Oct. 29, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver (19) Ted Ginn Jr against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rating the 2013 Carolina Panthers by Position Group

With the 2013 Carolina Panthers seemingly improving well on paper versus last year’s squad overall, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at the overall positions and their strengths, weaknesses, or other things and roughly where they “rank” against the other 31 teams in the NFL:

Offensive Line:

Starters: Jordan Gross, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Geoff Hangartner, Byron Bell.

With needs on the right side of the line along with heavy needs at defensive tackle, safety, and wide receiver going into the 2013 NFL draft and having only 5 picks, General Manager David Gettleman knew going in that he had to make every choice a wise one.

That said, he spent a 4th-round choice on Edmund Kugbila, a guard from Valdosta State. If history is any indication, he’ll struggle in a starting role as did Amini Silatolu last season until he began to pick things up towards the end of the season. Barring injuries, Kugbila could have time to absorb the system while being the first reserve off the bench in limited action during the first eight games.

Now with a bit better depth overall, the starting five on the OL currently is pretty good with the weakest link being that right tackle spot and Byron Bell.

September 30, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil (67) reacts while blocking Atlanta Falcons strong safety William Moore (25) during the third quarter at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Rank: 11th

Why: Two Pro-Bowlers start at the most key positions – center (Ryan Kalil) and left tackle (Jordan Gross) but that right side – RG and RT – need upgrades. The Panthers MAY have one at RG but RT will be the weak spot all season long.

Running Backs:

The Panthers’ backfield (not including Cam) is one of the better and deeper units in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and FB Mike Tolbert. All 3 have decent career accomplishments taking into account that Tolbert as a fullback will never see huge “numbers,” but is one of the most versatile FBs in the entire league. The only thing keeping this unit out of the top-3 is the history of injuries, especially with J-Stew. Tolbert’s as good a FB as there is overall with his receiving, blocking, and rushing ability all above-average. Stewart’s the sledgehammer while Williams is the change of pace….the “fastball” on this team. Rookie Kenjon Barner helps round out the group as Williams and Stewart have huge contracts and won’t be a Panthers tandem much longer due to salary cap issues.

Rank: 6th

Why: They have very good starters and depth, but no single “go-to” guy. The good is that any of the returning runners have proven that they can be effective when called upon to do what they do well and collectively can do as much as any group in the league.

Wide Receivers:

Let’s be honest here. The Panthers have 34 year-old Steve Smith and not much else in terms of production. Others won’t say it, but I will: Smitty has lost a step since his younger days, but that’s a normal thing as nature begins to sap strength and speed from about age 30. Gettleman added a burner on the outside in former 9th overall pick of the Miami Dolphins, Ted Ginn, Jr., but he’s barely got 2,000 career receiving yards over 6 seasons and is more potent as a kick returner. 2013 is a make-or-break year for 25 year old David Gettis, who has appeared only in 2 games since his rookie season in 2010. Others like Brandon LaFell just haven’t stepped up to be that possession WR2 guy opposite Smitty, and with Smitty not being as able to take the top off of the defense as easily as he could a few years ago, this unit could use multiple upgrades unless Joe Adams can become a force in the slot after a very disappointing rookie season in 2012.

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

Rank: 25th

Why: Injuries overall and lack of quality depth, youth, and/or production

Tight Ends:

The Panthers have Greg Olson. That’s the good news. The bad news is he’s a receiving TE, not much of a blocker, and the team lacks any sort of second threat at the position. Olsen alone is a top-12 TE, but I’m ranking on both starting talent and depth, and the cupboard here is rather bare.

Rank: 25th

Why: The team has very little beyond Olsen, and Olson’s not in the Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski class. That said, Olsen is productive with 69 receptions and 5 TDs, and those numbers should increase slightly in 2013.

Quarterback:

It’s no secret that Cam Newton has as much athletic ability, size, mobility, power, and arm strength in one package as any NFL QB, bar none. The only question around him that remains is his ability to put the team on his shoulders and carry the offense. Remember, during his “sophomore slump,” he managed to set a franchise record for pass attempts without an interception and that’s largely lost in the conversation about this guy. What’s holding him back at this point? Lack of targets, not talent. Derek Anderson has one Pro Bowl under his belt, but that was more of a fluke than great ability on his part and Jimmy Clausen doesn’t belong on an NFL field, so lack of depth is a concern here.

Rank: 15th

Why: Cam’s ceiling has yet to be reached and is higher than anyone’s but lack of depth means no Cam, not much offense. Cam by himself is a top-ten QB but QB2 and QB3 just aren’t up to snuff.

