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15 Apr 2013

State of the Team: Carolina Panthers

by Andy Benoit

The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.

Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.

Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.

Click here for an archive of all State of the Team articles.

OFFENSE

OVERVIEW

The Panthers took a step back in 2012 mainly because their young franchise quarterback took a step back. There was no way to help Cam Newton when he struggled, as an injury-riddled offensive line and college-style system left the Panthers without any sort of a traditional run game. Everything they did on the ground centered around gimmicks and misdirection, with most of the offense taking place out of the shotgun. They're a little too reliant on finesse tactics and the Cam Newton factor. There was a lack of commitment to the type of staple "attitude runs" that help give an offense sustainability -- like "power" or iso-lead blocks between the tackles. Yes, the Panthers were eighth in run offense DVOA, but with this much talent (both at running back and when Newton runs with the ball), this team should be even better.

Like they were, for example, in 2011, when they had the second-best run offense DVOA in the past 20 years. In other words, I'm not saying that Carolina's offense doesn't work. It has worked often -– both on the ground and through the air. But there is not a natural sustaining element to it, which exacerbates the consequences if Newton struggles. Now the third-year quarterback is looking to rebound with his position coach, Mike Shula, directing the show in place of Rob Chudzinski (now the head coach in Cleveland). Shula would be wise to keep most of the system intact while adding more traditional run elements. His primary focus needs to be on his young star’s fundamentals.

BACKFIELD

QB: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson

RB: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Armond Smith, Mike Tolbert (FB)

It’s senseless for Carolina to not feed their talented –- and expensive –- running backs more. When healthy, Williams offers shiftiness with surprising bits of power, while Stewart offers power with surprising bits of shiftiness. Both can be dynamic. Tolbert’s versatility –- he can lead-block or split out and run receiver type patterns –- is potentially valuable. He can aid the run game and maybe even give Carolina the type of formation disguise and pre-snap motion wrinkles they enjoyed when Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey made this a two-tight end system. (Of course, if Tolbert was a super-potent versatile piece, we probably would have seen it last year.) Improved disguise would ease Newton’s burden as a drop-back field reader. Not that Newton badly needs his burden eased. Inconsistent mechanics, not poor decisions, are to blame for a lot of his problems. If Newton gets sounder there, he’ll rediscover his accuracy and, ostensibly, his comfort with tight, timing-based throws.

RECEIVERS

WR: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn; Lost: Louis Murphy

TE: Greg Olsen, Ben Hartsock; Lost: Gary Barnidge

Smith is still electric. He’s strong enough to win possession battles over the middle, athletic enough to win jump-balls downfield, and fast enough to break away after the catch. Most defenses have to double team the fiery veteran. LaFell is coming off a career year in which he showed new-found grace to complement his respectably-sized frame. His route running and catch-and-run prowess, particularly at the underneath/intermediate levels, finally seemed to mature. However, it's concerning that he seemed to tail off for long stretches, especially in the second half of the season. Ginn is a speedster who lacks natural ball-handling skills. Ditto and double that for Armanti Edwards, who will probably not make the team now that Hixon is on the scene. Hixon is a crisp route runner who moves better than his measurables probably suggest. Olsen can be a tough matchup in the passing game, but in the run game, he’s a liability.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT: Jordan Gross LG: Amini Silatolu C: Ryan Kalil RG: Geoff Hangartner RT: Byron Bell

Backups: OT Garry Williams, OT Bruce Campbell

For the most part, Gross can be trusted on an island in pass protection. He’s also a very good run-blocker. Despite having sensationally athletic feet for a 315-pound man, Silatolu at this point is a better run-blocker than pass-blocker. Kalil will presumably be a top-five center again as he returns from the foot injury that landed him on IR last October. Hangartner did a solid job holding down the fort in Kalil’s absence and should be more comfortable operating back at guard. Bell has flip-flopped between guard and tackle, mainly due to Carolina’s paucity of options on the right side.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW

The Panthers are not a challenging defense schematically. They play a lot of single-high zone behind a four-man pass-rush. That’s as standard as it gets in the NFL. The only way a defense can succeed with this approach is if its players, particularly up front, are capable of consistently winning one-on-one matchups. At first glimpse, this Panthers defense doesn't seem capable of that. But look closer and you see, at least up front, it is a young group that is clearly on the rise.

DEFENSIVE LINE

DE: Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Frank Alexander, Mario Addison

DT: Dwan Edwards, Sione Fua, Frank Kearse, Nate Chandler; Lost: Ron Edwards

Good outside, bad inside. That’s the snapshot of this defensive line. On the bright side, Hardy and Alexander are capable of playing defensive tackle in the sub-packages. Problem is, the Panthers don’t have any speed-rushers to fill their void on the edge. Johnson is an upper-tier end, but he does not have upper-tier explosiveness. He’s more of a base player who wins with strength and technique. Kearse and Chandler have both shown glimmers of intrigue and might be Carolina’s best bet on passing downs, as it would allow Hardy to remain outside.

