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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DE: Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Frank Alexander, Mario Addison
DT: Dwan Edwards, Sione Fua, Frank Kearse, Nate Chandler; Lost: Ron Edwards
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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.
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.
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.
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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