By season's end, the Carolina Panthers were one of the hottest teams in the league.
Unfortunately, just 10 games into the 2012 season, they were also one of the worst.
For the second straight year, the club got off to a 2-8 start. In 2011, the Panthers won four of their last six contests to finish 6-10. Last season, Carolina won its last four games and five of its last six outings to finish 7-9.
Now all Ron Rivera's team needs to do is figure out that first 2 1/2 months of the season.
So it is on to 2013, and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Carolina Panthers:
QB Cam Newton: For the second straight year, the Panthers' young quarterback played well down the stretch after struggling for the majority of the season. Newton finished with 19 touchdown passes and was picked off a dozen times in 2012, but 10 of those scores and two interceptions came during the team's 5-1 finish. He also ran for 347 yards and four scores over that stretch, highlighting a season-long problem that saw Newton lead the Panthers with 741 yards on the ground, four more yards than running back DeAngelo Williams.
WR Steve Smith: The veteran wideout remains one of the better deep threats in the league and over the last two seasons; he has obviously enjoyed his time with Newton. Smith has totaled 70-plus receptions each of the last two years, averaged over 16 yards per catch, caught a total of 11 touchdown passes and racked up 11 outings of 100-plus receiving yards. Both he and fellow wideout Brandon LaFell each caught four touchdown passes last season, but Smith remains the target of choice for Newton.
DE Greg Hardy: Fellow defensive end Charles Johnson gets most of the attention and rightfully so, but he and Hardy are beginning to emerge as one of the top pass-rushing tandems in the league. Carolina totaled 39 sacks last season and Johnson (12.5) and Hardy (11.0) combined for 23.5 of those sacks. In a division that includes Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Josh Freeman, you better know how to get to the opposing quarterback. Look for Hardy and/or Johnson to vie for Pro Bowl honors in 2013.
DT Star Lotulelei: The Panthers' defense made a lot of strides last season but is still suspect up the middle. But Rivers and company had to be ecstatic that Lotulelei fell to the 14th overall selection when many speculated that he might be a top 5 pick in April. Speaking of the No. 14, that's where Carolina's defense was ranked vs. the run in 2012 -- hence the need for the improvement. While Lotulelei is known for his ability to stifle the run, the former Utah Ute totaled a career-high 5.0 sacks in 2012.
MLB Luke Kuechly: The 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year was a tackling machine at Boston College, and he picked up where he left off in college. Kuechly led the Panthers in stops and the defense definitely had a different feel to it. Former Pro Bowler Jon Beason missed most of last season, and outside linebacker Thomas Davis has had his own problems staying healthy. But if Lotulelei is a star in his debut season Carolina's linebacking corps can stay on the field, there are the makings of a formidable front seven here.
So what can we expect from the Panthers in 2013? Can the team avoid the slow starts that have plagued it each of the last few seasons? Who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season?
It should be an interesting season for anyone who has Carolina on his or her mind.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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