The Falcons have dominated the NFC South the past two seasons with a high flying offense and power running game and look poised for more of the same in 2013. The New Orleans Saints welcome back Head Coach Sean Payton and bring in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to bring some life to a Saints squad that was found lacking last season. The Buccaneers introduce the world to Doug Martin last season and spent their offseason turning a weak secondary into (what looks like) one of the leagues top units.
So where does that leave the Carolina Panthers? The Panthers used their first two draft picks in this years draft on Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. The two additions should make for a formidable front seven and a very tough team up the middle combined with last year’s defensive rookie of the year Luke Kuechley. But the offense still faces the same issues. The team has two talented running backs in John Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, but they don’t really seem to compliment each other as much as negate each other…the skill sets just seem to overlap too much. But the far more pressing offensive issue is the passing game. Cam Newton is a big guy with a big arm, and so far the Panthers have failed to play to that strength. Steve Smith is an excellent #1 target, but Brandon LaFell just isn’t cutting it in the #2 spot. Maybe Ted Ginn can make something happen, but his speed and size tend to be better suited inside. Domenik Hixon is the other Free agent acquisition looking to capitalize on past success in an expanded role with the Panthers, but the fact is none of these guys scares me as a defensive coordinator, so I can just focus my gameplan on shutting down Steven Smith. But, the Panthers did finish much better than they started, and even in the games they lost they weren’t getting blown out, so it’s not crazy to think Carolina could be this division’s dark horse contender, but then you look at the secondary and you wonder just how competitive this team can be going up against Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year.
The Panthers are a bit of a mystery in what seems to be the later stages of a rebuild. There are still pieces that need to be put in place, but there is a fair amount of young talent on this team and they could surprise you at any moment. Their fate likely lies with their QB. Cam Newton has seen a rookie season where he came on like gangbusters, only to fizzle toward the end, following up with a sophomore season that started slow, but picked up quickly in the back half of the season. If he can find consistency as a pocket passer, and mature as a player and a person, the Panthers could be in for an excellent year, because as important as finding a successor for Steve Smith as a #1 WR is, it is even more important to find him a successor as the leader of the offense.