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Carolina Panthers 2011 Season Preview

One of the scant luxuries of finishing with the worst record in the NFL is getting an opportunity to select college football's alleged top player.

A dreadful 2-14 ledger in 2010 enabled the Carolina Panthers to nab reigning Heisman Trophy Award winner Cam Newton out of Auburn, and he's now the future and face of a franchise trying to get up to speed with the rest of the league following back-to-back disappointing campaigns.

Newton will not be the only one getting his feet wet with his new surroundings, as Ron Rivera is entering his first season as a head coach. Rivera has his work cut out for him after the departure of long-time head coach John Fox, and landing Newton with the first overall pick begins a new marriage in Carolina. Rivera has been pleased with Newton's progression so far through training camp as well as the preseason, and will give Newton another start under center Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The biggest thing that came out of it was seeing what his potential can be," Rivera said. "I know potential is a scary word, but the young man just continues to progress and did some really good things. When we watched the tape, we came away feeling good about what we could be on offense."

The contrast from former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme to Jimmy Clausen to Newton differs greatly since the latter is more mobile in the pocket and will give defenses more to scheme for. Although Rivera has yet to name a starter between Clausen and Newton, it would be safe to assume that the rookie will take over as the starter in Week 1 at Arizona. Clausen has been slowed by a knee and thigh injury, and that won't help his chances of winning the job. The second-year player out of Notre Dame appeared in 13 games a season ago, making 12 starts, and didn't raise too many eyebrows to enter this season as the hands-on favorite.

Several Panthers offensive lineman, however, have been impressed with how well and fast Newton has adjusted to the speed and intricacies of the game. Veteran left tackle Jordan Gross expressed his pleasure on how much easier it will be to hold blocks for a shorter period of time when Newton's on the move.

"It was awesome," Gross said. "I was in a division with a guy named Mike Vick for so long, and you were jealous of their linemen because of the double threat he presented. It makes your job easier."

Having your teammates compare you to Vick is certainly a nice gesture, but then again Vick admitted that he could have been a better quarterback for the Falcons had he prepared more instead of relying on just his athletic ability. Vick, of course, has rejuvenated his career with Philadelphia, while Newton can learn a thing or two about staying focused and not trying to improvise on his own. There will be 10 other guys on the field looking out for each other and trust is key in becoming a winner.

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers could be without star middle linebacker Jon Beason for the season opener in Arizona because of a bone bruise in his heel. Beason underwent a second MRI to pinpoint the problem and had screws inserted to speed up the healing process. He said how he first experienced the problem last May and it eventually got worse where he couldn't participate in activities. He has started all 64 regular-season in his four- year career and re-signed in the offseason to a reported five-year deal worth $50 million. Owner Jerry Richardson, a major player in the recent lockout, made a wise move to keep Beason around and can only hope his health is top notch.

"The biggest thing I'm concerned about right now is conditioning," Beason said. "This is probably the longest I've probably sat down ever. I can't remember not running for two-plus months, ever. I'm usually pretty active, and I think that's a key to my game - being in great shape allows you to make big plays more consistently."

Beason and the rest of his defensive mates should be concerned about learning under first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The Panthers will play a typical 4-3 scheme and had one of the worst units in the league a season ago under the defensive-minded Fox.

McDermott spent 12 seasons with the Eagles and learned under former Philadelphia mastermind Jim Johnson. McDermott's Eagles, however, only applied pressure on the blitz with zero push up front. Talented defensive end Charles Johnson should make McDermott's job a bit easier now that he re-signed and is coming off a career year in which he registered a team-best and career-high 12 sacks. Easily one of the more talented defensive ends in the NFC South, Johnson is making the type of money former Panthers DE Julius Peppers does.

Not much is expected of Carolina this season playing in the NFC South with Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Drew Brees of the Saints. Stranger circumstances have occurred for other franchises on the mend and Rivera should be prepared to endure a long and winding road in his first year.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Carolina Panthers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 RECORD: 2-14 (4th, NFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Arizona in NFC Divisional Playoff

COACH (RECORD): Ron Rivera (first season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ron Chudzinski (first season with Panthers)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Sean McDermott (first season with Panthers)

OFFENSIVE STAR: DeAngelo Williams, RB (361 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Jon Beason, MLB (121 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT)

2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 32nd overall (13th rushing, 32nd passing), 32nd scoring (12.3 ppg)

