Carolina Panthers Team Needs: What Positions Do the Panthers Need to Upgrade?

Jimmy GrapponeCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2012

Carolina Panthers Team Needs: What Positions Do the Panthers Need to Upgrade?

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    With the Carolina Panthers' (6-10) season in the books, it is time to start discussing their needs for the 2012 season as they look to build upon their successes and disappointments of 2011.

    The Panthers significantly upgraded their quarterback position by selecting surefire NFL Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton, with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

    Newton, along with a rejuvenated Steve Smith and a revitalized running attack, improved the Panthers' 32nd-ranked offense from a year ago to the 5th-highest scoring unit in the league and the 7th-ranked overall offense.

    Across the line of scrimmage, though, the Panthers' injury-marred defense did not fare so well, finishing 27th in points allowed per game and 28th in total yardage.

    The Panthers' special teams were even more atrocious than the defense with kicker Olindo Mare missing key field goals, punter Jason Baker's coverage team allowing three touchdown returns and punt returner Armanti Edwards ranked dead last among regulars at his position.

    However, with head coach Ron Rivera's track record of building great defenses and with offensive coordinator and head coach candidate Rob "Chud" Chudzinski likely to return for another season in Charlotte, the Panthers should be able to put together a 10-win season in 2012 and challenge for a Wild Card spot in the 2013 NFL Playoffs.

    Here is a look at four key positions the Panthers will need to upgrade in the offseason in order to continue their rise from NFL doormat in 2010 to respectability in 2011 and a possible playoff bid in 2012.

     

No. 1: Defensive Tackle

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    The Panthers were among the worst teams in the NFL this season against the run, finishing the season No. 25 in that category at 130.8 yards allowed per game, and a big part of that can be attributed to their softness in the middle of the line.

    Carolina started rookie 3rd round draft picks Simone Fua and Terrell McClain at defensive tackle for the first 11 games of the season before both were lost for the season due to injury in Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts.

    Granted, the Panthers were without star linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis for most of the season, but the run defense did improve toward the end of the year when Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse took over for Fua and McClain.

    Neblett showed promise late in the season and could be a promising addition to the defensive line's regular rotation in 2012 while Kearse has a big body that can occupy space in the middle and help keep blockers off a healthy Beason next season

    Fua and McClain can only improve upon their rookie performances, but I look for the Panthers to make a move in the offseason, either through free agency, trade or the draft, to shore up the middle of the line for 2012.

No. 2: Cornerback

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    As bad as the Panthers' defense was at stopping the run in 2011, it was nearly as bad at stopping the pass.

    Playing the Saints' Drew Brees twice did not help their numbers, but at 246.8 aerial yards allowed per game, Carolina was ranked No. 24 against the pass.

    Cornerback Chris Gamble had a Pro Bowl-caliber season and was generally able to shut down the wide receiver lined up on his side of the field as one of the least targeted cornerbacks in the NFL in 2011. 

    Conversely, opposing quarterbacks routinely picked on the Panthers' other starting cornerback, Captain Munnerlyn, and found it easy to pick up yardage in big chunks against the diminutive DB.

    Second-year corner Brandon Hogan, who sat out the first 14 games of his rookie season with an ACL injury he suffered in 2010 at West Virginia, could be the answer to replace Munnerlyn at corner and allow him to return to the nickel position in 2012.

    However, with the number of talented cornerbacks in the 2012 draft, Carolina is likely to take a stab at securing another top flight pass defender to play opposite Gamble.

No. 3: Wide Receiver

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    Steve Smith had a Pro Bowl season in 2011 with 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns.

    The Panthers' No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, Legedu Naanee (44 catches for 467 yards and one touchdown) and Brandon LaFell (36 catches for 613 yards and three touchdowns), combined to make one more catch, score three fewer touchdowns and gain 314 fewer yards than Smitty.

    LaFell came on strong late in the season and scored the Panthers' longest offensive touchdown of the year on a 91-yard reception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 16, and he should challenge returning wideout David Gettis for the No. 2 receiver position in 2012.

    However, I speculated earlier this year that the Panthers could take a wideout with their top selection in the 2012 NFL Draft if South Carolina's Alshon Jeffrey or Notre Dame's Michael Floyd are available.

    The Panthers will either select 8th or 9th depending on the results of a draft day coin flip with the Miami Dolphins.  

    Whether a player currently on the Panthers' roster is able to step up and become a productive receiver in 2012 or if they can bring in a talented receiver in the draft or in the trade market, the Panthers desperately need to put a second receiver on the field who can help Cam Newton stretch opposing defenses through the air.

No. 4: Punt Returner

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    Special teams play was a major area of weakness for the Carolina Panthers in 2011 and their punt return team was the worst in the NFL.

    The Panthers' Armanti Edwards ranked last among NFL punt returners with at least 20 attempts in 2011, averaging just 5.5 yards per return.

    His longest return in 32 attempts went for 17 yards and the Panthers were constantly saddled with poor field position to start their drives.

    Carolina has players on their roster, including kick returner Kealoha Pilares and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who could easily surpass Edwards' production in 2012 if they don't bring in another player to replace the former Appalachian State quarterback at punt returner.

    However, one thing is certain.

    The Panthers need greater productivity at the position in 2012 and Armanti Edwards does not appear to be the man for the job.