Five Key Offseason Questions for the Carolina Panthers: Fan’s Take

The Carolina Panthers ended the 2011 season with a nice run and Cam Newton began to mature right before our eyes. The incredible season that he produced was one of many awesome developments for the Panthers despite a tough year in the win/loss column. The bottom line to Panthers fans like me is that the team is one on the rise. Growing pains aside, the Panthers legitimately could challenge for the playoffs in 2012 if some things go right and they fix some holes in the offseason. Here are five key questions the Panthers need to address before the 2012 season begins:

Will Rob Chudzinski return to lead this high powered Panthers offense?

Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has been integral in the Panthers offensive turnaround in 2011. He has turned one of the worst offenses in history into one of the best of 2011 with a rookie quarterback at the helm. That performance has made him very popular for open head coaching positions now that the season has ended for non-playoff teams. He already interviewed for the Jacksonville job but lost out to Mike Mularkey. Now he is interviewing for the St. Louis Rams head coaching job.

Chudzinski should remain popular as a potential head coach during the off season, but I think that he has one more year in Carolina. Jeff Fisher could likely take the Rams position, and Chudzinski has some jump to make from offensive coordinator to head coach. I expect him to stay in Carolina in all probability for one more year.

Can Cam Newton continue to grow into a winner on the NFL level?

Given the incredible numbers that Cam put up, it is nit-picking to mention his won/loss record. The kid did more with less than any quarterback Carolina has ever had. Newton is a star, and he has no problem winning football games. The losses the Panthers suffered was clearly a result of an injured, depleted defense and horrible special teams in my view. Once the Panthers shore up those areas, Cam Newton will get things rolling. In the second half of the season, Cam started winning. It is not surprising that this is also when the defense began playing much better as well.

Will the Panthers chase that high profile wide receiver?

Steve Smith is getting a year older, and while that did not seem to matter in 2011 it will eventually. The Panthers still need a young stud receiver to be groomed for the number one alongside Cam Newton in years to come. Smith is awesome and will be strong again in 2012, but I do not think that Gettis, LaFell or any of the other receivers on the Panthers roster are number one wide outs. Gettis could be, but that is a bit of a crap shoot. LaFell made huge strides, but he is more of a number two possession type. The Panthers need to look now for that guy that will replace Steve Smith in the coming seasons.

Can the Panthers plug all the holes in the defense?

The Panthers had so many injuries to the defense in 2011, it is virtually impossible to know what might have been. We never got to see what might have happened if they had been even near full strength. One thing is for certain, however. This defense is far better than what they were able to show in 2011. They were not even on the field to do so. In the offseason, the Panthers still need some help at corner and defensive line, and they should shore up the linebackers as well. The talent at linebacker is off the charts, but injuries are common there for this team.

Will the Panthers change up those special teams finally?

One thing you can say for Ron Rivera and the Panthers is that they legitimately gave Armanti Edwards the chance to return punts. The kid is a favorite of mine, but quite simply he did not produce. His season was among the worst in history as far as statistics from a regular punt returner. Edwards is not the answer barring some major shift, and the Panthers have to fix that. Field position and special teams hurt them all season. To be fair, it was not just Edwards, however. The Panthers also had coverage problems early in the season. Those too must be identified and fixed if the Panthers want to make the playoffs in 2012.

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Updated Wednesday, Jan 11, 2012