The hope: Cam Newton builds on his phenomenal rookie season by becoming more adept at reading defenses and cuts down on his throws into coverage, which resulted in 17 interceptions last season. Newton continues to effectively run the zone-read package and makes plays with his feet leaving the pocket. But he takes fewer dives over the pile near the goal line, avoiding extra hits.
The fear: Newton struggles against defenses that have had a year to study him and employ specialty packages, such as a spy that shadows him or deep-zone coverages that force Newton to take the shorter throws. Newton takes a big hit while scrambling downfield and sustains an injury that sidelines him for several weeks.
Fact-checker: Newtons passing numbers improve, his rushing numbers dip slightly; he stays healthy and buries any fears about a so-called sophomore slump.
The hope: The Panthers transition smoothly from the Double Trouble tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to the Triple Threat backfield, with the addition of free agent fullback Mike Tolbert. Tolbert adds another dimension as a blocker, pass-catcher and short-yardage runner, while Williams and Stewart maintain fresh legs and thrive in their roles as home-run threat and between-the-tackles punisher, respectively.
The fear: The crowded backfield makes it difficult for Williams to get in a rhythm. Stewarts ankle sprain sustained in the preseason lingers and the backs privately grumble about the shared carries.
Fact-checker: Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski develops packages that take advantage of each of the backs unique skill sets. Stewart, as he did last season, gets big chunks of yardage up the gut in the zone read, while Williams has a number of long runs on option pitches. Tolbert does whatever is needed.
The hope: Steve Smith is the explosive, downfield receiver he was in 2011 with Newtons arrival and makes a handful of big plays every Sunday. A dedicated Brandon LaFell takes the next step in his development and is a good complement to Smith fearless going into traffic over the middle. Louis Murphy stretches defenses with his speed and gives Newton a third receiving option.
The fear: Smith starts slowing down, or worse, has an injury that keeps him out a substantial amount of time. LaFell and Murphy struggle to get open without Smith dictating coverage, and the Panthers passing attack takes a big step backward.
Fact-checker: Smith has another 1,000-yard receiving season and continues to defy time. LaFell and Murphy are good, not great. David Gettis comes off the PUP list at midseason to give the Panthers another deep threat.
The hope: Greg Olsen joins Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham as one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the league. Gary Barnidge makes enough plays that the Panthers dont regret letting Jeremy Shockey walk.
The fear: Olsen has trouble hanging on to the ball and Barnidge is exposed as a one-dimensional tight end who cant hold a block.
Fact-checker: No longer sharing time and receptions with Shockey, Olsen has a big season. Ben Hartsock takes some of the pressure off Barnidge by excelling as a blocking specialist.
The hope: The two young linemen rookie guard Amini Silatolu and second-year tackle Byron Bell mesh well with the three veterans. Center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Jordan Gross maintain their Pro Bowl form, and right guard Geoff Hangartner is solid.
The fear: Silatolu has trouble with his assignments, while Bell is a penalty magnet again. One or more of the established linemen goes down with an injury, and a makeshift line struggles to protect Newton.
Fact-checker: Silatolu matches up well physically with opposing defensive tackles, Bell improves and this group becomes the backbone of a top-10 offense.
The hope: Following a four-win improvement in his first season, Ron Rivera pushes the right buttons and the Panthers take another step forward and earn a playoff berth. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski introduces several new wrinkles to keep the Panthers a step ahead of defenses. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott does more attacking than he could when injuries forced his hand in 2011.
The fear: Chudzinskis offense struggles against defenses that have had a year to study it. The holes in the defensive interior and the secondary expose McDermotts 4-3 scheme. There is little improvement in Brian Murphys special teams unit.
Fact-checker: Chudzinski gets another round of head-coaching interviews after the Panthers offense keeps churning with the addition of a couple of innovative packages. The defense is better; the special teams are only marginally improved.