2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 18th overall (23rd rushing, 11th passing), 26th scoring (25.5 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Cam Newton (1st Round, Auburn), TE Greg Olsen (from Bears), TE Jeremy Shockey (from Saints), DT Sione Fua (3rd Round, Stanford), K Olindo Mare (from Seahawks), QB Derek Anderson (from Cardinals), WR Legedu Naanee (from Chargers), TE Ben Hartsock (from Jets), DT Terrell McClain (3rd Round, South Florida), DT Kentwan Balmer (from Seahawks), OLB Omar Gaither (from Eagles), S Sean Considine (from Jaguars)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Matt Moore (to Dolphins), QB Tony Pike (waived), TE Jeff King (to Cardinals), DE Tyler Brayton (to Colts), DT Derek Landri (to Eagles), CB Richard Marshall (to Cardinals), K John Kasay (released), TE Dante Rosario (to Broncos), C Chris Morris (to Lions), OT Rob Petitti (not tendered), DT Ed Johnson (not tendered), MLB Abdul Hodge (not tendered), OLB Jamal Williams (not tendered), OLB Nic Harris (not tendered), S Marcus Hudson (not tendered), S Gerald Alexander (to Dolphins), K Rhys Lloyd (to Giants)

QB: Fox juggled with Clausen (1,558 yards, 3 TD, 9 INT), Matt Moore and Brian St. Pierre a season ago, but now the most successful head coach in team history is gone and Clausen is still fighting for a starting spot with Newton. Clausen showed some flashes of brilliance in 2010 and is still learning the ropes today. Perhaps some friendly competition at quarterback with Newton providing the pressure will make the QB situation a bit tougher. Newton has already made some dazzling runs in pressure situations and has the arm strength suitable for the NFL. He'll most likely break Delhomme's team record of 12 yards for a touchdown run by a quarterback sometime in the near future. Newton had a 16-yard touchdown run against Cincinnati, but still needs work on his accuracy, especially downfield. Newton stated how important it is to trust the offense and will have no choice but when the real season begins. Third- string QB Derek Anderson (2,065 yards, 7 TD, 10 INT) signed with Carolina this past offseason after playing a tumultuous year with the Cardinals. He is a reliable veteran, but still needs polishing.

RB: Running back DeAngelo Williams appeared in just six games last season before being placed on injured reserve with a right foot injury. Many believed his days as a Panther were over with Jonathan Stewart carrying the load at a successful rate, but Williams is back in the fold after signing a five-year deal worth a reported $43 million. The 2009 Pro Bowl selection has great speed and quickness, and is highly elusive in the open field. His presence alone gives a relatively weak Carolina squad some upside. A healthy Williams (361 yards, TD) in 2010 could have prevented the team from drafting Newton, but the dominoes fell into place perfectly for an offense on the rise. The Panthers will keep their fingers crossed that Williams can regain his old 1,500-yard form and make the Williams-Stewart tandem one of the best in the league. Not too many clubs have a 1-2 punch at running back like Carolina, which did not have a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Stewart (770 yards, 2 TD) led the team with 178 carries and adds a lot more punch than Williams because of his solid build. Mike Goodson (452 yards, 3 TD) saw action a year ago as Williams' replacement. All three backs have great hands too.

WR/TE: The face of the organization for more than 10 years, wide receiver Steve Smith hopes he can build a strong rapport with new quarterback Newton and get this franchise back to where it once was. Smith played in 14 games last season and was inactive twice with an ankle and calf injury. He has been getting nicked up lately and even suffered a severe finger injury during training camp, but is expected to be geared up in Week 1. A four-time Pro Bowl selection and the team's No. 1 receiver, Smith is the team's all-time leader in touchdowns and led the squad in receiving last year despite hauling in 46 passes for 554 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Fantasy players certainly were not pleased with his 2010 performance. His 46 receptions were the lowest since appearing in just one game back in 2004. David Gettis (508 yards, 3 TD) was enjoying a nice camp until he tore the ACL in his left knee and is expected to miss the remainder of the season. Gettis injured the knee while attempting to run a route and his foot was caught in the turf. The Panthers will now look to Brandon LaFell and Legedu Naanee as the No. 2 and 3 wideouts. LaFell (468 yards, TD) had 38 catches in 2010, while Naanee posted 371 yards and a touchdown in 10 games for San Diego last season. Armanti Edwards is a threat at both running and receiving too. The Panthers loaded up at tight end in the offseason by bringing in Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen.

