Quarterback Cam Newton is a special talent. His 7,920 passing yards in 2011-2012 were the most in history by a quarterback in his first two seasons. In 2012, he also led the Panthers with 741 rushing yards. A strong 6-5, 240-pounder, Newton is hard to tackle. Although he runs well, Newton is a better passer when he stays in the pocket. The first overall selection of the 2011 NFL Draft, Newton has started every game in his career; his record is 13-21. He has an explosive throwing motion and the quickness to spin away from a pass rush. Newton’s backup is Derek Anderson, once a starter in Cleveland.
Five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith remains the team’s best wide receiver in his 13th season. He is a feisty, aggressive playmaker with strong hands. Smith must be accounted for on every snap. The other starter is Brandon LaFell, who has a large catching radius. Free agent acquisition Ted Ginn, Jr. has explosive straight line speed and big play ability; he scored a touchdown on an 87-yard reception against Pittsburgh in the preseason. Armanti Edwards is a jack of all trades. Former Giant Domenik Hixon has been limited to two snaps because of a hamstring injury.
Tight end Greg Olsen leads the Panthers with 13 receptions. He is always on the field and lines up in numerous spots. A favorite target of Newton, Olsen is a good route runner who knows exactly where the markers are on third down. Ben Hartsock is a sturdy blocking tight end. Brandon Williams is a former basketball player at Portland Bible College. He caught two passes for Oregon in 2010 before being diagnosed with a narrow spinal canal and a bulging disk in his back. He is now learning the pro game.
Carolina has had stability at tackle, but injuries have jumbled the interior of their offensive line. That’s one reason Newton was sacked six times last week in Buffalo. Guard Garry Williams started the season-opener vs. Seattle, but tore his ACL and is out for the season. Rookie Edmund Kugbila is also done for the season. With Williams sidelined, Chris Scott, who was signed midway through training camp, moved from left to right guard and Amini Silatolu, who was battling a hamstring strain, took over on the left side. Scott alternated with Travelle Wharton, who re-joined the team on Aug. 26. A 10-year veteran, Wharton spent his first eight years in Carolina. Left tackle Jordan Gross, a two-time Pro Bowler, is a smart, savvy veteran who can make all the blocks. On the right side, Byron Bell has long arms and gets out quickly on speed pass rushers. Center Ryan Kalil has played in three Pro Bowls and is tough, competitive and smart.
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The strength of the defense under coordinator Sean McDermott is the front seven. The secondary has been weakened by injuries. Carolina’s first two opponents completed 72.2 percent of their passes and threw for 320 and 287 net passing yards.
Left end Charles Johnson had 12.5 sacks last season and is the master of the strip sack (he forced five fumbles in 2012). Strong and persistent, Johnson is a solid player against both the run and pass. Greg Hardy has size, length and strength. He is a good penetrator who makes a mess on the line. Hardy moves inside in sub packages. Ten-year veteran Dwan Edwards is a smart and instinctive player at left tackle. The starter on the right side is Star Lotulelei, the Panthers’ first-round draft choice this year. He is a fighter with athletic ability. Frank Alexander is an active pass rusher in the nickel defense. Mario Addison plays about 10 snaps a game and on special teams. Second-round draft choice Kawann Short attacks blockers. Colin Cole is another contributing backup.
Carolina’s secondary suffered a big loss last week when free safety Charles Godfrey suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Cornerback Josh Thomas suffered a concussion and D.J. Moore played the entire second half with a sprained knee. Miscommunication between Moore and Josh Norman left Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson wide open in the end zone on the deciding play last Sunday.
Mike Mitchell, a free agent signee who played last season in Oakland, is expected to start for Godfrey. He is an aggressive run defender who plays with an edge and seeks contact. Quintin Mikell, an 11-year veteran who was signed on Sept. 2, is arguably the secondary’s best player, though he is battling an ankle injury. Mikell, who played his first eight seasons for Philadelphia, started 16 games for St. Louis in 2012. He is a dependable veteran who is always around the ball and is capable of getting to the quarterback on a blitz. Backup Colin Jones has good range and ball skills. His potential game-clinching interception last week was nullified by Kuechly’s pass interference penalty. Thomas will be the left cornerback if healthy. He is best as a physical press corner. The other starter is 5-8 Captain Munnerlyn, who is feisty in run support and has good recovery quickness. He moves inside in the nickel, when Norman takes over at corner. Moore plays safety in some sub packages.
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