Nov 11, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks to pass as guard Amini Silatolu (61) blocks and Denver Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson (70) defends in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers are Likely Still a Year Away

Fans of the Carolina Panthers have more hope this season than in any recent years about the team making a run to get into the playoffs, but these feelings must be tempered by reality. The Panthers, even after a good draft where they filled positions of great need with some pretty darned good-looking rookies, aren’t perfect. Of course, we’ve yet to see any of them take a snap against an opponent, but Panthers GM David Gettleman seemingly has done everything humanly possible to improve the team where they needed it most – in the defensive interior, depth in the secondary, and even added a deep threat on the outside with inexpensive free agent, Ted Ginn Jr.

I just call things like I see them and I won’t predict the Panthers will win the Super Bowl a la Ryan Kalil with his ad in the Charlotte Observer last season. I try to be realistic and as I have said before, if Ginn breaks out as a consistent threat in the passing game, I’ll be surprised as he hasn’t yet been one in his 6 NFL seasons.

Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) shoves a photographer

Where Ginn could earn his keep is in the return game. THAT is where Gettleman “fixed this team” – the Panthers now have a PROVEN threat returning kicks. A “poor man’s Jacoby Jones” if you will. He’s a guy that can hurt you in special teams, but isn’t a consistent deep threat on offense…although I wouldn’t try saying that to the Denver Broncos.

If nothing else, Ginn can help make defense play off the ball a bit more. While he’s not a dynamic wideout, he does have blazing top-end speed. He just needs that head of steam to get there.

Another thing working against the Panthers is youth in the interior defense. Sure, Luke Kuechly is already a top-5 MLB after his first season, but the Panthers need to prove that rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are up to the task. They likely are, but still have to prove it on the field.

Then there’s the NFC South…one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. I think they’re right there with the suddenly-resurgent NFC West overall and may even be slightly better top-to-bottom. When you’ve got the Atlanta Falcons defending their division title, the New Orleans Saints getting their mad genius Head Coach, Sean Payton back, and with Tampa Bay adding Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson they shouldn’t be dead last in pass defense again.

In the NFC South, you really do have to “keep up with the (Julio) Joneses.” You either get better or fall back, and the Panthers had very little money to spend in free agency. They also had only 5 draft picks, which they maximized it looks like, but it’s going to be difficult to crack that top-two in the division.

Then there’s the NFC in general. If the Panthers can’t win the division outright, a wild card slot could be quite difficult to come by. Look at that NFC West – each division has a single champion and either the San Francisco 49’ers or the Seattle Seahawks should win the West, leaving the other to likely grab one of those 3 wild cards.

December 23, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (8) drops back against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We also have a very improved St. Louis Rams team – a team who has quietly built a very strong defense and finally has added a couple of weapons for QB Sam Bradford. Here’s where the talk of the 2013 NFL draft, West Virginia WR Tavon Austin, wound up…he of the 4.27 40-yard dash time. The Arizona Cardinals have a championship-level defense, so if their offense can come around with Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and 2nd-year pro Michael Floyd it’s possible they could make some noise.

Then you’ve got the Bears, Packers, Vikings, and Lions. The Vikings made the playoffs last year on Adrian Peterson’s surgically repaired knee, and the Packers are going to be quite a threat with AR-12 calling the shots. While the Lions have improved, they still need some defensive pieces. The other 3 teams are contenders.

That’s a lot of worthy teams with only 2 spots for the wild card, and the NFC is stacked with talented teams.

The upside to this, versus the AFC, is that whichever NFC team that makes it to the Super Bowl in 2014 is going to be battle-tested and should be the favorite to win the game. Week in and week out, any NFC-only game should be a good one.

The Panthers made the upgrades they needed most but still have some needs to fill before they should challenge for a deep playoff run: namely, help on the offense other than in the backfield.

