Sidney Rice, WR, Seattle, Week 1
After cutting cornerback Chris Gamble and then jettisoning his replacement, Drayton Florence, last weekend, the Panthers are going young at corner. Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn face a tall task in stopping the 6-foot-4 Rice, Munnerlyn’s teammate at South Carolina. Norman, the Panthers’ tallest CB, gives up four inches to Rice, who has been bothered by knee issues.
Eli Manning, QB, N.Y. Giants, Week 3
Manning didn’t have his top wideout – former UNC standout Hakeem Nicks – against Carolina last year, and still shredded the Panthers’ secondary. Manning picked apart the Panthers’ zone coverage with a series of short and intermediate throws that he released before the rush reached him. He completed 27 of 35 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown, and was sacked once.
Dashon Goldson, FS, Tampa Bay, Weeks 8 and 13
After giving up 297 passing yards a game in 2012 – the second-worst mark in NFL history – the Bucs upgraded their secondary by trading for CB Darrelle Revis and signing Goldson to a five-year, $41.25 million deal. With Revis taking care of his side of the field, the physical and rangy Goldson will be free to roam and make plays. Goldson, a two-time Pro Bowler in San Francisco, could prove to be as pesky as Revis.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, Atlanta, Weeks 9 and 17
The Falcons’ pass rush was non-existent at times in 2012, when they finished 28th with fewer than two sacks a game. Enter Umenyiora, the former Giant whom many observers thought might be on his final legs after a six-sack season in 2012 in New York. But Atlanta viewed the 31-year-old Umenyiora as the answer to their anemic rush after cutting DE John Abraham.
Mike Wallace, WR, Miami, Week 12
The Panthers’ trip to south Florida looks like a trap game, following the brutal, three-game stretch against Atlanta, San Francisco and New England. The Dolphins had no vertical game last year, when their three pass plays of 40 yards or more tied for fewest in the league. That should change with the addition of Wallace, the former Steelers’ speedster who had four catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in 2010 in his only game against the Panthers.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Tampa Bay, Weeks 8 and 13
Revis is considered by many to be the best cornerback in the league today and probably the best since Deion Sanders. Nicknamed “Revis Island,” the left corner has never had a huge year in terms of interceptions because quarterbacks are afraid to throw his way. An ACL injury made him miss most of last season, but even a recovering Revis is better than some at 100 percent.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans, Weeks 14 and 16
Graham presents matchup problems for nearly every team he faces. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end has hauled in more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in the past two seasons, and despite playing him twice every year, the Panthers have yet to find a way to stymie his game.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota, Week 6
Peterson is one of seven running backs to have gained more than 2,000 rushing yards in a season and he did it last year despite coming off an injury. He carries the load for a Vikings team that will be without Percy Harvin, a much-needed weapon in the passing game for a still-struggling Christian Ponder.
Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco, Week 10
For those who want to crown Luke Kuechly as the best inside linebacker in the game, he still has to overcome Willis. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker continues to play at a high level while anchoring a 49ers’ defense that finished third in total defense in the NFL last season.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta, Weeks 9 and 17
It’s almost unfair to call Jones a No. 2 wide receiver since he would be almost any other team’s No. 1. Jones had just 96 receiving yards in two meetings with Carolina last year but finished his Pro Bowl season with 1,198 yards. If Matt Ryan can’t find Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez or even Steven Jackson in the backfield, he always has Jones.