When you have the first overall pick in the draft, you typically have a lot of needs. Last year the Panthers brought in Cam Newton, and he alone seemed to solve a number of the team’s problems, and most importantly gave the team wins. Heading into Newton’s sophomore season, there are plenty of puzzle pieces in place on the roster, but they could sure use a few more.
In recent years, the team has relied heavily on the draft in order to bring in their future talent, with their entire projected starting lineup on defense coming from the Carolina draft picks. Last year, the organization showed they weren’t afraid to find talent elsewhere, as they brought in Legedu Naanee, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. This year, the insurgence of talent should be coming on defense.
Primary Need: Safety
The Panthers ran with young Charles Godfrey (-13.7) and Sherrod Martin (-6.8) as their starting safeties in 2011, with Jordan Pugh (-11.6) as the primary backup. Neither has fully panned out, but Godfrey in particular has seemed to regress–in 2011, he had the fourth highest yards per play in coverage by a safety at 1.03. Although Pugh is young, he didn’t look like the answer either allowing nearly every ball thrown his way to be caught. The answer at safety doesn’t look like it’s on the roster, and the Panthers haven’t been the best at finding defensive back talent in the draft before, so free agency might be the way to go.
There are a handful of safeties that are available, most of which have an injury history or haven’t proven they can stay consistently playing well. One match who might fit is LaRon Landry (+2.7), if he can get healthy. The Panthers played Godfrey within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 63.3% of plays, while Landry is one of the few safeties who lines up that close an even higher percentage of the time. Landry had a stop rate of 7.8% which is a bit higher than Godfrey’s 4.6%, and he is an improvement in coverage as well. The only question is if he can stay on the field.
Secondary Need: Defensive Tackle
The Panthers have needed help at defensive tackle for a while, and they gambled in 2011 with a pair of rookies starting at the position. Sione Fua (-6.6), and Terrell McClain (-17.3) both failed to show themselves capable of starting in the NFL as rookies, struggling to varying degrees, and so the Panthers ran through eight defnesive tackles over the course of the season to try and plug the gap up the middle. They therefore enter this off-season needing to patch the hole they failed to fill last year.
In order to plug the gap in the middle the Panthers could do worse than turning to Sione Pouha (+30.0) from the Jets. Pouha will be 33 by the time the season rolls around, but he was late coming into the league and has remarkably little wear on his tires, and would make a huge impact on the run defense, while also allowing the Panthers to develop the pair of second year defensive tackles that were so badly out of their depth as rookies. The Panthers could also take a look at another player who has succeeded in a 3-4 in the form of Antonio Garay (+4.0), who has the skills necessary to be a force in the 4-3, and would give the Panthers a similar time frame to make an impact now, but be replaced down the line when their young players develop.
Tertiary Need: Wide Receiver
Since Muhsin Muhammad first left the Panthers after the 2004 season, the only viable replacement across from Steve Smith was bringing Muhammad himself back for the 2008 season. Their most recent attempt was giving Legedu Naanee a one-year contract. However, they apparently wavered on the experiment, as he played 88% of snaps for most of the season, but over the last five weeks that decreased to 45.5%. The Panthers could use someone to be the No. 2 receiver, and someone to put in the slot while Brandon LaFell goes out wide in three receiver sets. While the Panthers do need a lot on defense, another offensive weapon could work wonders.
While there are a number of talented wide receivers are available, only a few are experienced and talented playing as a slot receiver. One of them happens to play in the same division as Carolina, and that’s Marques Colston (+21.2). He has been a dominating force for years, and is only getting better. Over his last three games, he had 23 catches for 396 yards and three touchdowns. Teams always like bringing in players from division rivals, and with the Saints’ cap problems, Colston may be free to walk. The connection of Newton-to-Colston could become one of the best known quarterback-receiver duos for years to come if a deal gets made.