Previewing and predicting the Panthers

As promised, we’re rolling out our predictions for the 2011 NFL season today.

We’ll go in reverse order in the NFC South. Here’s the link to the preview page for the Carolina Panthers.

Here’s what I wrote about the Panthers, followed by my prediction on where they’ll finish in the division. By the way, up until a day or two ago, I had Carolina third in the division, but a series of injuries on the offensive line scared me off that stand.

Five things you need to know about the Panthers:

1. This is not the same predictable team you're used to: John Fox is gone and so is his belief that you have to win with ball-control offense and strong defense. New coach Ron Rivera also is a big believer in defense and his background is on that side of the ball. But Rivera realizes this has become a quarterback-driven league and his plan is to open up the passing game. That's why he hired Rob Chudzinski as the offensive coordinator. Chudzinski was previously tight ends coach in San Diego and the offense is going to be pretty similar to what the Chargers run. The Panthers still have DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, so they're not going to abandon the running game, but they're not going exclusively with it. You'll see things you never saw with Fox, like passes to the tight ends and deep passes.

2. This is not the roster of a typical 2-14 team: Last year's record had a lot more to do with the bickering between Fox and ownership than it did with the talent level. Fox refused to embrace the youth movement that was ordered by management and was more conservative than ever. It's easy to look at the record and assume the cupboard is bare. But that never was the case. Besides Williams and Stewart, the Panthers had -- and still have -- core players such as Steve Smith, Charles Johnson, Jon Beason, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. Tight end Greg Olsen also looks like he could be a core player. If this team can just get some production out of the quarterback position, the Panthers could take a big step forward.

3. Cam Newton won't be asked to carry the team: He was the No. 1 overall draft pick and that comes with all sorts of expectations. The Panthers think Newton can grow into a superstar, but they're not asking him to be that right away. The plan is to rely on the running game and the defense to help prevent him from getting into difficult spots. Ideally, the Panthers don't want Newton throwing the ball more than 25 times a game, at least until he gets established. But the belief is that Newton can make four or five big plays a game with his arm and legs.

4. There's room for a No. 2 receiver: For the last few years, Smith has been the only real threat in the receiving game. The Panthers want that to change and believe Olsen will help, but they'd like another wide receiver to step forward. They had high hopes for David Gettis, who showed some promise as a rookie last season. But Gettis suffered a major injury in training camp and will miss the season. That suddenly puts the heat on Brandon LaFell, a second-round pick from last year. Carolina doesn't have great history with receivers taken in the second round (Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett were flops), but some of that was because so much of the passing game was geared toward Smith. In the new system, there will be opportunities for LaFell. He just has to take advantage of them.

5. The pressure is on general manager Marty Hurney: Owner Jerry Richardson was somewhat distracted the past few years as he went through a heart transplant and came back to take on the leadership role among owners in the labor negotiations. Hurney outlasted Fox and is very much on Richardson's good side. But the owner spent a ton of money signing the players Hurney wanted coming out of the lockout. Richardson realizes this team is in the middle of a youth movement, but he's not the world's most patient man. He needs to see some progress this year.

DIVISION FINISH: 4 The Panthers aren't going to go from worst to first. But they will be much improved. Rivera has brought new life to a locker room that has some talent. If the Panthers can develop a passing game, they could be a .500 team.