May 30, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith kneels on the field before the start of practice held at the Carolina Panthers practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

WR Steve Smith is 34 now and while others haven’t said it, I have, and continue to say it: He’s lost a little bit of speed from his prime. I saw several plays last year when he was behind the defense with the ball in the open field and got caught from behind. That said, he’s still pretty fast and he’s always been a bit of a “different animal” at WR. Being 5’9″ and 185 lbs, he’s very solidly built and one of the strongest wideouts in the NFL, bar none. He’s dynamite….packs incredible power in a small package. His vertical leap has always been impressive and along with his strength and balance, he’s made plays that way throughout his career and still has the ability to do so. Since his play style has always been more physical than relying on great speed alone, his basic skill set is still intact and he still has some effectiveness left in him.

So, since Smitty’s “game” has always been more one of jumping to get the ball at the high point over the defender and using his strength to break free, for all intents and purposes he’s as good as ever. The issue is that the other offensive talent is a bit lacking.

TE Greg Olson has always been a good receiving threat at the position, but not that good a blocker. Olson doesn’t threaten deep that much but can move the chains. The WR2 position and the slot/WR3 are the places of uncertainty among the skill positions. Brandon LaFell made some key possession receptions on third downs to move the chains, but unfortunately the play he’ll be remembered for in 2012 was “The Drop” – a deep pass where he was wide open and behind the defense for a sure TD that he simply let slide through his hands.

David Gettis has yet to demonstrate the talent he flashed us in his rookie seasons as injuries have stunted his growth as a player, and 2011 rookie WR Joe Adams found his way into Rivera’s doghouse early with fumbles and couldn’t work his way out.

The O-line has Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, but the 2 guards and RT positions are somewhat shaky. LG Amini Silatolu should improve the mental mistakes and be an improved player with a full NFL season under his belt, adjusting from a Division-III college program where he played tackle, and Edmund Kugbila, a mid-round draftee this year, should see action as either the starter at RG or more probably the top reserve off the bench…at least in his rookie season, as he’s from small Valdosta State himself.

Jun 1, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA Carolina Panthers wide receiver David Gettis (12) catches a pass during organized training activites at the team

It looks like the Panthers’ defense should be a top-ten unit, assuming they can get consistent play at the free safety position, but the offense still has some unmet needs. The keys here are going to be if one of the WRs can step up his game to another level and how the offensive line plays.

Another thing I’ve been saying and continue to say is that the team should have a run-first style of offense while using the play-action pass to keep defenses honest. Throw in 5-8 carries/scrambles from Newton sprinkled about, and the offense could be enigmatic enough to confuse enemy defenses on enough plays to get some big gains, and a competent running game will allow Rivera, Cam, & company the leeway to be able to actually close out games where they have that 4th-quarter lead.

The team, once again, IS a power-running team on paper. It’s up to OC Mike Shula to recognize that and devise a scheme that uses a lot of different types of runs….some draw plays, slants, some counter plays if the defense is over-pursuing, and even some push-it-down-your-throat rushes by Tolbert or Jonathan Stewart right up the middle.

Once defensive players have been banged up for a few series and are getting used to the punishment of Stewart or Newton’s running, perhaps late-round pick Kenyon Barner and his scatback running style will seem even that much faster to gassed defenders and some big runs can be had…or perhaps even a swing pass here or there to get him in space to take advantage of his speed will be in the mix.

The Carolina Panthers still need a couple of good offensive linemen – one interior, one exterior (replace Byron Bell). They also need a dynamic WR, whether it be on the outside or in the slot, to give Cam another weapon. Defensively, the front seven is probably going to be about as good as anyone’s, the CB position has good depth, but again – the team needs a ballhawk/playmaking safety.

One more good draft without much attrition due to free agency and I think the Panthers could face off against any team in the NFL on any given Sunday and have the horses to make that playoff run…..and with NFC team strength overall, even possibly a Super Bowl run. I just don’t quite see that happening THIS season but they still are going to be a dangerous team in 2013.

If they can carry over that momentum from the last 6 games of 2012, if the rookies/free agents can all do their part and make a contribution, and perhaps if Gettleman can find an undrafted free agent to be a surprise help, the Carolina Panthers might have a chance to make a push THIS season. For that to happen, everything must fall together perfectly, but it’s in the realm of possibility.

We’re going to find out soon! Opening Day is only a couple of months away!

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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Tags: 2013 Carolina Panthers

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