LINEBACKERS

OLB: Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Jordan Senn, Jason Williams; Lost: Antwan Applewhite, James Anderson, Jason Phillips

ILB: Luke Kuechly, Kenny Onatolu

If Kuechly resumes the rate of development he showed as a rookie, he will supplant Patrick Willis as the best inside linebacker in football sometime around the second or third quarter of Week 1. Seriously. He’s absolutely sensational in all facets. He’s also flanked by two solid veterans in Beason and Davis, who would both probably be superstars themselves if not for a history of major injuries. If this starting group can stay healthy (big if), it’ll be one of the three of four best linebacker units in the NFL.

SECONDARY

CB: Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas, Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore; Lost: Chris Gamble

S: Charles Godfrey, Haruki Nakamura, Mike Mitchell, D.J. Campbell; Lost: Sherrod Martin

This is the worst secondary in football. The safeties aren’t instinctive or rangy in coverage. (Godfrey and Mitchell are solid tacklers, though.) The corners all play an embarrassingly conservative brand of off-coverage because they’ll get burned otherwise. (Munnerlyn might be an exception; he is a little more physical, especially when he slides to the slot, though he’s certainly felt his fair share of fire over the years.) Norman was so poor as a rookie that it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt with a "yellow" rank. He might get better in the future, but right now, he really needs to be replaced. At some point, Florence should capture a starting job; he’s the best all-around cover guy in this group.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Graham Gano, P: Brad Nortman

The Panthers gave up on Justin Medlock halfway through the year, but Gano isn't any better. Nortman's rookie year was much like Norman's; he had the worst gross punt value of any punter since Jeremy Kapinos in 2009.

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Posted by: Andy Benoit on 15 Apr 2013

32 comments, Last at 17 Apr 2013, 1:55pm by commissionerleaf

Comments

1
by Ryan D. :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 2:14pm

That seems like a pretty fair assessment of the team as a whole, coming from a Panthers fan.

23
by Niziz (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 9:48am

But, coming from someone who isn't a Panthers fan, it's absurdly pro-Carolina.

25
by Ryan D. :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:01am

Just curious, what ratings do you think are off-base?

2
by Palma (not verified) :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 2:19pm

I don't think its necessarily true that Cam took a step back in 2012. Certainly early in the season this was the case but his numbers corrected 2011's stats once the season was over, in addition to winning one more game.

It seems like in the NFL a much bigger deal is made of Weeks 3-10 than 11-17 regardless of the opponent, especially with things like the Pro-Bowl voting starting as early as it does.

11
by Paydro :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 6:27pm

I agree, it's sort of an odd thing to say. His yards per attempt went up, his touchdown rate was roughly the same, and he threw fewer picks, which translated into a higher DVOA and DYAR. His rushing yards per attempt and DYAR went up as well, DVOA a very small tick down. The only major difference that wasn't positive was that he fumbled quite a bit more, but as the DYAR/DVOA attests, that didn't ruin his season.

A better summary is that Newton didn't improve; most of his stats are very similar. In a way, though, I think that kind of *IS* improvement, in that he was doing the same things with a much less effective running game.

15
by Perfundle :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 12:16am

" His [] DYAR went up as well"

No it didn't. He had 188 DYAR in 2011 compared to 149 last year. I don't think there was anyway that he would've had a higher DYAR with 6 fewer rushing touchdowns and 3 more rushing fumbles.

It looks like you only added qualifiers like "a very small tick down" when his stats decrease, but not when they increase, to paint him in a better light. His rushing DVOA dropped 3.2% in 2012, while his passing DVOA only went up by 1.2%. His passing DYAR also increased by only 18, compared to the 39-point fall in rushing DYAR, so his total DYAR actually went down as a whole.

One area where he really needs work down is passing in the red zone. He wasn't particularly good in his rookie year, with a 44.1% completion percentage and 20.3% TD percentage. That dropped to a 35.1% completion percentage and 14.0% TD percentage last year. I've heard that some of it is receivers dropping passes, but every QB experiences that, and I'm not sure if Cam suffered from it more than usual.

16
by Paydro :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 1:05am

Oh come on. I used two modifiers in the whole post, one to call 3% rushing DVOA a "very small" amount, and the other to say "quite a bit" more fumbling. Was the "very" the problem?

