Few 6-10 teams will finish a season with as much enthusiasm and excitement for the future as the Carolina Panthers. That’s because few teams have Cam Newton. The consensus 2011 Rookie of the Year threw for 4,000 yards and ran for 14 touchdowns during a season where he silenced doubters and burst upon the scene.
The six win season is a four game improvement over 2010. And the Panthers’ offense performed like a unit headed in the right direction.
The defense is still a work in progress. But Jaxon, who manages the blog Cat Scratch Reader, says the unit will get some key contributors back from injuries. With a few solid moves, he says Carolina could find itself in the wild card mix as soon as next season. Here’s what he had to say:
Zoneblitz: Will Cam Newton duplicate his success from 2011?
Jaxon: I think he will surpass his passing marks in yardage and TDs but not match his 14 rushing TDs. I think another 700 yard rushing season is likely though. The kid can and will scramble and do it well.
Zoneblitz: What are your first impressions of Ron Rivera as head coach given a year to watch the team play under him?
Jaxon: So far I like what I see and the results we have been given for the most part. But I need to see some real improvement from the defense in 2012.
Zoneblitz: The offense looked improved but Steve Smith is aging. How do you feel about the Panthers receiving corps heading into 2012?
Jaxon: I’m happy with the current roster at wide receiver and think Smitty still has a few very good years left in him. We have the sure hands of Brandon LaFell and the speedy David Gettis returning. We have some younger talent too in Keoloha Pilares and Armanti Edwards. The vet Legadu Naanee, who started slow for us, has nice size and brings a needed infusion of experience.
Zoneblitz: Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are talented backs and they combined to put up solid numbers. Do they both return in 2012 or does one get moved for parts elsewhere?
Jaxon: They should both be returning but Stewart is in the final year of his contract so I would expect the Panthers to make a move to extend him beyond 2012. I want to keep both players and I think the Panthers do too. Given Williams’ new contract I don’t see the Panthers being able to move him.
Zoneblitz: Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski keeps popping up as a candidate for head coaching jobs around the league. Is he deserving and how are the Panthers positioned to deal with it if he does leave?
Jaxon: I think what he did with a rookie quarterback, no offseason and a 32nd ranked offense is nothing short of miraculous. For that reason he is deserving of a look. Yet he’s also very young by NFL coaching standards and only has three seasons of being an offensive coordinator. Just as Ron Rivera finally got a head coaching job after being overlooked for so many seasons, Chud will get his shot. I’m hoping he sticks around a few more seasons first though.
Zoneblitz: The defense got skewered in 2011, but there also was a lot of shakeup all season due to injuries and youth. Do you think that unit will improve in 2012 or does work still need to be done there?
Jaxon: There is nowhere for the defense to go but up in my view. Getting some key starters back like linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards should help a lot. I also like the recent hire of Steve Wilks as defensive backs coach to help a secondary that took a step back in 2011. But the Panthers do have holes to fill on defense. They could use another pass rusher, a cornerback and another option behind Thomas Davis at weakside linebacker if his recovery stalls as it did last year.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Panthers do in the draft and free agency?
Jaxon: Given we expect to be over the salary cap or extremely close to it, I don’t see the Panthers being big players in free agency. I would like to see the Panthers draft a big cornerback like Dre Kirkpatrick or a defensive tackle like Michael Brockers to bring pressure up the middle. A defensive end or a linebacker is also likely option with the early picks. I have found it very hard to predict what General Manager Marty Hurney will do on draft day. This year will be no exception.
Zoneblitz: How far away are the Panthers from being a contender in the NFC South?
Jaxon: With what looks like an easier schedule in 2012 I think the Panthers can compete for a wild card slot in 2012 but an NFC South title is certainly another season or two down the road, given how tough the division is.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything you would like to add?
Jaxon: How about this. I think Panthers owner Jerry Richardson took a lot of heat for being one of the faces behind the lookout, heat he didn’t deserve. He was also at the same time called ‘cheap’ because he didn’t sign free agents prior to 2010 and was called ‘stupid’ because he let John Fox stay for his lame duck season. In the end I think he has been vindicated as the Panthers (and the NFL) are in a much better spot in 2012 because of him. I thought before and still think to this day he is one of the best owners in the NFL. Long live the Big Cat!