Oct 13, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) talks with head coach Ron Rivera prior to the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers looking like actual contenders in the NFC

In a division that has been thoroughly dominated in recent memory by the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, the Carolina Panthers have essentially been an afterthought. However, slowly, throughout the Ron Rivera era, the Panthers have steadily improved, and now, after an 0-2 start, Carolina has won four of their last five games and have themselves in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt as we near midseason.

But are they actually contenders?

It’s easy to write them off, considering they haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 and they’ve gotten into the postseason just four times in 18 years as a franchise. However, there’s an attitude about this football team that isn’t reminiscent of the mediocrity that has permeated the majority of the Panthers’ existence.

The Panthers are on the prowl.

They’ve got the charismatic, Herculean looking young quarterback with the big arm and a smile that could stretch the width of the Catawba. Their defense is young and obscenely talented, as evidenced by the 13.6 points per game they’re giving up this season–good for second in the NFL, mind you–and, even though there is a startling lack of star power save Cam Newton and Steve Smih, this squad is bursting at the seems with young, homegrown talent.

Like the Kansas City Chiefs, they’re another perfect example of the NFL’s recent emphasis on amateur scouting.

They’ve got players they’ve drafted like Newton, Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Luke Kuechly, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson (to name a few) all leading the Carolina Panthers’ surge towards a wildcard berth or even an NFC South crown. All totaled, 13 of the 22 currently listed starters on the Carolina depth chart have spent have their entire careers in Charlotte.

When you add starting left guard Travelle Wharton into the mix, who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and spent nine seasons with the club before doing a quick stint in Cincinnati in 2012 and resurfacing in Carolina this past offseason, you’ve got 14 homegrown starters. That makes for a lot of people buying into one long-term vision for this franchise.

And, while there’s always the unique possibility that we see Carolina regress towards the mean, it looks as if this franchise has actually turned a corner and is capable of competing for a postseason berth in 2013, and for many years to come.

Cam Newton is connecting on nearly 65% of his passes in 2013, a marked improvement on the 57.7% that he completed in 2012. And, because of his increased effectiveness as a passer, he’s been able to rein in the punishment he takes outside of the pocket.

And while that may make for a more boring brand of football given his unmatched combination of size and athleticism, it makes for a lot more longevity. Even 6-6, 250 lb. freakshow quarterbacks can’t run like a fullback and expect to have a long and lasting career.

And, let’s face it, when you invest a No. 1 overall draft pick, you expect at least a decade of prosperity at that position.

The defense, meanwhile, is starting to resemble the swarming defenses that Rivera made a name on in Chicago in the middle of the 2000s. Hardy and Johnson have supplied pressure off the edge, and Star Lotulelei has managed to quickly ingratiate himself with life in the NFL, giving the defensive front the interior push required to consistently get pressure with four.

Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly give the Panthers a pair of intelligent and athletic linebackers, and the back end has talent like Captain Munnerlyn (an all-name team nominee, for sure) and a resurgent Michael Mitchell, who looks at home in Carolina after originally being a second-round pick in Oakland in 2009.

At the skill positions on offense, Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams may be in the twilight of their careers (Smith is 34 and Williams is 30, certainly up there given the respective positions), but they’re still productive players. Greg Olsen provides a steadying presence in the middle of the field and speedsters Ted Ginn, Jr. and Brandon LaFell are stretching the field.

With four wins in five weeks getting the Panthers to 4-3, it’s easy to take the bearish stance on a team that got hot during a rather easy part of their schedule, but this team’s built for success in 2013 and beyond.

After going 2-14 before hiring Ron Rivera and drafting Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers have steadily improved. In 2011 they went 6-10. In 2012, they won five of their last six games to jump to 7-9.

Now, in 2013, the Carolina Panthers are looking more and more like legit contenders in the NFC. And while this team may not be Super Bowl-bound just yet, there’s something to be said for a franchise that understands the value in a solid scouting department that allows you to capitalize on the new rookie wage scale.

Some folks may call it Moneyball, but I imagine in Carolina they’re just happy to be calling it winning.

Tags: Cam Newton Carolina Panthers NFL Ron Rivera

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