The addition of Cam Newton transformed this offense. Carolina scored more than twice as many points with Newton at the helm as it did during the 2010 season. Newton provided a spark from the start, and now he gets to go through a full offseason of work with the coaching staff for the first time. Major changes aren’t necessary here, but the Panthers will do some tweaking.
1 — WR: There are a couple of promising young wide receivers alongside No. 1 WR Steve Smith, but Smith turns 33 this year and is signed only through 2012. David Gettis has a lot of upside. He missed all of last season with an ACL tear, though, and still has to establish a rapport with Newton. Finding the next top target for Newton ought to be a priority.
2 — OT: Carolina really can’t afford to wait and see if 2008 first-round pick Jeff Otah, who has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, can stay healthy. Byron Bell did a nice job filling in for Otah at right tackle last season, but Bell fits best as a backup and might be a candidate to move inside. There needs to be competition for Otah.
3 — OG: There could be a battle between Geoff Schwartz, who will return after missing all of last season with an injury, and Geoff Hangartner — if he re-signs with the Panthers this offseason — at right guard in training camp, but the Panthers should look for upgrades at both guard spots. OLG Travelle Wharton is versatile but also on the wrong side of 30.
Injuries to LBs Jon Beason and Thomas Davis in the first two weeks of the 2011 season landed both players on injured reserve and dealt a major blow to the defense, which struggled for much of the season. Beason’s return will be a big boost, but head coach Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator, needs to add talent at every level of this unit.
1 — DT: Help is on the way here after veteran Ron Edwards missed all of last season with an injury. He will return in 2012, and 2011 third-round picks Sione Fua and Terrell McClain could improve. The team is still missing proven playmakers at the position, though. Carolina will be in the market for space-eaters to help vs. the run and pass-rushing three-techniques.
2 — OLB: The creativity of Rivera could really shine through with the addition of an outside linebacker who can bring heat off the edge as a blitzer. Davis may have been an option to work into that role, but he has torn the same ACL three times now. While he’ll work hard to come back, Carolina has to be prepared to go in a different direction.
3 — CB: It’s not clear who will be starting opposite Chris Gamble in 2012. Captain Munnerlyn started 14 games at right corner last season, though he probably fits best as a nickel back. It’s too soon to thrust Brandon Hogan, coming off a redshirt year, into a starting role. A rookie could compete for a starting job here if the team doesn’t address the need in free agency.
The decision makers:
GM Marty Hurney calls the shots in the Panthers’ war room. Owner Jerry Richardson is very trusting of Hurney’s judgment and empowers him to make key decisions. Hurney seeks input from head coach Ron Rivera, who will likely have more say on decisions heading into his second year with the team. Director of college scouting Don Gregory has Hurney’s ear, and his opinion is valued.