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NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton proved less spectacular but more efficient in his second season in the NFL. Cam Newton proved less spectacular but more efficient in his second season in the NFL.  (Al Tielemans/SI)

With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.

Through the first three months of last season, head coach Ron Rivera’s job status looked shaky. The Panthers had won just two of their first 10 games, and in today’s NFL, where the shortsighted desire to win now and eschew slow rebuilds has warped expectations for coaching turnarounds, the impetus to finish the season on a strong note was pressing. Less than two years into his tenure, Rivera was on the hot seat.

His team responded by winning five of its last six games, including a 10-point home win over NFC No. 1 seed Atlanta, and a 24-point thrashing of San Diego. Even after that impressive finish, owner Jerry Richardson was reportedly undecided on bringing Rivera back for another year. In the end, the inspired football the Panthers played the last few weeks of the season -- reminiscent of 2011’s impressive 4-2 closing stretch -- convinced Richardson to keep Rivera for at least one more year.

But make no mistake: Rivera needs to win this season. There will be little tolerance for another slow start. Anything less than a playoff birth won’t see Rivera survive past Black Monday.

• Biggest storyline: What should we expect from Cam Newton in Year 3?

Cam Newton can best be described as simultaneously frustrating and brilliant. For all the natural talent and athletic advantages he possesses, Newton has drawn his fair share of criticism for his poor body language, touchdown celebrations and questionable comments to the media, and there's a general sense he may not have the maturity or the leadership qualities to turn Carolina into a consistent playoff outfit.

On the field, Newton has occasionally looked like one of the better quarterbacks in the league. His ability to beat defenses with his arm and legs has produced a number of memorable performances. To wit: In his first NFL game, a seven-point loss to Arizona in 2011, Newton completed 24-of-37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns while posting a 110.4 quarterback rating. Of course, he’s also shown himself to be careless with the football; later that season, in a November road game at Detroit, Newton threw four interceptions to just one touchdown in a 49-35 loss.

Newton showed signs of improvement last season, most notably during a three-game run between Week 12 and Week 14 in which he threw seven touchdowns, zero interceptions and completed an average of 86.4 percent of his passes. But as is so often the case with Newton, his success did not come without a number of regrettable moments. The most memorable example came following a Thursday night blowout loss at home to the Giants, when Newton reportedly clashed with receiver Steve Smith after frustratingly draping a towel over his head.

If Newton can avoid the negative publicity he’s drawn early in his career -- the tone-deaf comments to the media, the apathetic body language and defeatist sideline behavior -- he’s more than capable of blossoming into one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. The upcoming season will be a fascinating one for Newton. Can he channel his immense talents on a consistent weekly basis, and put to rest the character critiques and off-field nonsense that’s plagued him to date?

• Most intriguing position battle: Safety

The Panthers will enter 2013 boasting one of the more impressive front sevens in football. If the linebacking corps maintains a clean bill of health -- a huge presumption, considering the recent injury histories of Thomas Davis and Jon Beason -- Carolina should have little trouble stuffing the run and snuffing out the short passing game.

The reason Carolina’s defense isn’t considered among the top units in the league, as formidable as the linebacking unit and defensive line stand to be, is the secondary. The competition at cornerback will be interesting, but the safety spot next to presumed starter Charles Godfrey is more intriguing. Veterans Haruki Nakamura and Mike Mitchell could be the favorites, but early reports indicate undrafted free agent Robert Lester could challenge for playing time.

Given Carolina’s strength up front, opponents are bound to attack the Panthers through the air. The secondary will need to be prepared to hold firm against pass-heavy gameplans, and Godfrey’s safety partner will play a key role in stabilizing an unsettled unit.

• New face, new place: Domenik Hixon

In a division featuring Super Bowl challenger Atlanta and a Sean Payton-rejuvenated Saints team, Carolina will need to score plenty of points just to keep pace. There are serious questions about whether the pass-catching targets on hand -- the best of which, at least right now, appears to be a 34-year old Steve Smith -- give the Panthers enough firepower to match their division counterparts. Greg Olsen is one of the league’s better receiving tight ends, and Smith will remain Newton's top target, but the rest of the Panthers' receiving options inspire doubt.

Brandon LaFell is likely to start the season as Carolina’s No. 2 wideout, but someone like Hixon -- a dangerous deep threat in limited action over five seasons in New York -- could usurp his spot on the depth chart at some point during the season. LaFell has been productive in spots, but his inability to separate from defenders makes him a middling, perimeter threat. Hixon, meanwhile, has the speed to get open downfield and, if nothing else, can give secondaries who might otherwise focus exclusively on Smith another deep passing target to worry about.

Even if he doesn’t beat out LaFell for the No. 2 role, Hixon will be a productive third wideout and a welcome addition for an offensive lacking dynamic receiving targets.

• Impact rookie: Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle

In most early pre-draft discussions, Lotulelei was widely considered a top-three talent. His stock fell in the lead up to draft day after concerns arose over a heart condition, though, according to NFL.com, those concerns have been silenced. Carolina took Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick, a selection most analysts praised as one of the first round’s better “value” grabs, and one that should pay dividends right away.

The Utah product is expected to start at defensive tackle next to Dwan Edwards, which should give Carolina one of the better 4-3 DT tandems in the league. Lotulelei was praised throughout the draft process for his burst off the snap, as well as his strength and versatility -- agile enough to line up as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme and powerful enough to play tackle in a 4-3. He has drawn comparisons to Ravens Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata, and should make an excellent fit along the Panthers’ defensive line from Week 1 on.

• Looking at the schedule: Yikes

Using a previous season’s win-loss record as a barometer for schedule strength is a flawed process. The volatility of records over seasons, the possibility for in-season injuries and the great uncertainty provided by coaching changes, free agent moves and unexpected turnarounds makes preseason schedule evaluation a disconcerting endeavor. What looks like a difficult schedule in August could well turn into one of the easier slates in the league. In the NFL, you just don’t know.

With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s impossible to deny the Panthers have one of the more difficult schedules in the league. Confused? Well, consider this: judging by win percentage (0.543), the Panthers' 2013 schedule is the most difficult in the league.

That’s a scary prospect, and it’s even more daunting once you break up the Panthers’ slate into discrete weekly parts. Carolina will be lucky to scrape a .500 record out of its six division games against New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Out of division, the Panthers face treacherous home tests against the Patriots, Giants (we all remember how that one turned out last season), Seahawks and Rams; on the road, trips to Minnesota, Miami and Buffalo could be tricky. Carolina has closed the last two seasons stronger than it opened them, and if that’s the case again in 2013, it could be their saving grace in the division standings, as they face New Orleans and Atlanta in Weeks 15 and 16.

Even so, making the playoffs this year -- the bar Carolina will likely need to clear to save Rivera’s job -- will require the Panthers to win more games early in the season. Another sluggish start will instigate renewed criticisms of Rivera’s coaching merits, and shift the focus away from the team’s actual on-field performance. The mandate is clear: Carolina needs to win from the jump.
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