The arrival of quarterback Cam Newton and coordinator Rob Chudzinski helped turn the Panthers’ offense from the league’s worst into one of the best. Chudzinski crafted a dynamic scheme to take advantage of Newton’s unique skill set, and Newton silenced the naysayers who said he could not handle a pro-style offense. The Panthers’ best offseason news arguably was Chudzinski getting passed over for the three head-coaching jobs.
Now the defense has to catch up. Injuries to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis hurt, but there is a noticeable talent gap between the offense and defense the Panthers need to address. Defensive tackle and cornerback are the most pressing needs, although the Panthers also could use a pass-rushing end to replace the enigmatic Greg Hardy.
Linebacker Dan Connor has started the past two seasons, but only because of injuries to Beason and Davis. Connor, a physical run-stopper, wants to be a full-time starter and is likely to get that chance elsewhere.
The Panthers love Davis, but not enough to pick up his $8 million option. They could restructure his deal.
The team faces a similar situation with No. 3 quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who is due a $923,000 roster bonus in March. That’s a lot of money for a QB who was inactive for every game last season.
Linebacker Omar Gaither was injured for most of what will be his one season in his Charlotte hometown.
Needs and targets
1. Cornerback. Chris Gamble bounced back from a miserable 2010 and did a nice job of blanketing the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. But cornerback Captain Munnerlyn struggled on the other side. According to Pro Football Focus, no corner gave up more completions than the 5-foot-8 Munnerlyn, who has trouble against bigger receivers. Munnerlyn is a competitor who will do all he can to keep his spot, but he could be relegated to nickel situations if the Panthers draft Dre Kirkpatrick or another corner. Morris Claiborne would look good in a Panther’s uniform, but figures to be gone when they pick ninth. The most interesting prospect: North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins, who will have to be vetted thoroughly after being dismissed from Florida after two marijuana charges.
2. Defensive tackle. Many analysts thought the Panthers would consider a defensive tackle with the No. 1 pick last year. Veteran left tackle Jordan Gross was on record as saying the Panthers should take Alabama’s Marcell Dareus to help on the defensive interior. Instead, they took Newton No. 1 and drafted a pair of DTs in the third round — Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, who were inconsistent before going down with season-ending leg injuries late in the year. The Panthers think they have a space-eating tackle in Ron Edwards, the former Chief who was injured his first year in Charlotte. But they could use an inside force like LSU standout Michael Brockers to pair with him.
3. Receiver. Steve Smith was a finalist for Comeback Player of the Year after the moody wideout was rejuvenated by the arrival of Newton. At 32, Smith remains one of the best big-play receivers in the NFL. What the Panthers are missing is a complementary receiver to run underneath routes. Third-year wideouts Brandon LaFell and David Gettis are deep threats, while Legedu Naanee is a free agent and might not be back. Ron Rivera and Chudzinski love big, physical receivers and would jump on Justin Blackmon if he’s available when the Panthers pick. With the presence of tight end Greg Olsen and tailback tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, a No. 2 receiver is not as big a need for the Panthers as other teams.
4. Linebacker. With Beason expected to be limited initially in his return from Achilles surgery and no one sure whether Davis will play again following three ACL surgeries on his right knee in a 22-month span, the Panthers will look for linebacker depth either through free agency or later in the draft. Jordan Senn played well filling in last year, and his special-teams prowess makes him a priority among the team’s own free agents.
5. Specialists. The Panthers’ special teams were among the league’s worst in 2011. Undrafted free agent kicker Adi Kunalic was signed in December after Olindo Mare missed a pair of short fourth-quarter field goals. Punter Jason Baker had the worst net average (34.1) in the league, and with a salary cap figure of $2 million, could be a cap victim. If the Panthers cut Baker, they might look at a punter like Georgia’s Drew Butler in a later round.
After splurging on seven of their core players last summer, the Panthers are not expected to be major players in free agency and will not use the franchise tag.
Carolina is one of four teams over the salary cap, and needs to create nearly $10 million in cap space by the start of the new league year March 13.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey, who caught 37 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns in his first season with the Panthers, brought a nasty — and needed — edge to the offense. Rivera said Shockey, who will turn 32 in August, is considering retirement, although general manager Marty Hurney said that is not the case.
With or without Shockey, the Newton-led offense should only get better in 2012. If the defense stays healthy and gets more pressure up front, the Panthers could be a playoff team.