By Tom Mantzouranis
June 06, 2012

Luke Kuechly is known for his sideline-to-sideline range and ability to play the pass and run with equal effectiveness. (Getty Images)

With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.

We obviously didn't know it at the time, but the Panthers' Week 1 28-21 loss to the Cardinals last year would serve as a pretty good microcosm of the first season of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era.

Newton, you may remember, dazzled with a then-rookie-record 422 passing yards in the game, his first as a pro (a record he'd go on to top the next week). But the Panthers lost the game in the second half, thanks in part to an 89-yard punt return touchdown by Patrick Peterson.

That's the story of the 2011 Panthers: some highlight plays, thanks almost entirely to Newton, but not enough -- especially in the second half -- to overcome terrible special teams and run defense units. Still, the team improved by four wins from its 2010 edition, and Newton's quick takeover of the NFL gave fans hope that playoff contention would come sooner than expected as well.

2011 Record: 6-10 (third place, NFC South)

Key Additions: RB Mike Tolbert, G Mike Pollak, G Amini Silatolu, LB Luke Kuechly

Key Subtractions: TE Jeremy Shockey, WR Legedu Naanee, G Travelle Wharton

Team Strengths: QB, RB, LB

Team Weaknesses: OL, DL, DB

Three Things to Watch:

1. Can the defense improve despite limited upgrades?: The Panthers had two clear-cut spots of need coming into the offseason: defensive tackle and in the secondary. And yet, they added no significant free agents at either position. Then, the Panthers opted to draft Luke Kuechly at ninth overall, despite Stephon Gilmore, Fletcher Cox and Dontari Poe, among others, still being available. The team did get great value in picking cornerback Josh Norman in the fifth round. He will grow into a worthy contributor, but won't make enough of a difference right away to help the Panthers' pass defense in 2012.

In fairness, Kuechly's three-down prowess will help a defense that finished 28th overall, as well as 32nd in both pass and run defense efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, and many would argue that he was the best player available at the pick. Still, the lack of attention paid to the aforementioned weaknesses, especially at defensive tackle, could come back to haunt the Panthers. The team is hoping that Ron Edwards' return after missing all of 2011 to injury, along with improvement from 2011 rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, will be enough to solidify the middle of the line.

2. Will the offense strike a better balance?: Alex Smith was misguided to call out Cam Newton, and the unit took a huge leap in 2011 thanks to Newton's addition. While he surprised us all right away with how well he could throw the ball at the NFL level, Newton's greatest contribution to the Panthers in 2011 was on the ground. His 706 yards were third on the team (just 130 yards behind team-leader DeAngelo Williams), and helped the Panthers lead the league in rushing efficiency, again according to Pro Football Outsiders.

So how can the Panthers' offense be better this year? By relying less on Newton to be the load-carrier, of course.

The run game became too predictable in short-yardage and goal-line situations, where it turned entirely into Newton's show. Enter Mike Tolbert. While it may have seemed a bit odd for the team to add the ex-Chargers runner to a stacked backfield, Tolbert is expected to play a lot of fullback and, more importantly, will take carries from Newton, adding an air of mystery to the game plan.

Beyond that, Newton has to improve as a passer. Much of his yardage came on big plays (65 plays of 20-plus passing yards; Drew Brees, by comparison, had 69), but the second-year passer has to round out his game. Newton connected often with Steve Smith, but the team needs a threat to emerge opposite of him to give Newton another outlet. The hope is that third-year wideout Brandon LaFell picks up that slack.

3. Will all of the change on special teams mean anything?: The Panthers ranked last in the league in special teams efficiency last year, and it was an obvious emphasis in the offseason. The additions of Tolbert, safety Haruki Nakamura, linebacker Kenny Onatolu and kicker Justin Medlock in free agency, along with the picks of receiver/returner Joe Adams and punter Josh Norman were all made with special teams in mind. It's a cliche, but it's true: The "hidden yardage" in special teams play matters, and the Panthers need a better performance on both sides of that unit if they want to consider themselves a serious playoff threat.

Outlook: The Panthers have a tough start to the schedule working against them -- after opening against the Bucs, they'll take on the Saints, Giants, Falcons, a sneaky Seahawks team and the Cowboys. They're also in a stacked division, where the Saints and Falcons made the playoffs last year, and the Bucs have hope for a brighter 2012 thanks to their new coach and offseason haul.

Newton certainly appears dedicated to improving, both on the field and in the locker room, and that's great news for the Panthers. But even while their star should be better, the team did not improve enough around him, particularly on defense.

All told, the 2012 Panthers will look awfully similar to last year's squad. This is a team that again will provide plenty of excitement and entertaining contests, and one that will again play its opponents close (six of their 10 losses came by eight points or less last year). But, ultimately, expect the Panthers to wind up on the wrong side of .500, somewhere in 6-10 or 7-9 range. This is a team still a year away from contention.

-- By Tom Mantzouranis

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