Originally written on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 10/30/14
As the NFL season kicks into high gear on Sunday, Panthers writer Nick Parker offers a full breakdown of Carolina's season at hand: Three Things to Know The schedule is rough but starts relatively slow: If the NFL schedule's difficulty is supposed to be inversely proportionate to their finish from the previous year, then the league office really failed when it comes to the Panthers. Based off of last years records, the Panthers play the toughest schedule in the NFL this season. The slate starts off particularly tough with the Seattle Seahawks, who went 11-5 in the regular season last year and were a last-minute drive away from advancing to the NFC Championship game. "What other team would you rather be playing a team that is a great opponent, pretty solid across the board? Newton said. Were going to find out who we really are this first game of the season. That's true, but for the first seven games of the season, the Panthers got off with a relatively easy slate. Only two teams among the first seven opponents were playoff teams a season ago the Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers have started just 1-5 each of the last two seasons before finishing strong in the latter half of the year, so this schedule allows them to get the ball rolling early. Thats important because a brutal three-game stretch awaits come Week 9 (Falcons, 49ers, Patriots). Theyll also see the Falcons again and the Saints twice in the final four weeks of the season. Offseason additions largely reside on defense: The Panthers free agency approach was largely a hands-off one when it came to the offense. The Panthers made few splashes and barely made a ripple on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, the Panthers picked up veteran corners D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence (who has since been waived), former Raiders backup safety Mike Mitchell and former Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn, who is fresh off his best season as a pro with 94 tackles and could play backup at either weakside or strongside linebacker. Then, in the draft, they used their first two picks to address defensive tackle with Star Lotulelei and KaWann Short. The lack of noise on the offensive side of the ball was due in part to entering free agency 16 million over the cap, which new general manager David Gettleman has used some creative offseason moves to address they were forced to depart with cornerback Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards. However, on offense, they largely stood pat. The only real moves were picking up special teams return ace Ted Ginn and then former Giant Domenik Hixon at wide receiver. Both are, at best, Nos. 3 and 4 on the wide receiver depth chart. They were able to re-sign former guard Travelle Wharton last week to address a thin offensive line. He is expected to start Sunday at left guard with Amini Silatolu still sidelined with a hamstring injury. Few of the additions addressed the need for weapons for Newton, though. Focus on the running game: Steve Smith made waves in a conference call this week with Seattle reporters by stating that former offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski was auditioning for a head coaching job and got too cute at times in 2012. It may not have been the most politically correct way of saying it but the Panthers have talked repeatedly about getting back to running the football. In 2012, Newton became the first quarterback since Donovan McNabb in 2000 to lead his team in rushing and you can bet the Panthers don't want to see that again. I think from this year to last year the running game is emphasized more. Coach Mike Shulas trying to put us in the right position to where were able to run the ball. Hes doing a good job with the run pass balance. I think its a good fit for our offense, right tackle Byron Bell said. We gotta get DeAngelo back in the groove of things and back to his Pro Bowl All-Pro status. Star Tracker Are we in store for a third-year jump from Newton? Or are the first two years, which were eerily similar from a record and statistics standpoint, the real Cam Newton? I think we just have to find out come game day. Its easy for me to say right now, but no pressure has been put on me. Im just back there in the pocket with no pressure, no blitzing. When everybody sees that red jersey they hold up, Newton said. Come game time when the bullets start flying, well see how well I have evolved and matured with my game play. Its hard to clamor for a significant jump from a quarterback who threw for more yards than any quarterback in his first two seasons in NFL history and also led his team in rushing. But hes thrown 29 combined INTs over the last two years, and with his talent its impossible not to expect better accuracy and decision-making. When Newton doesnt throw an INT, the Panthers are 7-4. When he throws two or more, theyre 