2012 for the Carolina Panthers started terribly. After a blistering 1-6, the season was lost. Yet in the wake of this the Panthers pulled together, winning five of their last six games and ending with a less dispiriting 7-9. Many had predicted that the Panthers were poised to have a great season, but the truth was that they had added little to the team. There was little reason to believe much would change. Unfortunately the same is largely true this year, as the cap-strapped Panthers try to wait out the large contracts of the Marty Hurney era.
One bright spot is the defensive line. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were both surprisingly good at defensive end. Hardy was especially strong with 11 sacks. Not only do the Panthers have tough defensive ends, they invested in defensive tackles with their first two draft picks, getting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Both could contribute this year and bolster an already strong defensive line.
The Panthers will need their defensive line to improve as their secondary has thinned. They lost their best cornerback, Chris Gamble, and have not come close to replacing that level of talent. The Panthers were actually pretty good defensively last year, placing 11th in defensive DVOA, but if their defensive line cannot maintain its past success, the pass defense might really be an issue.
Offensively it comes down to Cam Newton. This team has large swaths of money committed to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but Williams has never been able to carry the offense and Stewart could start the season on the PUP list. Newton does not really have good options for receivers outside of Steve Smith who has continued to be productive; at age 34, however, he is no lock for the 1000 yards receiving he earned in the last two years. Newton will have to do with receivers like Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon, players who would be fourth receivers on most teams. Newton received a lot of flak last season, but in truth he is working with a weak receiving corps. Despite that, Newton almost single-handedly turned the Carolina offense into a respectable one. He will be the driving force if Carolina makes the playoffs. With his talent that is not out of the question.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing for the Panthers is not a player but a stat. The Panthers were 1-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown last year. Records in close games have been shown to rarely be consistent from year to year, suggesting that close games come down to randomness. If the Panthers get lucky, they could improve a fair amount. Still, without great receiving threats and with a weakened secondary the Panthers have not really improved their team. They will most likely end up with the same record, 7-9.
Jay Cullen is a New York Giants writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter at JayCulle92 or add him to your network on Google.