Team Overview: The Panthers are in a weird transition. They have a coach without guaranteed job security in Ron Rivera and a new general manager in David Gettelman. They have a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton but not a lot of cap space to build around him. A 7-9 season was disappointing, but technically an improvement over 2011's surprising six-win season.
Heightened expectations and a slow start led to a nightmarish first half of the year for the Panthers. They rebounded well late in 2012, particularly on defense as a move to the middle for Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly helped the defense improve rapidly late in the year. Newton didn't regress the way many people thought, and could be poised to take a true step forward.
Serious turnover on the coaching staff -- only Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott really remain -- culminated when Rob Chudzinski bolted late in the game for the Browns head coaching gig. He'll be replaced by Mike Shula, who guarantees continuity, but doesn't guarantee success. Schematically the Panthers shouldn't change much, and expectations might be lower in the coming season, but everyone involved with Carolina's football team should be wary of another bad start to the year in 2013.
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What the depth chart tells you: No one can challenge the Panthers depth chart at running back! But seriously, if the team used them enough, Williams and Jonathan Stewart are a really, really strong combo. The cost doesn't justify the production however. The linebacker corps, with Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and James Anderson is absolutely stout as currently composed. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are a nice combination at defensive end. Steve Smith is Steve Smith but he's getting older, despite remaining explosive.
Carolina needs a true No. 2 option at wide receiver; Brandon LaFell continuing to blossom would be a big plus. Another weapon at tight end to go along with Greg Olsen could mitigate the need for a second wideout. Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross are elite options at center and left tackle, but there's still plenty of weak spots on this offensive line. The two biggest depth-chart weaknesses are at the interior of the defensive line (defensive-tackle depth is nonexistent) and in the secondary (if Chris Gamble is gone the secondary becomes a nightmare).
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: The Panthers can't possibly have a good free-agent strategy. They have no money to spend on anything resembling a high-priced free agent. Former GM Marty Hurney spent big on in-house free agents following the lockout and the Panthers are paying the price now in the form of salary-cap hell. We've yet to see the full force of what Gettlemen might impose on the roster, and Carolina's biggest strategy should be getting under the cap.
Only veteran defensive tackle Ron Edwards has been a true cap casualty thus far. The Panthers are close to being under the cap, but it stands to reason that Gamble could be gone. DeAngelo Williams and Beason are sneaky candidates as well. Gettlemen says he wants to use this offseason to get under the cap not just for this year but for the future; it wouldn't be stunning to see some bigger cuts coming as March 12 approaches. The amount of cuts -- and the money it frees up -- will determine what the Panthers can afford in free agency.
Don't expect much spending, though. Gettlemen's already said that big-ticket free agents can get you in trouble and, aside from not being able to afford them, he's made it clear the Panthers won't chase them. I'd expect he tries to fill holes with cheaper veterans.
If they could possibly chase after lesser-known, but-secretly-higher-end cornerback options like Greg Toler or Keenan Lewis, that would be stupendous but probably unlikely. They need to pick up some veteran defensive tackle help as well. The Giants were always good about plugging holes with cheaper options and the Panthers under Gettlemen are a good bet not to chase anyone in free agency until after the initial dollars have been spent.
The draft needs to produce a strong outing in the worst way. Hurney hit home runs with Newton and Kuechly the last two years but the rest of the crop is "meh" at best.
What will happen in 2013: The Panthers grab the best player available at 14. Whether it's a mauling guard (Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper), a defensive tackle who falls (Star Lotalelei) or a top-end wideout (Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson) who can be a difference-maker, Carolina simply needs to hit in the first round again. Drafting for need is a luxury of the poor and Carolina is just that. But they need to avoid that trap and simply land impact guys who can allow the roster to turn over and create some cap space.
I would expect a highly inactive offseason for Carolina in terms of free agency, cuts aside. This is a very deep cornerback class, however, and it would be quite logical to bring on some cheaper guys to fill out the secondary. If they can find a young, up-and-coming corner for a cheap price on the market, that's all the better. Defensive tackle has to be addressed at some point as well, and finding cheap space-eaters in free agency would be a good start to that process.
-- By Will Brinson
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