Anyway, obviously you're correct about the rushing DYAR, I mixed myself up on the charts. I think my point stands that he didn't take a step back; is it okay if I call -21 combined DYAR a "very small" difference?

26
by Perfundle :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 12:58pm

I'll start off by saying that I have no particular agenda against Cam or the Panthers. There was a thread in a another forum that I frequent that asked about Cam's reputation, so I wanted to check out his stats myself anyways.

The biggest issue was you calling the 3.2 percentage point drop in rushing DYAR a very small amount but not doing the same with his even smaller rise in passing DYAR and DVOA. The average reader would think that his passing improved more than his rushing declined. Just something like "which translated into a higher DVOA and DYAR, albeit only slightly" would've been enough.

Personally, I don't take that much stock in QB DYAR, and certainly not QB DVOA; the receivers and offensive line influence the QB too much for all his stats to be attributable to him. Also, Benoit is clearly looking beyond the stats and at the actual play of these players. But as long as you're going to use stats, it would be good not to mislead, intentionally or not.

32
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 1:55pm

Newton is an interesting puzzle. He obviously has the ability to make all the NFL throws with his arm, which is not necessarily Matt Stafford amazing but clearly more than Alex Smith adequate. His ability to actually make those throws is somewhat limited by his ability to get through his progressions, which in turn is limited by an offensive line that is not as impressive as it looked when he was drafted.

And all analysis is complicated by the fact that the offense has increasingly looked like it was designed specially for Newton's unique combination of running ability and size. When the offense is setup to maximize a quarterback's rushing touchdowns, what does that mean about his passing ability (other than "hard to measure")?

I'm prepared to believe that Newton is capable of being a very good quarterback, but his further development as a passer depends on him being required to - you know - actually pass the ball and move the chains. Trickery and misdirection is all well and good, but that's what bad offenses do to avoid having to line up and try to beat someone.

3
by theslothook :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 2:22pm

The panthers are front and center example of why I believe secondary determines the pass defense's quality more than any other unit. By in large, this is one of the most talented defenses in the league and yet dvoa really doesn't agree.

5
by Independent George :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 2:33pm

I disagree - I think the issue is not that the secondary is the most important unit, but that you can't hide any unit that's weak as a whole. Most teams that are weak in a unit typically have a couple decent starters, but no depth and 1-2 players who are liabilities. It's very rare for an entire unit to be consistently bad, but if it is, then it will be consistently exploited regardless of where it is.

6
by CaffeineMan :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 3:04pm

I also disagree with this. Exhibit A: The Giants.

I think it's close to what Independent George said, but I'd ask the questions slightly differently: Because of salary cap, long term, can you only afford to have one great unit on defense? Is it better to have a great unit, a decent unit, and a weak unit, or to have talent spread around. I think it's the former. That's my gripe about the way the Patriots defense is built. There's no part of it that's great, that you can lean on. It's all just damage control.

For any given short period of time (3-4 years?) you can have a great draft and end up with lots of talent that you then can't keep long term. Niners may have this problem (Paraag Marathe mentioned this in the analytics conference video).

7
by theslothook :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 3:55pm

I think the giants are an exhibit A about what I was talking about. despite the strength and quality of their front four, part of their huge swings in defense are from the secondary. When the secondary plays well - thats when their defense becomes quite good. And the giants showed me this was true even when their linebackers were people like blackburn or kawika mitchell.

I should also clarify. I said I think the secondary is the most important, but it isn't on its own a sufficient. You do need pass rush and play from your linebackers, etc.

Finally - in my opinion, if you were to build your team for long term sustainable period of time, you would take the route of the colts. Pay your qb, your receivers, and your pass rushers and then just try to plug holes through the draft. The reasons are - these are the impact positions and unlike say the o line, you don't need a full unit to be effective.

9
by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 5:39pm

I don't understand your point exactly. carolina's pass D ranked 12th in the nfl last year by dvoa. they were pretty much uniformly mediocre against all types of receivers/backs/tight ends. their pass rush is maybe above average. of their starting linebackers, only one can stay healthy.

4
by andrew s (not verified) :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 2:24pm

I like it. I just wish Dwan Edwards would at least be black, instead of pink.

10
by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 6:06pm

I didn't get to watch edwards at all while he was in carolina. how's he been doing? as a raven he was the quintessential high motor guy who had no pass rush ability. he also wasn't all that big, so I was never sure if he could play 4-3 tackle.

8
by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 5:23pm

I'm calling the hyperbole police for your review of Kuechly. Willis's record is one reason why he is so highly regarded, let's wait a little longer before crowning Kuechly's arse.

