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Five Critical Questions Facing the Carolina Panthers

Are the Panthers emerging contenders or merely the benefactors of a historically bad division?

Michael Lombardo

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Also, check out the five critical questions facing the Arizona CardinalsCincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers.

On the bright side, the Panthers are coming off consecutive NFC South championships. On the down side, Carolina is coming off a losing season that saw the team go more than two months between victories at one point.

So, is this team an emerging contender or merely the benefactor of a historically bad division? These five questions will help make that determination.

Can Cam Newton improve his accuracy?

The Panthers answered their most pressing offseason question by signing Newton to a five-year, $103.8 million extension. Now, the pressure is on Newton to continue elevating his game.

“He keeps getting better,” said GM Dave Gettleman. “He makes plays under pressure. He won his first playoff game. Cam’s growing and we’re growing.”

The next step in Newton’s development is improving his accuracy and touch. He completed just 58.5 percent of his passes last season, a lower number than Shaun Hill, Zach Mettenberger and Geno Smith. Newton has finished with a completion percentage of less than 60 percent in three of his four seasons.

There are a few things that play into this. Firstly, Newton loves to scramble to keep plays alive, which often results in him throwing off his back foot and sailing throws over his receivers’ heads. Secondly, Newton still puts a little too much sauce on his short and intermediate throws, making those completions more difficult than they need to be. Thirdly, when he escapes the pocket, he is typically looking for a running lane and not a receiver breaking open.

If Newton can improve those aspects of his game,he has a chance to get his completion percentage up above 65 percent.

“I know I’m nowhere where I want to be right now, but yet that gives me more drive to get to where I want to be … sooner rather than later,” Newton said.

Who will replace DeAngelo Williams? 

Jonathan Stewart is capable of being a dominant running back, a fact he reasserted by averaging 99 rushing yards per game over the final six weeks last season. Unfortunately, the Panthers cannot count on that kind of production on a weekly basis, as Stewart has missed 20 games due to injury over the last three seasons.

Ron Rivera plans to limit Stewart to 15 carries per game in an effort to keep him healthy, which means some other runners will need to step up and make good with the leftovers.

One player to watch is Fozzy Whittaker, who has been one of the standouts of Carolina’s offseason program. Whittaker gained a lot of confidence during Carolina’s playoff run, especially after his 39-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass gave the Panthers the go-ahead points in their playoff win over the Cardinals.

“I’m striving to contribute more,” Whittaker told the team’s official website, “and have more of those memorable plays this upcoming season.”

Fullback/halfback hybrid Mike Tolbert and rookie sixth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne are also in the mix. But for the Panthers to run the ball the way the hope to, Whittaker needs to be involved in a significant way.

Can someone lock down the left tackle position? 

Michael Oher will get first crack at the left tackle position, which is a risky proposition. Oher has allowed 93 pressures in his last 27 starts and all of those came at right tackle. The former first-round pick and subject of “The Blind Side” is a talented player, but his inconsistencies in pass protection make him a sketchy candidate for protecting a $100 million quarterback.

Jonathan Martin is the team’s top backup, although like Oher, his name is bigger than his game. Martin, a former second-round pick, was made famous after outing Richie Incognito has a bully in 2013. Martin started nine of 15 games with the 49ers last season. He allowed 7.5 sacks and graded out as one of the least effective offensive tackles in the league.

The Panthers picked Oklahoma OT Daryl Williams in the fourth round, but he is more of a right tackle prospect because of his limited athleticism. Nonetheless, Gettleman refuses to rule out the possibility of Williams playing left tackle.

“He’s going to get work on both sides,” Gettleman said.

Can Shaq Thompson find a regular role on defense? 

Thompson was one of the most surprising picks of the first round, not because he lacks talent, but because the Panthers are already set at the linebacker position with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and A.J. Klein. That means Thompson will have to find some unusual paths to playing time, such as beating out Davis in the nickel and dime packages (unlikely) or spending time at strong safety (more likely).

He’ll also get plenty of run on special teams, but you don’t spend a first-round pick on a defender just to have him chase down kick returners.

“There’s a lot of different positions I can play,” Thompson said. “I came here to fit a great scheme.”

Thompson will spend time setting the edge, covering tight ends and rushing from different spots on the field. But he must find a niche where he can do those things regularly in order to justify Carolina’s steep investment in him.

Can Frank Alexander ignite the pass rush?

The Panthers still have not replaced Greg Hardy’s pass-rushing presence off the edge. If Alexander can stay out of trouble and work his way into the rotation, that will help in that regard.

Alexander missed the first 14 games last season after being hit with consecutive four- and 10-game suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He admitted to smoking weed after practices to help him recover but insists those days are behind him.

The Panthers want Alexander to win the starting job opposite Charles Johnson. He looked capable during most of the offseason program, although he missed mini camp with a groin injury.

Alexander is as motivated as can be as he enters the final season of his rookie deal. He has some pass-rushing ability — he totaled 15.5 sacks over his final two seasons at Oklahoma — and now must prove he can get it done on Sundays.

“There’s still more out there for me to do. That’s why I was disappointed last year that I couldn’t go out there and play,” Alexander told Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. “I know I can do a whole lot better than what I’ve been doing. It’s just a mindset thing, confidence and believing in yourself.”

What do you expect from the Panthers? Discuss with Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.

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