Sometimes, stats do not tell the whole story. The Carolina Panthers have one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game in Cam Newton, who nearly threw for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons and rushed for over 700 yards last year. They had a #1 receiver who finished the season with 1,174 yards, and a tight end who finished with nearly 850.
Their defense ranked in the top 15 in every major category except for points allowed, and they had two pass rushers off the edge with double-digit sacks. Not only that, but the Panthers drafted the game’s defensive rookie of the year in Luke Kuechly this past season. Kuechly came into the NFL and immediately led the team with 164 total tackles in his rookie season.
By all accounts, this team should have made the playoffs based off of their 2012 numbers. The problem is, the Panthers lost nine games by eight points or less, unable to close out when it mattered most. This team has a real feel of the Detroit Lions from a couple of years ago, when Detroit lost six games by a touchdown or less. The Panthers were right in the thick of things for most of the season, but they were unable to close out games. One thing that has to improve is Cam Newton’s reaction to adversity, but they also just need to grow up as a whole. This is a very young, very talented team. Here are their top needs in my opinion, in no particular order.
1. Defensive Tackle
The Panthers had a sweet pass rush from their edge rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who both finished the year with double digit sack totals. They really liked their DT rotation going into the draft, so they didn’t spend any picks there despite what many thought they should do. This year, I think you’ll see them go after some big nasties to make their edge rushers even more effective, and help the linebackers stay free at the second level. Getting a space eater like Sharrif Floyd would be ideal for this team.
2. Offensive Line
Specifically, I think the Panthers could look to draft a right tackle that could eventually develop into a left tackle, and bring in a potential starter at right guard as well. Carolina had a bunch of injuries on the offensive line, and even though Cam Newton’s style of play allows him to be sacked more than usual, they have still given up 35 and 36 sacks in each of his first two seasons in the league. Jordan Gross has started over 150 straight games for the Panthers at left tackle, but they could stand to add some more talent at the RT position. Perhaps former Raiders draft pick Bruce Campbell can be the answer there.
I like Chris Gamble and Josh Norman for the Panthers, but they need to force more turnovers. Captain Munnerlyn is a free agent, and could look for a starting job elsewhere. This is a position the Panthers could look to in a deep free agent class for a potential starter so that Josh Norman can man the slot position. When I talked to Norman last offseason, he said he wanted to come in and be a shut down cornerback. He has a lot of work to do, and the Panthers could help him out by bringing him along slowly.
4. Wide Receiver
Call me crazy, but I’m still not sold on Brandon LaFell and Steve Smith isn’t getting any younger even though he’s still really productive. LaFell was able to have a pretty good season in 2012, but I think the Panthers could still look to the receiver position a couple of times this offseason. They can’t bring in a huge personality because that would clash with Cam Newton. There needs to be some more talent brought in here along with some much needed development from guys like Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams, and Adam Gettis.
I’m not overly impressed with Carolina’s safety play, though I have a soft spot for Charles Godfrey due to his dominance at Iowa with the Hawkeyes. I think this is a clear position of need in terms of youth at the safety position, and I think they could look to address it with one of their first couple of picks or in free agency. Backup Sherrod Martin is a free agent this offseason.
6. Tight End
Greg Olsen is the only tight end who made a significant impact last season who is under contract for next season, and I think it would help Cam Newton out a lot to have another athletic option in the passing game. They are obviously a running team, but they will employ a lot more downfield passing to the TEs if they have the option. This could be an area to address in the draft this year.
7. Running Back
Call me crazy here. The Panthers may have to let go of DeAngelo Williams due to his age and contract, and Jonathan Stewart can’t stay healthy on a consistent basis. Outside of those two guys, the Panthers don’t have much, so they could look to make an addition or two here depending on how Williams’ situation unfolds.