They spent heavily to re-sign veterans. But did they spend wisely?

One day in training camp Panthers owner Jerry Richardson drove his golf cart up to a group of his players on the sideline at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. He motioned to the four players standing in the front and said loudly enough for the ones in back to hear, "None of these men left. They all could have. But we treated them right, and they stayed, and they believe in what we're trying to do."

Middle linebacker Jon Beason came over and said with a big smile, "Hello, Mr. Richardson."

"Y'all stood up," Richardson said with a nod to Beason, linebackers Thomas Davis and James Anderson and defensive end Charles Johnson. "Thank you."

"Now we've got to hold up our end," Beason replied.

Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, with the eager approval of Richardson, committed $144.5 million in guaranteed money to seven players in the span of a month this summer—those four defenders plus running back DeAngelo Williams, center Ryan Kalil and the first pick in the 2011 draft, quarterback Cam Newton. Richardson hopes his Magnificent Seven will lead the franchise out of the wilderness after a 2--14 finish in 2010 and the firing of coach John Fox after nine seasons.

All those players are signed through 2015 or '16 except Newton, whose rookie deal runs through 2014, and it will take a couple of years at least to determine whether the Panthers spent wisely. If they didn't, it will be crippling. This is a division with upper-tier quarterbacks on every other team: Drew Brees in New Orleans, Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Josh Freeman in Tampa. Newton may have the talent to compete with them. But what makes all of those quarterbacks good is that they've got a score of good players around them. With huge payouts now on the books and a strict salary cap hovering around $120 million for 2012 and '13, Carolina isn't going to have the wherewithal to correct many mistakes.

Johnson, a fifth-year player out of Georgia, is the key on the defensive side. Carolina gave him the richest contract in 2011 free agency, six years for $72 million, even though he hadn't had a strong season until last year, his first as a starter. But rookie coach Ron Rivera, who's trying to return the team to defensive respectability, had to have him. "This is a passing league, and you just don't find 25-year-old pass rushers with [Johnson's] ability who defend the run," Hurney says. "If we'd lost him, it really would have set us back."

Last season offenses began to consistently either double-team the 6'2", 275-pound Johnson or use a chip-blocker to deflect pressure. That should free the linebackers to make more plays—provided they can stay healthy. Davis, who signed for five years and $35.5 million (though Carolina can get out after this year with minimal cap damage), is coming off an inactive year after twice tearing his right ACL.

An improved defense will take some heat off Newton; so will Williams and a clock-eating running game, but health is an issue there too. Williams, who re-signed for $43 million over five years, missed 13 games in the last two seasons with injuries and finished 2010 on IR with a right-foot sprain. At least Newton will also get a lift from the Panthers' best tight end talent since Wesley Walls a decade ago. Jeremy Shockey (free agency) and Gregg Olsen (trade from the Bears)—both former first-round picks from Miami—spent training camp becoming security blankets in the intermediate passing game for Newton and the quarterback he's trying to supplant, Jimmy Clausen. Carolina made a lot of high-priced signings, but those two guys could be as vital as Williams and his backup, Jonathan Stewart.

"Last year, at the end of the year, I remember sitting with Mr. Richardson, and he told me this is what we were going to do," said ninth-year tackle Jordan Gross, the leader of the offensive line. "There was a lot of negativity around the team in the community, and he told me they were going to re-sign our good players and be very aggressive in building the team. Two years ago I signed for six years, and what we've done now makes me very glad I stayed. I know what people think about our team, but I've seen it happen before. It has happened before. You can turn it around in a year."

Or two. The Panthers, 1--15 in 2001, went to the Super Bowl two years later; they were 7--9 in '07, 12--4 the next year. It's hard to imagine 2011 will be a quick-fix season: new coach, rookie quarterback, new offensive and defensive systems. But this is a franchise convinced it had the talent in-house to return to the playoffs. This fall we'll begin to see if that judgment was right.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 32

QB CAM NEWTON (R)

