The Carolina Panthers were supposed to be contenders in 2012. Led by a second-year head coach and a multi-talented quarterback the Panthers were poised to make a run at the playoffs and perhaps a Super Bowl as boldly predicted by veteran center Ryan Kalil.
As the NFL heads into Week 13, Carolina is nowhere close to competing for anything as it is out of contention for the NFC South crown and all but eliminated from a wild-card berth.
The Panthers were supposed to be the breakout team in the NFL this season, but they fell flat on their faces early and never really recovered. The only thing left for them to do is to play out the rest of the season and hope for a strong finish. Some are already looking towards next season, but before the 2013 campaign can get under way, there are issues which need to be addressed.
Even though there are five games left on the season, I've come up with a list of necessary pieces Carolina needs in order to field a contending unit for next season and beyond.
Carolina finds themselves in a unique situation entering the offseason. They have three quality running backs and despite the lack of production, a player like DeAngelo Williams would garner some trade value.
On the defensive side of the ball, the future of Jon Beason is uncertain after he went down with a season-ending injury and was replaced by the rookie Luke Kuechly. The Boston College product has made a lot of noise since moving to the middle and has strengthened his case as a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The latter could really bring in some value as Beason is productive and despite the last two seasons, has been relatively healthy. The return of Thomas Davis has all but provided reason to field the starting linebacker unit with him, Kuechly and James Anderson. This is pure speculation but a thought the Panthers should consider as they prepare for the draft.
An extra pick or two would be beneficial especially in the early rounds where Carolina lacks a third-round selection; having traded it to San Francisco in order to draft Frank Alexander last year.
The Panthers are not known for making noise on draft day but with a new general manager on the horizon the possibility is very much alive.
The first piece to any championship puzzle is to secure that general manager who can build a winning a franchise. The Panthers benefited early in their existence with Bill Polian as their first GM; under Marty Hurney, the Panthers appeared in their lone Super Bowl.
Carolina is not rushing the hiring process of this important position as ownership has brought in an outside consultant to assist them in their GM search. Owner Jerry Richardson is going to want someone who can build upon the team already in place and instantly turn it into a competitor.
There have been a few names mentioned in the past few weeks, but as of now, nothing is set in stone.
The Panthers have always maintained a respectable front office, and they are not going to turn over the keys to the franchise's future to just anyone. It is doubtful the next general manager will be a novice in the field, as ownership should hire someone who has either held the position or worked closely with another league GM.
As stated before, this is an important decision, as the general manager will be making decisions that will either lift the team to new heights or sink it further into mediocrity.
This should go without saying. The Panthers either need a quality starter or a solid backup to add depth to their roster. Some of the immediate needs come from the offensive and defensive lines as both units are in desperate need of a quality starter.
Carolina has needed a top-tier defensive tackle for a while now, and after disregarding the position last year in favor of linebacker Luke Kuechly, it is almost a given that the will use its first draft pick to shore up the interior of the defensive front.
Luckily, there are a few quality players at the position who are certain to be available in the first round.
Another possibility is for the Panthers to spend their first pick on an offensive tackle. Jordan Gross is not getting any younger and Byron Bell may not be the solution on the other side. A young tackle brought in to be groomed by the veteran linemen would be ideal, as it would fit into the youth movement philosophy and provide the Panthers with a reliable player for the next several years.
Another weak area that has plagued Carolina has been the lack of overall team depth.
This is most noticeable in the offensive line and the secondary, though defensive tackle is starting to take a hit. Backups are not expected to be as good as the starters, but they aren't suppose to be a liability when given the opportunity to play either.
Captain Munnerlyn has played well since filling in for the injured Chris Gamble, but he isn't the type of player who needs to be starting at the position. The lack of depth has given rookie Josh Norman the chance to showcase his talents at the other corner position, and while he is still mistake prone, he shows signs of having immense talent.
While both of these corners have done an admirable job, they are both in a position where they cannot afford to get injured.
Special teams has been a problem in recent years and many fans find themselves holding their breath each time the Panthers are returning a kick or covering a kickoff. The punting and kicking games haven't been much better as punter Brad Nortman has had a series of short kicks resulting in excellent field position for the opposition, while Carolina signed it's third kicker in two years.
The good news is that these are relatively small fixes. However, they are glaring enough that they can make the difference in a tight ball game. If the Panthers can address these needs, then they will be taking that first step towards being a legitimate contender.
When the season started, the only concern was the success and effectiveness of the Carolina defensive unit.
Sean McDermott had problems last season in his debut as defensive coordinator, as the Panthers struggled early in learning a new system. In 2012—particularly in the last few weeks—the defense has been playing very well, and there is still a possibility that Carolina will by season's end field two players with double-digit sack numbers.
On the other side of the ball, the story has been very different. After being one of the best offensive units in the league last season, the Panthers offense has struggled to move the ball and score.
A lot of the blame for the drop-off has been placed on Rob Chudzinski, who tried to utilize a read-option style offense. Unfortunately, Carolina opponents changed their strategy and found a way to exploit the offense and render it ineffective.
That being said, the Panthers need to ensure they have coaching who can keep opponents off balance with game-planning and the ability to make in-game adjustments. Recently, Chudzinski has done that and found success, but it may be too late in terms of job security. McDermott may get a reprieve as his players are finding success and doing so despite missing key players like Jon Beason and Chris Gamble.
Ron Rivera's seat has become increasingly hotter over the past few weeks and despite a win on Monday Night Football this past week, he could find himself out of job after the season ends.
When hired to replace John Fox, Rivera seemed to be the logical choice. However, the Panthers may need to go a different route as they have yet to get the results they were hoping for when they brought Rivera aboard.
Graham Gano made his Carolina debut this past week and made a good first impression with a 40-yard field goal.
He followed it with a missed extra point.
Fortunately, the missed point did not come back to haunt Gano or the Panthers as they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, there is a very pressing need at the kicker position, and since the release of John Kasay, the position has been a huge liability.
Olindo Mare was Kasay's successor in 2011 but after failing to convert medium-distance field goal attempts, he was given his pink slip in the preseason, losing the position battle to Justin Medlock. Medlock converted his first seven attempts but then was dismissed not long after missing his next three.
Enter Gano and the kicker merry-go-round continues.
Why this position is vital to Carolina is simple: There have been a five games over the past two years that the Panthers lost by three points or fewer. This is not to say the kicker was at fault but in the case of Mare, what is the use of attempting a 50-yard field goal when he couldn't do make it from 40?
Medlock may have been a victim of circumstance as he did not get too many chances. However, his three misses were very telling, and his performance prompted the Panthers to change direction. Despite the missed point after, it is far too early to determine Gano's fate.
The Panthers do need a reliable kicker, and whether he is drafted or signed as a free agent, this new option would need to prove himself in clutch situations. Having a clutch kicker is beneficial to any contender—just ask the New England Patriots.
Carolina's offense can be dangerous when it is on, but during those times when a drive falters, it would be comforting for Carolina to know that it has a strong and accurate kicker who can put three points on the board.
A short field would lead to more scoring opportunities, but it can only happen if the right kicker is on the team.