Dec 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Carolina Panthers defeated the New Orleans Saints 44-38. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Next up on our opposition analysis is the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have added great players through the draft but were handicapped in free agency because of deals from previous GM Marty Hurney. The Panthers were by no means incapacitated this offseason but their improvements seem to have paled in comparison to the other teams in the NFC South.
On the offensive side of the ball, the additions of Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. gives the Panthers some great competition for the wide receiver position outside of Steve Smith. Cam Newton will always be a threat to run the ball but he needs consistent threats at receiver in order for him to succeed as a passer. The Panthers are still very high on Brandon LaFell but thus far he has not shown he is an elite replacement for Steve Smith. At worst, he is similar to other receivers the Panthers have brought in over the years like Muhsin Muhammed or Keyshawn Johnson. At best, he offers a solid number 2 option to whoever replaces Steve Smith. Hixon, Ginn, Armanti Edwards, and David Gettis will all give the Panthers one last season to see if Smith’s replacement is on the roster. Oh, as a bonus, Hixon and Ginn are fantastic special teams additions. Ginn is better in the return game and Hixon can offer something either returning or blocking on special teams.
Dec 30, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon (87) during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O
The Panthers drafted a running back, Kenjon Barner, who may or may not usurp DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart but he provides great depth behind the once unstoppable backfield duo. Williams has just turned 30 and conventional wisdom dictates he will begin slowing down soon. Also, Williams and Stewart have both shown injury problems in the past so an insurance policy is essential. Even if Williams and Stewart go down and Barner is unimpressive, Mike Tolbert is a back with great experience, having led the Chargers in rushing before he signed with the Panthers in 2012. Another draftee, Edmund Kugbila, will help to shore up the guard position and at least offer some depth. He seems to be a great run blocking addition on the right side with experience at guard and tackle. If nothing else, the Panthers want to make sure that their identity in the running game at least stays the status quo.
On the defensive side of the ball, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see that a position that has been lacking for years, YEARS, for the Panthers has finally been addressed. Ever since the loss of Kris Jenkins, this position has never even come close to being solid. Many players have tried to fill Jenkins’s shoes. But, with the ousting of Ron Edwards, the return of Dwan Edwards, and the additions of Colin Cole, Kawann Short, and Star Lotulelei, a weak spot now has the potential to be one of the most dangerous strengths on this defense. I know that this makes me sound like a Panthers fan but no fan wants a cupcake ALL of the time. This makes the Panthers an interesting opponent.
November 17, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (92) lines up opposite Arizona Wildcats defensive lineman Kirifi Taula (75) during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
At linebacker, the loss of James Anderson is tough. He is a starting-caliber linebacker and his depth will be missed, especially with Jon Beason’s and Thomas Davis’s injury issues. Chase Blackburn is not a perfect replacement for Anderson but is a great special teams player with great experience. If nothing else, he will be a solid enough presence if one of these guys goes down. Not to mention A.J. Klein, an instinctive and solid inside linebacker. The Panthers didn’t go crazy at linebacker with the loss of Anderson but the depth behind Beason, Davis, and Luke Kuechly will help the Panthers stay in games if someone goes down.
The biggest issue surrounding the Panthers is their defensive backfield. Losing Chris Gamble would not have been a great deal if the Panthers had added someone of equal or greater value to replace him. Drayton Florence is not the answer. He is a great veteran presence but is not a guy you want to have covering any of the NFC South’s second receivers. Charles Godfrey is still the best player in the secondary and if Captain Munnerlyn excels in the slot and Josh Norman wakes up and gets better, the Carolina secondary might achieve an average rating. Still and all, the Panthers defense will have to rely on the pass rush and coverage abilities of the front seven.
Worry or Stay Cautious?
The Saints just have to stay cautious. As with any NFL team, the Panthers have potential but, also with many teams, have some big weaknesses. The Panthers will have to rely on their strengths to hide their shortcomings in the secondary and at the receiver position. Fortunately for the Saints, Drew Brees is great against average defensive backs and the Saints have the personnel to match up man for man against this secondary. If the Saints can improve their secondary from last year and rely on the new 3-4 system to shut down Cam Newton or the running backs, the Panthers will have a seriously tough time against New Orleans. Also, if the Saints pass rush improves with the different roles of Martez Wilson and Junior Galette and the addition of Victor Butler, Keenan Lewis and co. on the back end will have a much easier time holding off Steve Smith . The offensive game plan should be to stay honest with the defense in the ground game and carve up the secondary in the passing game. This team is one the Saints should win against as long as they don’t get overconfident. By December 8th, the Saints will know what kind of team they have on their hands when the Panthers come to visit the Dome.