and make some big plays.
4. The secondary might not be special: The front seven had better be really good because the defensive backfield remains a major question mark. The Panthers didn't address the secondary early in the draft, and salary-cap issues prevented any major signings. There's not one blue-chip player in this secondary, although safety Charles Godfrey is solid. The Panthers might be able to get by with veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn as the cornerbacks, but they're hoping Josh Norman and Josh Thomas can elevate their games.
5. Emerging force: If you haven't had your fantasy draft yet, you might want to grab tight end Greg Olsen. He's coming off a season in which he had a career-high 69 catches. I think the Panthers are just realizing what Olsen can do, and I expect his numbers to improve.
-- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
It was a tale of two seasons for Cam Newton and the Panthers in 2012. Carolina won five of its last six games after starting the season 2-8. Which quarterback (and team) will show up to start 2013?
Newton took off last season once his deep ball returned to form. In the Panthers' first 10 games, Newton completed 38.2 percent of his passes more than 20 yards downfield with no touchdowns. It wasn't until Week 12 and Newton's 35th attempt that a touchdown was produced on deep throws.
From that point on, Newton completed 52.2 percent of his passes more than 20 yards downfield with five touchdowns. He had nearly as many completions (12) on those throws in his last six games as he did in his first 10 games (13).
In his career, Newton has a 45.7 completion percentage, six touchdowns and no interceptions passing deep in wins. In losses, Newton has a 38.2 completion percentage, five touchdowns and four interceptions.
• The Panthers allowed 1.9 yards per rush after contact last season, second most in the NFL.
• The Panthers sent five or more pass-rushers 19.6 percent of the time last season, the third-lowest rate in the NFL. When they did send added pressure, opponents completed a league-high 66.1 percent of their passes.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
WR Steve Smith (10.5 avg. AV since 2010)
Smith edged out LB Luke Kuechly (165 tackles as a rookie) for this honor. Since Cam Newton was drafted in 2011, Smith has accumulated 30 percent of the team's adjusted catch yards (seventh in NFL).
-- Pro Football Reference