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Tape Review: Carolina Panthers

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Rotoworld’s Nick Mensio is watching every football game from the 2012 season and taking notes. Bang it here for Arizona Cardinals Tape Review, here for Atlanta Falcons Tape Review, here for Baltimore Ravens Tape Review, and here for Buffalo Bills Tape Review.

Next up in Mensio’s offseason Tape Review series: The Carolina Panthers.

The Offense: The Panthers employed a vertically aggressive passing offense under OC Rob Chudzinski, but the run game was awfully confusing. For the first half of the year, the rushing attack was based out of the shotgun -- unsuccessfully. The Panthers dabbled in pro-style sets in the middle of the year while Jonathan Stewart was healthy, but never stuck with it. Chudzinski also liked to run a lot of read-option and play-action with Cam Newton. The second-year quarterback was extremely proficient on play-action plays. Carolina put a lot on Newton’s plate early in the season, but things were simplified late in the year. Newton responded by leading the team to a 5-1 record to finish out the season, saving head coach Ron Rivera’s job. The offensive line lost center Ryan Kalil to a Lisfranc foot injury early in the season and was mostly a liability.

Quarterbacks

Cam Newton: Newton has one of the strongest arms in the league, and he’s also one of the NFL's most physically-gifted players. … One of my favorite throws that illustrated his rocket arm came in Week 14 versus the Falcons. On third-and-five, Newton unloaded a bullet to Greg Olsen for a 25-yard touchdown down the left seam. The ball buzzed right over the top of safety Thomas DeCoud’s helmet. … Shoddy footwork and accuracy kept Newton from taking that next step in his development for much of 2012. He missed receivers high and wide, and shakiness in the pocket led to too many sacks. Cam made one of the worst throws by any quarterback in the league in Week 5 against Seattle. On fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line late in the fourth quarter with Carolina trailing 16-10, Newton rolled right and had Ben Hartsock wide open for the winning touchdown. The ball was thrown straight at Hartsock’s feet for an incompletion. ... Accuracy is the main issue holding Newton back from emerging as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. Newton didn’t display the ability to make many “touch” throws, either, routinely sailing passes over his receivers’ heads when he only needed to put a reasonable amount of air beneath the ball.

On a more positive note, Newton is a freak with the ball in his hands. He is physically dominant. Cam's best run of the season was a 72-yard scamper around left edge on a read-option keeper in Week 14 versus the Falcons. Atlanta's defensive end collapsed down too early, so Newton kept the ball and high-tailed it up the sideline for the score. … He’s also automatic at the goal line. On two separate occasions in Week 12 against the Eagles, Cam slammed into the end zone for touchdowns. One came on a third-and-goal from the one-yard line where Newton leaped over the top of the defense, and the other was on a straight wham play from two yards out.

Running Backs

Jonathan Stewart: Two separate high-ankle sprains derailed Stewart’s season. One was suffered in the preseason, and another came in Week 12. The second ended his campaign, and both injuries sapped Stewart of his short-area explosiveness and breakaway speed. Stewart is more of a between-the-tackles, methodical runner who runs behind his pads. We didn’t get to see vintage Stewart last season. ... Week 9 against the Redskins was easily his most impressive game. Stewart had runs of 11, 17, and 21 yards within his first five carries, but the Panthers stuck with their timeshare system and abandoned Stewart thereafter. ... In 2013, hopefully we’ll see a healthier Stewart with more commitment from the coaching staff to feed him the football.

DeAngelo Williams: Williams is noticeably lacking burst and juice at this stage of his career. He doesn’t get to the edge as quickly as he once did. Williams does have the ability to make things happen when his offensive line springs him into space, but that didn't happen often in 2012. A 30-yard touchdown around right edge in Week 9 versus the Redskins was his highlight of the season. Williams hovered around 3.0-3.5 YPC before a fluky Week 17 outburst against the Saints’ league-worst defense, where Williams set the Panthers' single-game franchise record for rushing yards (210). It likely saved his job for 2013.