12
by Christopher G (not verified) :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 9:06pm

Have you watched Kuechly? He's incredible. I don't think it's far-fetched to say he could become the best ILB in the league mid-way through next season.

13
by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 10:09pm

Have you watched Willis? Tell me what he does wrong.

22
by Dean :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 9:18am

I didn't read it as anything disparaging about Willis, but rather pointing out that Kuechly is on the same track. That doesn't mean he WILL be as dominant as Willis, but he just needs to keep doing what he's doing.

A year ago, we were having that same conversation about Laurenitis, and he promptly plateaued at a level lower.

If anything, as a 49ers fan, you should be happy that Willis is the target to which others aspire.

24
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 10:35am

You have a point there. The Laurenitis discussion seems so dated now after the emergence of Washington and Wagner, its a very strong group at that position in the division, yet alone the conference.

14
by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 10:09pm

Have you watched Willis? Tell me what he does wrong.

17
by Christopher G (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:41am

I never said Willis does anything wrong. All I'm saying is by all measurable data we have on Kuechly from the combine to his rookie statistics, it is reasonable to expect him to become a great linebacker. Furthermore, ask the undisputed experts about how good he is on tape, for instance Mike Mayock will tell you he is one of the best run-stoppong 'backers he's ever seen. I am not taking anything away from Patrick Willis, in fact I'm a huge fan of Willis, I believe he's already carved out a Hall of Fame resume and he's only been in the league for six seasons.

18
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 6:27am

At a position like middle linebacker where objective statistical measures are unreliable at best it will always require observation to establish quality and even then it will be dependent on scheme, the talent environment and personal preference. If you take this into account then I think it just too soon to declare a second year player ahead of a substantially more proven player like Patrick Willis. Kuechly is off to a great start but let's see him put at least two seasons back to back.

27
by Christopher G (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:38pm

I'm pleased you're finally able to give Kuechly at least some credit.

28
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:41pm

I wasn't saying that Kuechly isn't good, just that he should have to show a bit more before he dethrones Willis.

29
by Ryan D. :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:47pm

I would love to know what Luke could do behind a solid defensive line. He should be getting bonus points for cleaning up behind his current D-line.

19
by Honestly... (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 7:30am

What?

This rating system for the players is so misguided it's ridiculous. Jordan Gross can be left alone in pass protection? On what planet? Because it certainly isn't this one.

And how is Dwan Edwards: Just a guy? He is adequate. No more, no less. He's a solid contributor and deserves a little bit more than what he gets paid, which is next to nothing.

This is just the tip of a very large ice berg. And sure it is a bit nit picky but it's like you made opinions about players without either watching games or knowing how the game is played or who effects what in game time situations. You have FA marked as having rankings while the jury is out on others. Some guys are labeled as washups while other clear washups (Jordan Gross) is listed as a star. I'm sorry if you think Jordan Gross is a star you need to have your head examined. Game after game he gets beat on one and one's by mediocre end's with above average strength while lacking top end speed. I'm honestly scared to play some Lines next year for Cam's sake. He's the first QB since Steve that's worth protecting and the protection is poor at best. Not seeing that is a travesty.

20
by andrew s (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 8:05am

Well, he didn't say Gross was a star. He said he was good, but I doubt you agree with that either.

I agree with you about Edwards though. Very adequate

21
by Ryan D. :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 8:25am

Compared to the multitude of suck that made up the rest of the O-Line after Kalil went out for the year, Gross was the most reliable lineman on the line by a mile. Against a quality pass-rushing team, I would trust Gross alone more than Byron Bell (the current starting RT) with help. Yes, that is more of a condemnation of Bell (who should be in RED text) than a compliment to Gross, but it's an accurate portrayal of how the Panthers played last season in pass protection.

30
by RickD :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 9:39am

Such vim and vigor over a player being rated "just a guy" instead of "adequate"?

31
by Honestly... (not verified) :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 1:31pm

Yes, I wouldn't rate Gross as good either. As far as Gross goes in relation to our line: you can't measure talent against the talent that you have on your own team. Just because Gross is better than everyone on our line not named Kalil does not mean he is anywhere close to being good. It's like dating the girl in the neighborhood who only has 4 teeth instead of dating the girl with none (still not a good deal).

And as for the other guy pseudo-subtetly critiquing the criticism of the ranking. Yes. It is important to hold everyone to a standard. You don't get passes. If you write something and you put your opinion on the line about something other people care about then prepare to have that opinion picked apart. Looking at something and saying meh is passionless, and while I understand that some people don't have the passion for the sport or more so, the carolina panthers, the rest of us do and want to see a good product and to see any representation of that product in any media form to be fitting. Bottom line is, don't complain about someone getting nit picky, being complacent is much worse.