Dec 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) scrambles out of the pocket against Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander (90) during second quarter of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line:

This year, the DL should be a team strength, not a weakness, as it was against the run in 2012. The team already has a very nice rotation of DEs in place while hugely upgrading, on paper, via the April draft this year. I’m assuming Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short both are as good as advertised and I feel that Lotulelei was the “steal” of the first round overall. The duo, along with DT D’wan Edwards, should make the defensive tackle rotation every bit as formidable as that of the defensive ends. There’s a LOT of both talent and depth here now, and as such, should now be the team’s greatest strength:

Rank: 6th

Why: Cincy, Seattle, San Fran have proven D-lines, but I can’t think of a better overall group, given the mix of depth, youth, and overall talent – assuming Lotulelei and Short pan out. Big “if” right now, but I think we got a couple of winners with those two picks. With two rookie starters, I’m rating on potential and can’t rate them higher – yet. If Short can get in the backfield and Lotulelei can hold the point of attack against the run, they’ll earn a top-5 spot most likely.

Linebackers:

With Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and Luke Kuechly manning the positions, I’d put the Panthers’ starting linebackers up against anyone’s. Kuechly is a budding star, Beason can play any position but has had health concerns the past two seasons, and Thomas Davis has an iron will to come back from 3 major knee surgeries and still play at the high level he showed last season. The team got A.J. Klein in the draft, who is another guy that can play any of the three LB spots in the rotation, and the unit is a very intimidating group. Running against this front-seven was a vacation in 2012. In 2013, it will be quite a chore. The team could use a bit more depth, but the starters rock.

Rank: 6th

Why: Starters are as good a group as anyone’s but not much proven production/depth behind them. The draft pick helps.

December 02, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Jon Baldwin (89) scores a touchdown as Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) makes the tackle in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Backs:

Josh Norman should be the top starter at CB and was quite a pleasant surprise coming out of the latter part of the 2012 Draft. Fan Favorite Captain Munnerlyn will play either the other outside corner position or be used as a nickleback, but don’t let his 5’8″ height fool you. At 195 lbs, he’s one of the stronger corners in the NFL and his lack of height, ironically, actually helps him get his pads up under taller WRs and is a guy who can really play well in press coverage. He’s under-rated and should pair up pretty well with Norman.

After that, Gettleman added some quality depth on the cheap over the offseason, adding Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. Neither are stars, but both are good role-players who will help if the injury bug hits and also will help not be match-up targets against 3- and 4-WR sets especially with a good pass rush in front of them. 21st-Century NFL pass rules being what they are and “coverage sacks” largely being a thing of the past, the corners look pretty solid through the whole roster.

The safety position has been a concern as Haruki Nakamura looked completely out-matched in pass coverage at times last season in some very famous (or infamous) plays down the field at critical times. While some have come to his defense, I feel obligated to point out that the safety position is CALLED “safety” for a reason – it’s the last line of defense and Nakamura got repeatedly abused due in part to his lack of leaping ability; bigger wideouts were able to get to the ball at the high point and haul it in above him.

Charles Godfrey should start at that FS position and is serviceable but not really a ball-hawk like Drayton Florence with his 18 career picks at corner. Another low-priced free agent acquisition should wind up starting at the strong safety spot, and that would be my pick for “pleasant surprise” of the year for the Panthers in former Oakland Raider Mike Mitchell.

Rank: 14th

Why: Very good depth but no star players. If Josh Norman takes another step and develops into a true #1 CB and SS Mike Mitchell plays like I think he can, this unit could crack the top-ten by year’s end.

Kick Returns:

Rising second-year Panther WR Joe Adams is going to have to really step his game up or possibly face being waived depending on how his 2013 season goes. The addition of accomplished (6 career return TDs) return man/WR Ted Ginn, Jr. should put Ginn ahead of Adams on the depth chart at both positions. Ginn adds explosiveness to the return game that they lacked in 2012 and brings experience to the table as well. While I think Ginn will help more in the return game than he will as a WR, teams have to respect his speed while he’s on the field in any capacity. Ginn should provide that special teams spark and flip the field and/or take an occasional kickoff or punt to The House.

Adams and Captain Munnerlyn can be called upon for return duties should Ginn go down, so the team has depth there but should see quite a drop-off without Ginn. Still, Ted has very high top-end speed…he just needs to build a head of steam to get there, and returning kicks gives him that head of steam built-in….especially on kickoffs. Ginn also has SOME ability to make people miss, although that’s not his greatest strength. If he can be a “1-cut and go” returner with their blocking, the Panthers should have a number of drives beginning with great field position and a shorter field on offense is always always ALWAYS a good thing.

Rank: 8th

Why: Ginn is no Devin Hester, but only a notch or two below him returning kicks and the team has several options to choose from in case of an injury.

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Tags: 2013 Carolina Panthers Positional Rankings

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