Mike Tolbert: Tolbert is a bowling-ball back, but has really soft hands as a receiver. In limited playing time, he saw 39 targets on screens and dump-offs. Tolbert is light on his feet with an ability to side-step tacklers in addition to running through them. With Stewart missing the season's final five games, Tolbert saw plenty of action in short-yardage situations, even vulturing a handful of goal-line scores. Tolbert had two one-yard touchdowns against the Chargers in Week 15, and added three more one-yard scores in the finale against the Saints. Perhaps we'll see more of this in 2013 since Tolbert was so efficient near the end zone.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Steve Smith: Smith is a field stretcher on the outside. The soon-to-be 34-year-old may have lost a step, but he can still run by most corners. It took Smith a while to find the end zone in 2012, but he turned it on late in the year. In Week 9 against the Redskins, Smith out-jumped Josh Wilson for a 19-yard score. In Weeks 13 and 16, he ran right by Neiko Thorpe of the Chiefs and Joselio Hanson of the Raiders for twin 23-yard touchdowns. … Smith is one of the NFL's most physical receivers and a willing blocker. His physicality gets him in trouble sometimes, as Smith was called for five penalties. Smith had a touchdown negated by offensive pass interference against the Bucs after blatantly tossing Eric Wright out of the way. In Week 16 against the Raiders, Smith's holding penalty took a 76-yard DeAngelo Williams touchdown run off the board. Smith’s solid blocking was displayed on Newton’s 72-yard touchdown run against the Falcons in Week 14. … Newton has a tendency to overlook his other receivers in order to pepper Smith with targets. The Panthers need another wideout to take some of the burden off of aging Smith.

Brandon LaFell: LaFell was vaulted into the clear-cut No. 2 receiver role after splitting snaps with Legedu Naanee in 2011. LaFell is a possession receiver and doesn't impress with his speed. He still excels after the catch, has developed into a polished route runner, and he’s one of the better blockers at his position. LaFell played outside in two-receiver sets and spent most of his time in the slot in three-wide sets. Three of his four touchdowns came out of the left slot, and they were all nearly identical. In Week 12, the Eagles failed to cover LaFell as they were concentrated on Smith, and LaFell ran right down the left hashmarks for an untouched 43-yard score. He did the same thing in Week 11 against the Bucs for a 29-yard touchdown. … LaFell's lack of breakaway speed was exposed when he was caught from behind on a 62-yard catch-and-run against the Bears in Week 8. … LaFell sees a ton of one-on-one looks due to teams' focus on Smith, but has been disappointing in three seasons out of LSU. He’s now entering the final year of his rookie contract.

Greg Olsen: Olsen is a “move” or “joker” tight end whose main responsibility is to catch the football, rather than block on the line of scrimmage. He can block, but it’s not his strong suit as exhibited in Week 10 versus the Broncos when Von Miller wreaked havoc on Olsen and the Panthers’ offensive line. ... Olsen rarely came off the field. He and LaFell worked the seams in Chudzinski’s vertical offense. Olsen was also used on a lot of deep out-breaking routes toward the sidelines. He was a lock for four-to-five catches and 40-50 yards every week down the stretch, but sprinkled in some bigger receiving efforts. ... In the Broncos game, Olsen dominated the opening drive with catches of 26 and 16 yards before cashing in a wide-open four-yard touchdown. He had another big day in Week 4 versus the Falcons. Olsen caught a pass in the left flat, and then broke a couple of tackles en route to the end zone for a seven-yard score. He later added a 34-yard catch down the right sideline. … It will be interesting to see how Olsen's role changes – if at all – after Chudzinski’s departure.

The Defense: The Panthers run a 4-3 under defensive-minded coach Ron Rivera and play a lot of zone coverage on the back end. They relied on the front four to generate pressure, and finished tied for ninth in the league with 39 sacks. If the edge players didn’t get home, however, opposing offenses had no real issues throwing against Carolina. … On the defensive line, left end Charles Johnson and right end Greg Hardy both finished with double-digit sacks. Johnson also forced seven fumbles. Hardy was a stud against the run. It took a couple years for Hardy to make his mark in the league, but he’s going to get a real nice payday if his 2013 performance is anything like last year's. Hardy is entering a contract season. ... On the interior, Dwan Edwards pushed the pocket well, but partner Ron Edwards was completely ineffective versus the run. Defensive tackle is a longtime weakness in Carolina. … Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly started slow as he was a bit of a wide-eyed rookie. He eventually settled in and proved to be a quality run defender. ... Thomas Davis returned from a third ACL tear and was a stud in pass coverage on the weak side. He’ll swing to the strong side in 2013, while Jon Beason comes back from knee and shoulder surgeries to take over at weak-side ‘backer. … The secondary was a complete mess and the downfall of the defense as a whole. Free safety Haruki Nakamura gave up far too many big plays and was largely to blame for the Panthers' Week 4 loss to Atlanta. Roddy White had his way with Nakamura. ... Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble was solid in four games before a shoulder injury sent him to injured reserve. Fifth-round rookie Josh Norman was a frequent burn victim at right corner. Captain Munnerlyn rotated between left and slot corner. He’s best suited for the slot on a permanent basis.

2013 Fantasy Player to Watch: Cam Newton

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