ATT 280

COMP 185

PCT 66.1

YARDS 2,854

YD/ATT 10.2

TD 30

INT 7

RATING 182.0

RB DEANGELO WILLIAMS

ATT 87

YARDS 361

REC 11

TTD 1

FB TONY FIAMMETTA

ATT 7

YARDS 22

REC 5

TTD 0

WR STEVE SMITH

REC 46

YARDS 554

AVG 12.0

TTD 2

WR LEGEDU NAANEE

REC 23

YARDS 371

AVG 16.1

TTD 1

TE GREG OLSEN

REC 41

YARDS 404

AVG 9.9

TTD 5

LT JORDAN GROSS

G 16

SACKS 7

HOLD 1

FALSE 3

LG TRAVELLE WHARTON

G 9

SACKS 2½

HOLD 1

FALSE 2

C RYAN KALIL

G 16

SACKS 3

HOLD 0

FALSE 2

RG MACKENZY BERNADEAU

G 16

SACKS 4½

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

RT JEFF OTAH*

G 13

SACKS 5

HOLD 0

FALSE 6

RB JONATHAN STEWART

ATT 178

YARDS 770

REC 8

TTD 3

WR BRANDON LAFELL

ATT 38

YARDS 468

REC 12.3

TTD 1

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 18

DE ERIC NORWOOD

TACKLES 3

SACKS 1

INT 0

DT CORVEY IRVIN

TACKLES 4

SACKS 0

INT 0

DT SIONE FUA (R)

TACKLES 23

SACKS 4½

INT 0

DE CHARLES JOHNSON

TACKLES 62

SACKS 11.5

INT 0

LB THOMAS DAVIS*

TACKLES 60

SACKS 1½

INT 2

LB JON BEASON

TACKLES 121

SACKS 1

INT 1

LB JAMES ANDERSON

TACKLES 126

SACKS 3½

INT 1

CB CHRIS GAMBLE

TACKLES 35

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS CHARLES GODFREY

TACKLES 83

SACKS 0

INT 5

FS SHERROD MARTIN

TACKLES 81

SACKS 0

INT 1

CB CAPTAIN MUNNERLYN

TACKLES 45

SACKS 0

INT 3

LB OMAR GAITHER

TACKLES 27

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K OLINDO MARE

FG 25

FGA 30

XP 31

PTS 106

P JASON BAKER

PUNTS 95

GROSS 43.1

NET 36.5

*2009 stats

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 2--14

September

11 at Arizona

18 Green Bay

25 Jacksonville

October

2 at Chicago

9 New Orleans

16 at Atlanta

23 Washington

30 Minnesota

November

6 BYE

13 Tennessee

20 at Detroit

27 at Indianapolis

December

4 at Tampa Bay

11 Atlanta

18 at Houston

24 Tampa Bay (Sat)

January

1 at New Orleans

COACH: RON RIVERA

AGE: 49

FIRST SEASON WITH THE PANTHERS

The rookie Rivera is channeling both Mike Ditka, his former coach in Chicago, and Buddy Ryan, the Bears' old defensive guru. He wants his front seven to apply pressure from unexpected angles the way Ryan's did. And he has already echoed one of Ditka's speeches. "When I talked to this team for the first time," says Rivera, "I told them, 'We're gonna win the Super Bowl. If you don't believe me, come see me.'"

SPOTLIGHT

CAM NEWTON, Quarterback

Was there a preseason weekend when Newton's performance wasn't one of the first story lines on your mind? The 2010 Heisman winner and national champion is used to being the center of attention, as he was in one of the first practices of training camp, when he rolled out in an 11-on-11 scrimmage and looked for a receiver running a deep post. As offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski watched, hoping his rookie quarterback would let the play develop, the 6'5", 244-pound Newton tucked the ball under his arm and with a juke of the hips ran untouched for 30 yards. "Can't account for that," Chudzinski said to coach Ron Rivera.

The Panthers will have to learn to be patient with Newton and hope for positive results. At Auburn last year he threw the ball 280 times and ran it 264 (for 1,473 yards). With that kind of success as a rusher, Newton can't just flip the switch and become a pocket passer exclusively. "He's so impressive physically, and you don't want to take away what he's great at doing," says Rivera. "But he knows he's not going to run as much as he throws. He's been terrific at learning a little bit at a time and translating it onto the field." Look for Chudzinski to make game plans skinnier in 2011. And look for Newton to learn on the fly, even while he remains comfortable on the ground.

PHOTOCHUCK BURTON/AP (RIVERA) PHOTOWILL SCHNEEKLOTH/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (JOHNSON)CAT ON THE PROWL A combination of his age (25), his 2010 sack total (12) and his team's needs (dire) allowed Johnson to reap the off-season's richest free-agent contract. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (NEWTON)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)