January 1, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) against the New Orleans Saints during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 45-17. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Franchise Development 5 of 32: The Carolina Panthers

Unless your name is Rip van Winkle, you know what individual is the key to the success of this team. Cam Newton’s multiple-multiple-record-setting 2012 campaign made NFL history and breathed new life into what was, quite frankly, an ugly team to watch in 2010. It’s rare that any rookie can carry a team and especially a rookie QB, but last season brought us two of them – Cam and Cincy’s Andy Dalton.

Newton puts Dalton and every other NFL QB’s physical abilities to shame when you look at the total package of running and passing skill sets. To any given defender, he’s every single bit as scary on the field as he is impressive-looking off of it. At 6’5″ and 248 pounds with a physique from a Greek statue, Cam combines the skills of a running back and tight end with his howitzer arm to be able to threaten every square inch of the field on any given play.

A QB like that only helps the running game, and Carolina arguably has the best duo in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The RB position is their strength after signing Mike Tolbert in the offseason. Newton helped WR Steve Smith re-establish his reputation as one of the league’s most dangerous receivers and solidified TE Greg Olson’s reputation from Chicago as an accomplished pass-catcher as well. Now for their draft:

1 9 Luke Kuechly LB Boston College
2 40 Amini Silatolu G Midwestern State
4 103 Frank Alexander DE Oklahoma
4 104 Joe Adams WR Arkansas
5 143 Josh Norman CB Coastal Carolina
6 207 Brad Nortman P Wisconsin
7 216 D.J. Campbell FS California

Staying with the offensive side for the moment, WR Joe Adams from Arkansas looks to be an impact player in the return game which is something they’ve lacked in recent years. In college, he was a dangerous catch-and-run type of WR that will probably play the slot in the NFL due to his stature. He’s not tiny but he’s not a big strong guy. Speed and elusiveness is his game, and he’s got to work on keeping dropped passes down – something of a negative from his early college days. He ran “only” a 4.55 at the NFL Combine but regularly ran sub-4.4 times at Arkansas, and the Combine track just seemed slow this year for some reason.

Guard Amini Silatolu was a head-scratcher for many until we saw his game tape from tiny Midwestern State. He played left tackle there, but the Panthers are going to use him at guard. He’s got work to do with his pass blocking, but to say this kid is a mauling run-blocker would be paying him a disservice. Watching his college tape, he reminds me of a police dog that was just told to attack. He’s relentless, tough, physical, and plays with a mean nasty streak within the rules. For some of you fans of the movie “The Avengers,” remember when Captain America pointed and said, “Hulk, smash?” That would be about as close a comparison as I can make with Silatolu’s run-blocking mentality. Without being “dirty,” he run-blocks like his assigned defender just wrote a 5,000-word essay insulting his Mother.

That’s exactly the mentality coaches love in a guard and is why he was taken with the 40th overall pick.

Moving over to the defensive side, it’ll be interesting to see if a healthy group of young DTs can help seal that soft underbelly from last season. Sione Fua and Terrel McClain, a pair of third-round picks from 2011, battled injuries during their rookie campaign. Another rookie DT, Miami Dolphin late-round cast-off Frank Kearse, played in only 6 games as well. Since the Panthers drafted no help there, Rivera obviously thinks they’ll be okay if they can stay healthy, and I don’t think he wanted to use another high draft pick on a DT after having picked the two the previous season.

Jon Beason’s return from a game-one injury along with top draft pick and tackling machine Luke Kuechly on the weak side of the 4-3 should really help them at least make it not a “given” that the offense can grind it up in the middle. Opposing teams should find the running game quite a bit more difficult to get going in 2012. When you add in veteran strong-side linebacker James Anderson, the Panthers look to have a great starting trio of them – assuming Kuechly is the “real thing,” and if anyone in this draft should be, he should be. I loved the choice when it was announced at the draft in April. As for veteran Thomas Davis, I’m afraid the 3rd severe knee injury he suffered last season places him as a permanent reserve on this team assuming he’s healed up. Thus, the Kuechly draft pick.

Perhaps the most interesting pick of the Panthers’ draft was their trading up for Oklahoma’s Frank Alexander. Word is that the coaches were looking at someone else on the team and noticed that Alexander just kept on making plays. He apparently impressed them enough to go after him with that trade, and the hope is to pair a good pass rusher with established veteran Charles Johnson on the other side. Kuechly will eventually move to the MLB spot that he dominated playing in college, but having Beason on the field with him should only make the defense better. Both guys can play either spot, which will make substitution and personnel packages a bit easier to manage. Both can cover on third down, which is the most vital function of a MLB on passing downs (aside from calling the signals).

The Panthers are a team that could possibly vault to a playoff spot because of the combination of injuries on defense and young players having a shot to crack the starting lineup. They had injuries all over the defensive side last year, but that pays dividends in increased experience and depth this season with the overall talent level jumping as former starters return and some rookie talent add into the mix. If any of the newcomers on the defensive line or secondary can become a solid contributor, that will mean the pass defense improves as well.

Don’t forget the acquisition of Darius Butler, a 2nd-rounder taken a few years ago by the Patriots. He never did make a splash there, but sometimes a change of venue and different coaches can bring out the best in a young talent like that. Brandon Hogan, a 4th-rounder out of West Virginia in 2011, was injured in the pre-season and played in only the final 3 games last year.

There’s a lot of young talent on this team that hasn’t even had the opportunity to show what they’re capable of due to the massive number of injuries they suffered. Bad for 2011, but what it in effect means is that the Panthers are working with TWO draft classes this year. Certainly out of all of that, they’ll find one or two youngsters that can play but just are not on the radar yet.

Watch the preseason games closely – especially the first two. If someone is going to stand out, those are the games to watch and see who the may be.

So, what we have here is a stew of uncertainty on both sides of the ball but in a good way. The bias seems to be that neither the offense nor the defense will be set back and both should only improve. To what degree it will improve is yet to be seen of course, but Head Coach Ron Rivera has to love the position he’s in. I think the team took….

The maximum three steps forward…Newton will have a year of experience and a full camp under his belt, making him even that much scarier to face; they’ve added good draftees at positions they needed; AND they’ve got a number of injured players back from last year. Look for the Panthers to push for a wild-card spot with 10 wins (plus or minus) in a murderous division in 2012.

They are clearly a young team on the rise.

Next up, DAAAA Bearsssss….

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Tags: Andy Dalton Brandon Hogan Cam Newton Charles Johnson Darius Butler Greg Olson Job Beason Joe Adams Luke Kuechly Ron Rivera Steve Smith

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