Just in case you’ve been living under a rock the last five months, the Carolina Panthers drafted a quarterback with the first pick in the NFL draft. Cam Newton, the Auburn standout, is all set to make his first career start against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Ironically, the stadium where Newton’s college career ended is the same stadium where his professional career begins.
Newton and the Panthers head into Glendale with a lot of concerns. Both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball the Panthers will need to address these concerns if they hope to have a successful season. On the offensive side of the ball the issues begin with the offensive line. A strength of the team just two seasons ago, the Panthers will have to get consistent play from the veteran unit in order to be competitive in games.
Watching the preseason unfold it became clear that the right side of the offensive line was a cause for concern, especially right guard. Ron Rivera and the Panthers coaching staff were so concerned that they signed guards Max Jean-Gilles and former Panther Geoff Hangartner. Drafted in the fifth round in 2005, Hangartner was a mainstay on the Panthers offensive line from 2006 until 2008. Hangartner signed a free agency contract with Buffalo in 2009 but was released last week as the Bills cut their roster to 53 players. Hangartner will start at right guard Sunday and the addition of him and Jean-Gilles turn the line back into a position of strength for the Panthers.
The Panthers will also look for one of their receivers to step up and help take pressure off Steve Smith and both tight ends. While the signing of Jeremy Shockey and addition of fellow Hurricane Greg Olsen certainly helps the Panthers, Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski would certainly love for one of the other receivers to assert themselves as the number two guy on the depth chart. Whether that’s second year Panthers Brandon LaFell, or Armanti Edwards, or one of the former Chargers duo of Legadu Naanee, and Seyi Ajirotutu, the Panthers will need someone to start catching passes and fast. Having a second receiver step up will not only take pressure off the rookie Newton but also allow DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to star in the backfield.
While the odds on favorite to assert himself as the number two receiver has to be Legadu Naanee based on experience in the offense and the NFL in general, the other three should not be counted out. Second year player Brandon LaFell has the size and blocking ability to be a perfect complement to Steve Smith however he has shown a tendency to drop catchable passes. Former Charger Seyi Ajirotutu drafted out of Fresno State in the 2010 draft is another interesting candidate. At 6’3” and 210 pounds Ajirotutu has the size to be a physically dominant receiver. While he may not have the top end speed that Naanee does (4.6 40 yard dash compared to Naanee’s 4.4) Ajirotutu has shown the ability to beat coverage and make catches in traffic during his limited action in the NFL.
Perhaps the x-factor in the discussion is former FCS superstar Armanti Edwards. Drafted out of Appalachian State in the third round of the 2010 draft, Edwards who originally played QB, was asked to transition to the WR position. While the move had a rough start Edwards seems to have gotten more of a grasp on the position recently and looks ready to make plays for the Panthers. Edwards at 5’11” and 185 pounds has the ideal size and speed (4.4 40 yard dash) to be the prototypical slot receiver, and while it’s more likely that Edwards sticks in the slot he could work his way up to the starting rotation with several strong performances early in the season.
Unfortunately for the Panthers their offensive troubles are minimal in comparison to the questions on defense. Ron Rivera and the Panthers enter the game on Sunday with just three defensive tackles on the roster. Even more frightening is that two of the three are undersized rookies. The panthers need a “fat guy” in the worst way and at 6’2” and 308 pounds rookie Sione Fua is far from the prototypical run stuffing nose tackle. On Sunday the Panthers claimed former Bears DT Marcus Harrison off of waivers, Harrison then went on to fail his physical and be released less than 24 hours later. While it’s a virtual certainty that another defensive tackle will not be added before Sunday it’s a good bet that a veteran run stopper will be brought in before week two.
But the Panthers problems at tackle don’t just stop at size, the performance of the players on the roster have left a lot to be desired as well. Whether it’s rookies Fua and McClain, or second year player Andre Neblett the result has been the same, virtually nothing. All three have failed to get penetration on a consistent basis, and all three have been blown off the line of scrimmage more than a few times by opposing offensive lineman.
Another gaping hole on the Panthers defense is the corner back position. Former Gamecock Captain Munnerlyn lacks the ideal size to be a starter and the Panthers have little quality depth at the position. While Marty Hurney and the Panthers attempted to address the position, claiming New England castoff Darius Butler off of waivers, the Cats still have a long way to go. Butler impressed Patriots fans early tallying 33 tackles and three interceptions in his rookie year, good enough to earn five starts from the coaching staff. However, in his sophomore season he lost the starting job he had earned the year before and finished the season with 22 tackles, zero interceptions and earned just one start on the year. While picking up Butler was a great move to provide competition at cornerback, he projects as more of a nickel back which still leaves a hole in the starting rotation.
The Panthers will also need veteran CB Chris Gamble to step up in the defensive backfield. Ron Rivera mentioned Gamble as a guy he was counting on to make plays on defense. In his only start of the preseason that didn’t exactly happen. Gamble was picked on by rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green for 45 yards and one touchdown on just two catches. For a guy who’s being paid like a shutdown CB Gamble hasn’t been playing like one and the Panthers will need for Gamble to make plays in the secondary for the team to be successful. Either way CB and DT are huge holes in the defense right now which will need to be addressed with long term solutions via free agency or the draft next year.
Even though Ron Rivera and his staff have started moving the Panthers in the right direction there’s still a lot of work to do. How the coaching staff addresses these holes will not only determine the success the Panthers have this season but the long term success of the team as well.