There may not be a player on the Carolina Panthers who saw his stock rise more than quarterback Cam Newton. Prior to the season there was some questions about whether or not Newton deserved the mega-contract extension he got. Those questions have been answered this season.
He currently is second in the league in total touchdowns (45) and is tied for second in passing touchdowns with 35 and tied for second in rushing touchdowns with 10. He has been the driving force behind the league highest scoring offense this year.
The play of Newton hasn't gone unnoticed as he has earned five NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards, which is tied for the NFL record, was selected to his third Pro Bowl and is considered the front-runner for league MVP.
The reason he has been successful this year is because of his improvements throwing the ball. He looks comfortable in this offense and is making the right throws. He has even cut down on his turnovers with a career low in interceptions with only 10 and has thrown only one in the past eight weeks.
The one thing that Newton will still need to add to his resume is a Super Bowl win but there may not be a quarterback playing better than him entering these playoffs.
While Newton already has his contract extension, Josh Norman is still looking for that next big pay day. He has made a strong case for earning top dollar after the season he has had.
He started the season with four interceptions and one forced fumble over the first four games, returning two interceptions for touchdowns. The strong start to the year earned him a NFC Defensive Player of the Week award and was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September. Pro Football Focus rated Norman as the sixth best cornerback this year but he also finished the year with the lowest QB rating when quarterbacks throw his direction (54.0).
The fourth-year cornerback is set to be a free agent at the end of this season but that doesn't necessarily mean his time with the Panthers is over at the end of the season. The team could try to come to a long-term deal or apply the franchise tag to give them more time if they need it for a contract extension.
One thing is clear is that Norman is vital to this defense, especially with the injuries it has suffered in the secondary. He has faced off against some of the top wide receivers in the league, and except for a game against Julio Jones at the end of the year, he has won more times than not.
Another player who had a break-out season for the Panthers' defense was Kawann Short, who also earned his first Pro Bowl appearance this year. The defensive tackle provided a consistent pass rush for the Panthers, which is something the team struggled to find at other positions. He finished the year with 55 tackles and 11 of the team's 44 sacks this year.
Short always seemed to be an afterthought for this Panthers' defense as he was the second defensive tackle taken in the 2013 draft behind teammate Star Lotulelei, who was the first round pick that year.
That hasn't been the case this year though as Short earned two NFC Defensive Player of the Month awards, which is the first time a defensive tackle has done that in the same season. This is one player, similar to Norman, who is continuing to improve and the Panthers' front office will try to lock up long term.
There was a great opportunity for the Panthers' wide receivers when Kelvin Benjamin went down with his injury to step into his role. Philly Brown finished the year first in snaps among the wide receivers but struggled to make his presence known.
He finished the year with only 31 receptions for 447 yards and four touchdown passes. However, he didn't have game with more than three receptions and failed to break the 60-yard mark in any game. There were four games this year where he failed to break 10 yards in receiving. He struggled to make that home run play for this offense and only had two receptions over 35 yards.
The second-year wide receiver has a role in this offense but at this point he appears to need more time to develop before he can be considered a consistent threat.
It is not easy to put Charles Johnson on this list but the pass rusher has not looked like the dominant pass rusher he has shown to be. After back to back seasons with double digit sacks in 2012 and 2013, Johnson had 8.5 a season ago but has only one this year.
The 9-year veteran has dealt with a hamstring injury this year that forced him onto injured reserve but has yet to register a sack since returning six games ago. The lack of production certainly could be attributed to this injury and missing six weeks could have affected his rhythm.
The one thing that is clear is that the Panthers are going to need a strong pass rush in the playoffs and if Johnson is able to bounce back, this defense is going to be that much tougher to score on.