OL: It's a good sign for the Panthers that right tackle Jeff Otah returned to practice. He hasn't competed since Week 14 of the 2009 campaign because of a knee injury and could play against the Steelers in the preseason finale. Starting left tackle Gross said that the line has been struggling to find solidarity with a "new system, new calls and new quarterbacks." Gross went on to add that it's nice to have the preseason so the kinks will be worked out before the regular season commences. Travelle Wharton and Mackenzy Bernadeau are expected to start at left and right guard, respectively, while veteran center Ryan Kalil is back in the fold with a new quarterback to work with. Kalil started all 16 games at center for the second straight season for Carolina, and was one of three offensive linemen to start all 16 games, joining Gross and tackle Geoff Schwartz. With a mobile QB in Newton and Williams back at full strength the line should have more success in 2011. Zack Williams and Lee Ziemba were drafted in April.

DL: The biggest news along the front line of the Panthers was Johnson and his new deal. Johnson signed a six-year, $76 million contract with $32 million guaranteed and recorded a team-high 11.5 sacks and 27 quarterback pressures in 2010. He tallied 73 tackles while starting all 16 games at left defensive end. He's no Peppers, but Johnson has emerged as one of the top defensive lineman in the NFC. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who was acquired from Kansas City, is expected to miss the entire season due to surgery on his torn triceps. Edwards appeared in 16 games with Kansas City a a year ago, notching 26 tackles and two sacks. Losing a player his size will hurt McDermott's defense and that showed in Philadelphia with undersized tackles in Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson. DE Greg Hardy (30 tackles, 3 sacks) is lucky to be around for this season and was involved in a motorcycle accident in July. Rivera refers to Hardy as an "every down defensive end" for this club. The Panthers were poor against the run in 2010 and added a few piece to the line in DT Kentwan Balmer and rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua. DT Nick Hayden (11 tackles, sack), DE Eric Norwood (13 tackles, sack) and defensive end Everette Brown (25 tackles, 4 sacks) are back for Carolina.

LB: Beason (121 tackles, sack) is hoping to be ready for the season opener in Arizona and has been nursing that nagging foot ailment. It turned out to be a bone bruise and he underwent surgery in August. McDermott has to be smitten to coach a player of Beason's caliber since the Eagles never invested in that position. McDermott brought former Eagle Omar Gaither over to play the weakside, but he's currently behind stud OLB James Anderson, who led the team with 130 tackles a season ago. Anderson (4 sacks) will play opposite of Thomas Davis (61 tackles, 1.5 sacks), who appeared in only seven games in 2009 because of an injured right knee and missed all of the 2010 campaign after suffering a torn ACL in the same knee. Davis may have lost a step but is a tough customer when healthy. If Beason is unable to go against the Cardinals on Sept. 11, expect Dan Connor to take over in the middle. The former Penn State star is preparing as if he will start since Beason has yet to practice since training camp began July 30. Connor started the first eight games of 2010 at middle linebacker when the Panthers made some moves and his season was cut short because of a bone chip in his left hip.

DB: The Panthers finished in the middle of the pack in pass defense and have talented cornerbacks in Chris Gamble (35 tackles) and Captain Munnerlyn (45 tackles, 3 INT). Gamble started the first 10 games and was inactive the last five with hamstring and ankle injuries, but is back healthy for 2011. Munnerlyn is a solid defender and won't have Richard Marshall around for pressure after the latter signed with Arizona in the offseason. Strong safety Charles Godfrey (85 tackles) led the corps with five interceptions and played in all 16 games last season. Sherrod Martin (85 tackles, INT) will start at free safety for the Panthers, who added defensive backs Sean Considine, Kevin Payne and Michael Greco to the mix. DB Brandon Hogan was drafted in April.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Panthers said goodbye to kicker John Kasay over the summer and he made 25-of-29 field goals last season. Kasay was signed away from the Seahawks by the Panthers prior to their debut season in 1995. He spent 16 seasons with the Panthers. Kasay departs as the team's all-time leader with 351 field goals and 1,482 points. Now it's up to Olindo Mare, who was brought in this offseason and spent the last three seasons with the Seahawks, connecting on 73 of his 83 field-goal attempts during his time in Seattle. Punter Jason Baker returns and averaged 43.1 yards per punt on 95 tries. Goodson will handle kickoff return duties, while Edwards, a two-time winner of the Walter Payton Award, is slated to be Carolina's main punt returner. Munnerlyn handled most of the punt returns last season. J.J. Jansen will be the longsnapper and Baker will hold on field goal and PAT attempts.

PROGNOSIS: With NFL experts so quick to label a top draft pick a bust, Newton hopes he can prove all the naysayers wrong with the athleticism that brought him to the forefront of college football. Newton will have his fair share of struggles if he wins the starting job and the lockout did no help in his development. There's not a lot of hype buzzing around Carolina in Rivera's first season, but that doesn't mean he won't be trying to make a strong first impression with his bosses and players. Finishing last in the NFC South for a second consecutive season is not far from the truth either for Carolina.