0-8. Hes only 13-19 as a starter and his 57.7 percent completion percentage was low enough for ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski to raise some eyebrows by naming Newton only the 18th-best quarterback in the NFL during the preseason. Needless to say, its a big year for Newton in proving that he belongs in the discussion of the NFLs elites. Breakout Player Theres a number of candidates that should have breakout year for the Panthers. I think Greg Hardy, whose looking for a new deal, will increase his sacks from a season ago (11) and become one of the leagues best defensive ends. Star Lotulelei will start immediately and should be an ideal plug in the middle of the line. Third-year corner Josh Thomas is set to start alongside Captain Munnerlyn and has received plenty of praise throughout fall camp. But itd be impossible to mention a breakout player without talking about cornerback Josh Norman Fox Sports' Preseason Defensive Player of the Year with four INTs. Norman started the first 12 games a season ago; he'll be the starting nickelback when the Panthers line up Sunday. The fact that Normans pushed veteran nickelback pickup D.J. Moore out of that slot says a lot about the preseason he and Thomas had. Norman talked all summer about how much more comfortable he feels in his assignments in this defense and it showed in the preseason. Stat Watch Nothing in the statistical category will be more important than two areas: sacks and yards per first down attempt. If the Panthers are able to improve on their 39 sacks last year, the concerns in the secondary should vanish and the interceptions should more closely resemble the preseason (10) than the 2012 regular season (11). Sacks goes both ways, though. The Panthers have to keep Newton upright, which they struggled to do a year ago giving up 36 sacks (16th in NFL). Few players in the league are as valuable as Newton is to the Panthers; few are as dynamic with the ball in their hands (5.8 ypc). The Panthers were third in the league a year ago at 7.13 yards per attempt, and Newton in short yardage is basically impossible to stop because of his dual-threat abilities. Three Predictions Panthers defense takes a step forward and Luke Kuechly challenges for DPOY: The Panthers finished No. 10 in total defense a year ago, but were 16th in scoring defense. I think youll see both statistics get safely inside the top-10. The defense took a significant step forward in the latter half of last season. Jon Beason will be back at weakside linebacker and Luke Kuechly already looks like the type of once-a-decade linebacker that will continually challenge for Defensive Player of the Year. Put those two behind a stout front four that was ninth in the NFL in sacks a year ago, and its hard to imagine this defense not being significantly improved. The back four doesnt look like a strength on paper, but nothing helps a secondary like a stout front four and another year for the young corners should help significantly. The offense regresses behind a putrid running game Its not just an abysmal preseason on the ground a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry that has me thinking this units going to hold this offense back. Outside of Newton, theres an aging, thin offensive line, a tailback on the end of his career and a receiving corps that looks like one of the weakest in the NFL. There are two Pro Bowlers along the offensive line, but Jordan Gross at left tackle is far from that level now and Ryan Kalil is returning from an injury-plagued season. Even with those guys, will it override an inexperienced right side of Garry Williams and Byron Bell? The problem with this offense wont be Newton, itll be the lack of offensive threats around him. In my mind, Greg Olsen is a top-five NFL tight end, but the rest of the weapons around Newton leave a lot to be desired. DeAngelo Williams is a 30-year-old back and doesnt look near as explosive as the back that rushed for 1,515 yards in 2008. Steve Smiths always been elite but he's still a 5-foot-9, 34-year old receiver that relies on speed and yards after the catch. And the fact that Brandon LaFell is still the No. 2 receiver in Charlotte is a disservice to Newton. The Panthers miss the Playoffs again and finish .500 The Panthers started the year 1-5 a season ago but lost seven games by six points or less. Four of their seven wins were one-possession games. They werent close to the playoffs a season ago, but they werent that far either. When you just play good enough to win, you also play good enough to lose as well, Newton said. Still, its hard to see the Panthers earning their first playoff berth since 2008. Sean Paytons back in New Orleans, the Bucs went free agency crazy and the Falcons are still the NFC South favorite. Newton and the Panthers front seven are good enough to win 6-8 games, but the lack of offensive weapons and a shaky offensive line is going to be too much to overcome.

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