When we last reported on the Carolina Panthers after the 2012 season, they were just coming off of a 9-7 season where they just barely missed the playoffs and the future was looking bright for the young team. Fast forward to the eve of the 2014 season, and the Panthers are largely still in the same place. Following another 9-7 season in 2013, where they once again were shut out of the playoffs, the pressure is on in Carolina for this team to take a step to the next level. Being very active in the draft, trades, and free agency; GM LtJustice and head coach Jim Luby have worked in concert to revamp the team they took over, prior to the 2012 season, and put together a team they feel is capable of great things in 2014 and beyond. OFFENSE: QB: Young superstar Cam Newton is undoubtedly the face of the Panthers and the leader of this team. With his maturation as a player, a leader, and a man, and his steady improvement on the field, he is poised to ascend to the level of the elite quarterbacks in this league. With a truly special mix of a canon for an arm and great accuracy to all parts of the field, Newton definitely has the makeup of a championship caliber quarterback. Justice and Luby tapped into their familiarity with players from their years together with the Cleveland Browns to sign former Browns quarterback Colt McCoy as a backup for Newton. McCoy gives Carolina a solid veteran capable of stepping in to be a game manager, should the need arise. RB: The success that halfback Taiwan Jones had in 2012 led to a debate within the Panthers organization about whether he would be suitable for the role of feature back in the Carolina offense. While some argue that Jones should be featured and the more touches the better, others feel that he is best suited for the role he had in 2012 where he was a jack of all trades that broke the record for all purpose yards in a season. The Panthers eventually decided to part ways with former starter DeAngelo Williams as well as young backup Daniel Thomas, both of whom were released. There were rumors that Carolina attempted to acquire a workhorse starter via trade, but nothing ever materialized on that front. The Panthers ultimately decided to go with Jones as their starter and feature back and Jones is excited for the opportunity to show what he can do in the role. The Panthers believe they picked a potential gem off of the waiver wire in the preseason, as they claimed 2nd year back Elijiah Mitchell out of Tarleton State. Mitchell is a raw talent, but possesses the kind of game breaking speed that defenses have to be aware of and respect. Along with backups Brandon Saine and Brandon Kosta, the Panthers feel that they have 4 young backs with lots of potential upside. Leading the charge for the Panthers halfbacks is road grading fullback Mike Tolbert. WR: At receiver the Panthers said goodbye to longtime standout and fan favorite Steve Smith. With Smith’s desire to continue playing in question, Carolina made the tough decision to give Smith his release. The release of Smith elevated young star A.J. Green to the role #1 receiver for the Panthers. Rookie receiver Patrick Wilkerson, one of Carolina’s two 1st round draft picks (#20 ovr), steps into the starting role vacated by Smith’s departure. While nowhere near the polished receiver that the veteran Smith was, Wilkerson’s game breaking speed will help to stretch opposing defenses and replaces the deep threat that the Panthers lost when they said goodbye to the veteran receiver. Former Browns Greg Little and Josh Gordon provide some quality depth for the spread looks. Raw but promising young speedsters, Brennan Myers and Demarcus Smelter, round out a solid receiving corps. Tight end Greg Olsen is joined by another former Brown in Ben Watson, who was picked up in free agency late in the preseason, and they combine to give Newton a pair of weapons that could definitely give opposing defenses matchup problems. OL: The Panthers believe they bolstered what was already one of the top offensive lines in previous seasons. The Panthers signed 2010 top 10 pick Russell Okung in free agency to man the right tackle spot on their line. Along with Okung, Pro Bowlers Jordan Gross at left tackle and Ryan Kalil at center give the Panthers one of the best core groups in the entire league. Veteran guard Montrae Holland and 3rd year guard Amini Silatolu round out a starting group that has the potential to once again be one of the best overall units in the league. DEFENSE: DL: While the Panthers finished the 2012 season with the starting defensive ends for the NFC Pro Bowl team, in Eric Norwood and Charles Johnson, they still couldn’t pass on the opportunity to improve the position in the 1st round of the 2013 draft. With the 11th pick in the draft, acquired in the Jonathan Stewart trade, the Panthers selected Stanford pass rusher Kahlbuto Williams, a freakish athlete for his size. It didn’t take long for Williams to earn the lion’s share of the snaps at left end, over the Pro Bowler Norwood. With Johnson on the right side and Williams on the left, Norwood will be the first to rotate in to relieve either one. Free agent acquisition Lawrence Sidbury and rookies Adam Barker & Darius Belew give the Panthers an unrivaled plethora of quality outside pass rushers. The middle of the Panthers line features the three man rotation of Phil Taylor, Tommy Kelly, and Marcus Thomas; all 300+ pounders capable of clogging up lanes as well as getting to the quarterback. LB: The linebacking corps is once again led by team captain Jon Beason at middle linebacker. One of the top middle linebackers in the league, Beason is not only a renowned tackler he is one of the better cover linebackers in the game, even leading the league in interceptions (8) in 2013. Third year standout Luke Kuechly continues to impress at right outside linebacker and at this pace it’s only a matter of time before he is discussed as one of the league’s elite. After the trade of starting left outside linebacker Jason Williams to the Patriots, 2nd year linebacker Terrell Reese has stepped into the starting role and has shown steady improvement. The Panthers added yet another former Brown as they brought in veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in free agency to provide some depth in a solid linebacker corps. DB: After finishing the 2012 season with the top passing defense, the Panthers took a bit of a risk with changing their formula. Moving away from age and experience with the likes of Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements, the Panthers went with a little more youth and speed. After a Pro Bowl season in 2012, returning to blanket opposing #1 receivers is the ageless Chris Gamble. In his 11th year in the league, Gamble appears to have lost nary a step and his hands seem to have gotten even softer in the twilight of his career. With the 5th overall pick in the 2014 draft, acquired from the Patriots in the Jason Williams trade, the Panthers selected cornerback Wesley Orange out of Ohio State. The former Buckeye is thought to be one of the best man coverage corners to come out of the draft in the last decade. Orange is the heir apparent to Gamble’s throne as #1 corner on this defense and will start opposite the veteran from day one. Captain Munnerlyn provides a solid nickel corner and youngsters Jakhari Brown & Evan Muaava show potential and provide help on the special teams. Veteran safeties Sherrod Martin & Charles Godfrey return to give the Panthers a pair of experienced, quality safeties that play together as well as any duo in the league. SPECIAL TEAMS: The Panthers said goodbye to veteran kicker Olindo Mare and brought in the younger and stronger Graham Gano. Carolina shocked many around the league when they drafted Purdue punter Charlie Trimble in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft. At just 20 years old, Trimble is considered one of the top punting prospects ever and is already being talked about as having possibly the strongest leg in the league. Return duties will most likely be split between halfbacks Jones and Mitchell, with either one of them capable of taking any ball they touch to the house. SUMMARY: With so much roster turnover since the new regime took over two short years ago, and the quality of team they appear to have put together, the Panthers have their sights set on the NFC South title. Anything short of at least a playoff appearance could be a death knell for the powers that be in Carolina.