Over and over this off-season, I've heard chatter about the Panthers.
Pundits and fans alike are concerned about the Panthers taking a big leap forward in 2012 from their 6-10 record and two embarrassing losses against our beloved Falcons. A merely decent secondary, Cam Newton's growing pains and their usual brand of fun injuries definitely held the team back in 2011, and they had a successful draft. I just think some are getting a little carried away here.
The Panthers have not, in my mind, visibly improved the secondary. They picked up promising young cornerback Brandon Hogan in the draft, but he's probably not an immediate impact player. Ditto Joe Adams, the Arkansas wide receiver who will likely be a special teams ace in his first year. They had what I consider to be a fine April, as I mentioned above, but that doesn't translate into immediate success.
For that reason, I don't expect this team to take a major leap forward unless Newton does. He's got all the tools necessary to succeed at the NFL level, but he made enough mistakes with the ball his freshman campaign that I don't expect him to eliminate them all in one year. Failing that, the Panthers are a team with a dangerous ground game, a quality front seven and enough big play potential to win against almost any team in the NFL. Does that make up for turnover issues and the aforementioned meh secondary? I don't believe so.
That doesn't mean they're not dangerous. The Panthers have a dynamic if inconsistent athlete in Newton at quarterback, one of the finest running back groups in the NFL today and the always terrifying Steve Smith. The Falcons should be afraid of them because the Panthers can wreak havoc in any number of ways, and they would have taken our favorite team down last year if not for one of the most ridiculous rallies you'll ever see.
In short, you'd be be foolish to sleep on a team as rich in talent as the Carolina Panthers, and they'll be a major force in the NFC South before long. I just don't think 2012 is the year where we're going to start wringing our hands over them. Look for them to win more games than they did last year, either way.
But what do you think?