After a 7-9 record in a very tough NFC South in 2012, the Carolina Panthers are looking to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Many things would have to work out just right for the Panthers to reach their goal, but they are a young and very talented team that should able to compete.
The Panthers opened their preseason last Friday with a 24-17 win over the Chicago Bears. Carolina used an effective running game and a 60-yard interception returned for a touchdown by CB Josh Norman to defeat the Bears.
The Panthers’ remaining three games of the preseason are against the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers before they open the regular season in Carolina on September 8 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Here is what to watch for during the remaining preseason games for the Panthers.
Cam Newton will once again be the focal point of the Carolina offense. His strong arm and elite running ability make him one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Behind Newton, the Panthers have Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen battling for the backup quarterback position.
I am sure that the Panthers want the young Clausen to win the job, and he looked pretty good against the Bears. Clausen is a guy to keep an eye on this preseason because if he can ever reach his potential, he may become a nice trading chip for the Panthers in the future.
The running back position for the Panthers has been a complete mess. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are both very capable running backs, they just never seem to get enough work to reach their fullest potential.
Stewart is entering the season with nagging injuries once again, so it does not appear we will see much of him in the preseason. It will be interesting to see if Williams can perform in the preseason and take over the lead back role. Kenjon Barner is a very interesting guy to keep an eye on as well. Barner has fantastic speed and will get a ton of work this preseason.
Aside from Steve Smith, the Panthers have a ton of question marks in their receiving core. Brandon LaFell is an interesting talent, but he has not been able to put it all together just yet.
Carolina added veterans Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn this offseason, and both should be minor contributors. Armanti Edwards is an interesting receiver to keep an eye on. He should get a ton of preseason work as the Panthers try to see what they have in their speedy receiver. Also, Greg Olsen should once again be a productive player from the tight end position.
The front seven of the Panthers’ defense will be very strong. Rookie Star Lotulelei should step in right away and be productive. He is certainly a guy to watch in preseason games. Carolina’s pass rushing duo of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy will be a force to be reckoned with all season.
The linebackers for the Panthers are led by Luke Kuechly, who is a tackling machine in the middle of the Carolina defense. Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are solid linebackers who will be productive on both sides of Kuechly.
Fifth-round rookie A.J. Klein will be a name to keep an eye on this preseason. He is an athletic linebacker that could be a huge contributor for the Panthers if needed. It gets a little shakier in the defensive backfield for Carolina. Captain Munderlyn is a solid at the cornerback position, and Charles Godfrey and newly-acquired Mike Mitchell form a respectable safety duo.
The Panthers were in the middle of the pack against the pass in 2012, but they have plenty of room for improvement. Newly-acquired corner Drayton Florence will probably start opposite of Munderlyn, and he should be a solid veteran presence for Carolina. Norman and Josh Thomas are two players at the corner back position to keep an eye on.
The Panthers do have plenty of nice talent but in a division with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it is hard for me to see them reaching the playoffs this season. I’d give them a chance if everything goes right for Carolina in 2013, but I think they are a year or two away from being serious playoff contenders.