In 2012, the Carolina Panthers ended the season with a 7-9 record and a 2nd place finish in the NFC South. Carolina was 3-3 in division games including a 2-0 record vs the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers had the 12th ranked offense and 10th ranked defense (both in yards) in 2012. Head coach Ron Rivera and starting quarterback Cam Newton return for their third season in Charlotte.
Free agent acquisitions:
CB - D.J. Moore, Drayton Florence
WR - Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn, Jr.
LB - Chase Blackburn
S - Mike Mitchell
Undrafted free agent signings (courtesy of Cat Scratch Reader):
K - Morgan Lineberry - Abeline Christian
QB - Colby Cameron - Louisiana Tech
SS- Robert Lester - Alabama
P - Taylor Cook - Rice
LB - Demario Jeffery - South Carolina
CB/FS - Melvin White - Louisiana-Lafayette
DE - Wes Horton - USC
FB - Michael Zordich - Penn St.
LS - Tyler Morgan - Georgia Tech
DL - Bryan Jean-Pierre - William & Mary
WR - Trey Diller - Sam Houston St.
G - Tori Mobley - Jacksonville St.
DE - Craig Roh - Michigan
DT - Star Lotulelei - Utah (Round 1)
DT - Kawaan Short - Purdue (Round 2)
G - Edmund Kugbila - Valdosta St. (Round 4)
LB - A.J. Klein - Iowa St. (Round 5)
RB - Kenjon Barner - Oregon (Round 6)
Here's how ESPN graded the Panthers on their draft:
Top needs: CB, DT, FS, RT, WR
Summary: The strategy was pretty clear for the Panthers: find some players that can help stop the run. Last year, even with the addition of Luke Kuechly, they were simply awful up front. Well, Star Lotulelei was the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in this class, and is the definition of a player that can clear the runway for your linebackers to make stops at the line of scrimmage. Running in the A-gaps is not happening with Lotulelei around. Kawann Short is a nice depth addition as well, and can spell Dwan Edwards. Earlier this year I had Short going a lot higher, but this was a pretty good class of D-tackles at the top. Edmund Kugbila provides depth at guard, but I didn't have that as a big need. Kenjon Barner is a pretty complete running back in a smaller package. My big question: Where is the help at cornerback? I think it's a pretty big need, and there were a couple corners available I thought could have been taken ahead of Short. It's hard to hit all your needs, but I thought they did a great job on one big one, but totally neglected another.
And here's how Cat Scratch Reader graded the Panthers:
To me, this wasn't exactly a home-run draft, but it was still very solid. Outside of Lotulelei, none of the prospects really excited me, but I understood the reasoning behind all their selections. I would have loved to address the wide receiver and defensive back positions at some point in the Draft as well, but c'est la vie. The Panthers ended up getting a potentially elite nose tackle, and several key depth players who could become valuable contributors in the future.
Overall Draft Grade: B+
There's obviously a bit of a disconnect in the opinions there. ESPN doesn't really understand the team like CSR does, and CSR will be more optimistic of prospects than the national media. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Lotulelei was absolutely the steal of the draft for the Panthers. No really, they stole him from the Saints, who were picking next.
My personal displeasure has been tempered by the Saints drafting of Kenny Vaccaro and John Jenkins though. The Panthers had been linked to DT Sheldon Richardson of Missouri for months leading up to the draft, but he was taken by the Jets just one pick before them. Had both been available, they likely would have chosen Star anyway, he's one of the few "can't miss" prospects of this past draft.
DT was clearly an area of concern for Carolina seeing that they spent their first two picks of the draft to bolster the interior of their defensive line. Well, on paper it's mission accomplished for the Panthers. In a division with Steven Jackson, Doug Martin, and the Saints three-pronged rushing attack, they have to be able to make some stops. Not to mention they have to deal with the Atlanta and New Orleans passing attacks for a quarter of their season.
How this affects the Saints:
Imagine Drew Brees watching the draft and just before his Saints pick at No. 15 he hears "The Carolina Panthers select Star Lotulelei, Utah". His heart drops a little, realizing that a division rival just hired a mountain with feet, who's primary job is to hunt him down for 4 quarters twice a season. Awesome, pass the aspirin.
Carolina didn't go big in free agency, and outside of the first two picks, didn't make a tremendous splash in the draft either. This is a team that swept the Saints last year, and on paper they've improved. Besides, they still have Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams: professional Saints assassins. In fact, DeAngelo Williams may owe Tom Benson money when he retires because he's made his career off his games against the Saints. The only sure things in life are death, taxes, and DeAngelo Williams breaking a 60 yard TD run against the Saints at least once a season.
I think the Saints will split with Carolina this season, but New Orleans will have a much better record in the end. Sean Payton will have the offense prepared for the new-look defensive line, and hopefully Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense will finally have an answer for DeAngelo Williams. Who Dat!