GLS Preview: Carolina Panthers

On paper, the Carolina Panthers were the league’s worst team in 2010.

They scored a league-low 196 points, 75 short of the next-worst team in that category. That all despite the fact they had the 13th-best ground game in the NFL.

The passing game is why they won only two games. Carolina averaged only 143 passing yards per game and 5.4 yards per pass attempt, easily finishing at the bottom of the NFL barrel in both categories.

With Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, that shouldn’t have surprised anybody. But hearing how bad their team was had to frustrate Panthers fans, because in reality they were just excruciatingly horrible at one facet of the game while being respectable pretty much everywhere else.

The offensive line is good, as is the defense as a whole. The running game is above average, too. And that’s why the Panthers spent so much money keeping their own free agents this summer while investing in the passing game by drafting boom-or-bust Auburn star Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick.

The problem now is that one of the league’s youngest teams is faced with adjusting to a rookie quarterback and an entirely new coaching regime in a short amount of time.

This team is better than its 2010 record indicates, but there’s a chance that they’ll have to endure a painful 2011 before proving that they have the talent to compete in the NFC South.

2010 in a nutshell: They fail to score points throughout the year and finish with the league’s worst record at 2-14.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. The defense will make more plays: Charles Johnson is back with a shiny new contract and Thomas Davis is healthy again and ready to contribute to an underrated linebacking corps. Expect Carolina to blitz more under new defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, which might help guys like Jon Beason, Chris Gamble and Charles Godfrey force more turnovers. The secondary isn’t deep (I’m not sure why they let Richard Marshall walk as a free agent), but a so-so pass defense will be saved by a more aggressive front seven.

2.DeAngelo Williams will not lead the team in rushing: The Panthers gave Williams one of the most ridiculous contracts of the offseason, which indicates that they expect him to re-emerge as the team’s No. 1 back. The problem is that Williams’ best days are behind him. He’s had trouble staying healthy and wasn’t particularly effective when he was on the field last season. Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson are younger, fresher players. Unfortunately, they’ll have trouble getting enough touches with Williams taking up space. Eventually, I’m guessing one of those backs supplants Williams to become the go-to option in the Carolina offense.

3. Cam Newton will be runner up to Julio Jones for offensive rookie of the year: He’ll be the best of the rookie quarterback crop in 2011. We’re already hearing that he’s done a good job grasping the playbook and his preseason performances haven’t been disastrous. At this point, I’m expecting Newton to be named the Week 1 starter, and I’m expecting him to hold onto the job throughout the year. He doesn’t have a deep group of receivers to work with, but veteran tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey will come up big for Newton in Rob Chudzinski’s tight end-friendly offense.

The final word(s): They aren’t a horrible team on paper, but in the mighty NFC South they’ll still have trouble winning more than five games. This year is all about the maturation of Newton and youngsters like Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards.