The last days of summer are a special time in the NFL, a time when the dog days of August give way and football returns to the spotlight. It’s a time when coaches put the finishing touches on their roster and reward those who have earned their keep. It’s a time when hundreds of players are cut or released, only for eager franchises to snatch them up to fill in the cracks. Its a time when a nation primes itself for the return of its favorite pastime, looking towards the future with silver-lined eyes. As the Carolina Panthers enter the regular season there is budding optimism over new additions and improving players, but questions loom as well, ones whose answers will define the Panthers this season.
Here are three thing to watch for during the regular season:
Even if Ryan Kalil‘s Super Bowl prediction had come true, he would have never seen the field in that game. Kalil suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 5 last year, an injury that cost the Panther’s their offensive leader and arguably their best player. This injury was compounded by Jon Beason‘s knee injury the previous week, his second major injury in two years. Carolina has both their offensive and defensive leaders coming back from injury, returns which will add some spark the lethargic units that struggled last season after they went down. Each of them has had a solid preseason, with Beason reaping the benefits of exceptional rookies Star Lutulelei and Kawann Short, not to mention playing beside DPOY candidate Luke Kuechly. How each returns from these injuries will determine the fate of the Panthers on their respective sides of the ball.
Brandon Lafell is locked in at the No. 2 receiver spot, but the third spot is up for grabs. Ted Ginn Jr. seems poised to earn the spot after a sensational game against the Steelers on Thursday, but he will have to fight off David Gettis. Ginn has a clear advantage with his speed and quickness, but Gettis’ size will make him invaluable in the red zone. Look for Ginn to work in the slot with a mix of quick-hitting passes to get the ball in his hands quickly and utilize his open field ability, then counter with deep passes with he lines up outside. Also look for Steve Smith in the slot, an option Mike Shula has suggested and could be an great move. Good play in the slot will be critical for the Panthers, and could cultivate an elite season from Cam Newton in his critical third year.
Secondary Becomes Primary
With the departure of Chris Gamble, the Panthers are left without a No. 1 corner, something every team now has to have. Carolina has depth at corner with Captain Munnerlynn, Josh Norman, D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence, but none of them are serious difference makers in the secondary. Norman has had a preseason for the ages, but it will be hard for him to maintain the production into the regular season against starting offenses. Charles Godfrey will continue to be solid at free safety, but questions remain whether Mike Mitchell can be consistent. The Panthers’ secondary will face a daunting challenge in NFC South, not only the monster passing machine in Atlanta, but also Vincent Jackson in Tampa Bay and Drew Brees in New Orleans. The secondary will be aided by a vastly improved front seven, but those improvements will mean nothing if the secondary can’t cover in this new pass-happy league.