The Carolina Panthers will not qualify for the playoffs this season, which means it is time to shift some focus to the 2013 NFL draft. That being said, the two games that remain on the schedule are vital in regards to evaluating the talent on the roster.
The first step that the new front office will have to take is to evaluate the team's current players, because this will allow it to identify weaknesses that need to be remedied.
The Panthers have some obvious needs, and they can fill the majority of them if they draft flawlessly.
Carolina needs help in addressing its rushing defense and offensive line; each of those areas have hurt the Panthers consistently this season.
The Panthers are ranked 17th against the run, although that number is slightly skewed by the fact that they play in the pass-happy NFC South. Since their divisional foes tend to rely on their passing attacks, Carolina's run defense was given a reprieve in some of those divisional battles.
The offensive line took a serious hit when Ryan Kalil was placed on the injured reserve after Week 5. The loss of Kalil forced the Panthers to shuffle their already questionable offensive line, and the results have been lackluster.
Cam Newton has been sacked 33 times this season, which is the eighth most in the NFL. In order for Cam to develop as a pocket passer, he will need a capable offensive line to protect him.
After those needs are addressed, the Panthers should look to add another wide receiver and some secondary help in the later rounds.
Note: The Panthers do not have a third-round pick due to a trade they made with the San Francisco 49ers during the 2012 draft.
Based upon the Carolina Panthers current trajectory this season, they will likely draft somewhere between sixth and 11th in April's Draft.
With a record of 5-9, the Panthers have put distance between themselves and the league's worst teams, which could potentially threaten their ability to draft a franchise-changing player.
In any case, Carolina will hold a valuable first-round pick that it cannot afford to botch. The pressure to make the most of it will be squarely on the shoulder's of the team's new general manager.
The first position that needs to be addressed is defensive tackle, as a top-notch DT would greatly improve the Panthers rush defense.
While the Panthers would probably prefer Utah Ute defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, he will likely be off the board within the first few picks.
The second defensive tackle on most analysts' big boards is Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins, who at 6'3" and 320 pounds has the size to have a long and successful NFL career.
Hankins declared for the draft after his junior season, as he proved to NFL scouts that he is ready to play at the highest level. He was selected first-team All-Big Ten, as he anchored the unbeaten Buckeye's run defense.
In Hankins, the Panthers would be getting an excellent gap-clogger in the middle of their defense. Hankins would be tasked with keeping offensive lineman off tackling machine and 2012 first-round pick Luke Kuechly.
Kuechly and Hankins would be one of the league's most promising defensive duos, which is why Panthers fans should start following news related to the draft stock of Hankins immediately.
D.J. Fluker is the right tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide, which means that by virtue of playing in the SEC he has competed against the nation's best defensive lineman.
Fluker has started 35 games during his career at Alabama and was named first-team All-SEC in 2012.
As the end of Fluker's junior season in Tuscaloosa draws near, there has been considerable speculation regarding his future.
The mystery was solved when Tony Pauline of SportsIllustrated.com tweeted the following:
Sources have confided RB's Giovani Bernard/UNC & Eddie Lacy/Alabama will enter the draft...DJ Fluker/T/Albama will follow suit
— Tony Pauline (@TonyPauline) December 12, 2012
According to CBSSports.com, Fluker currently has a second-round grade, which means the Panthers may have a chance of nabbing him then. The Panthers could plug Fluker in at right tackle from day one, which would allow current starting right tackle Byron Bell to slide to right guard.
Drafting players from Alabama tends to be safe due to the excellent coaching received under the tutelage of Nick Saban.
Fluker has been a force at Alabama this season, and he has the potential to have a long and successful career in the NFL.
Markus Wheaton will graduate from Oregon State as the school's all-time leader in receptions with 224—although he will likely add quite a few more catches in the bowl game versus the Texas Longhorns.
As the season has progressed, Wheaton has drawn more and more comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers burner Mike Wallace.
Cam Newton throws a beautiful deep ball, which means that the speedy Wheaton would be a perfect fit.
Wheaton runs the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds according to NFLDraftScout.com, which will force opposing defenses to keep an eye on him whenever he is on the field.
Steve Smith has been a lethal deep threat throughout his career, but he will be entering his 13th season in 2013 and will eventually lose a step.
The presence of Wheaton—by taking away some of the attention defenses direct towards Smith on a weekly basis—would allow the Panthers' all-time leading receiver to extend his career
Having the Panthers drafting Wheaton in the fourth round may be optimistic, as his draft stock will likely skyrocket due to his speed and playmaking abilities.
Josh Boyd was overshadowed by Fletcher Cox during the 2011 season, which must have convinced Boyd to return to Mississippi State for his senior season.
Unfortunately for Boyd, he failed to build upon his excellent 2011 campaign, in which he accumulated 51 tackles and 4.5 sacks. His senior season was a disappointment, as the Bulldogs' defensive line struggled with Boyd as its anchor.
That being said, Boyd has the motor and strength to develop into a quality defensive tackle.
If the Panthers could nab Boyd in the fifth round, they should not hesitate to then pair him with potential first-round pick Johnathan Hankins.
Since he played in the dog-eat-dog SEC, Boyd is as close to being prepared as any player could be coming into the NFL.
The Carolina Panthers need secondary help, with the need at safety a little more pressing than the one at cornerback.
The play of Haruki Nakamura has been painful to watch at times, and he may have been exposed this season as the defense's biggest weakness. In what might not be a coincidence, the Panthers have won their last two games with Nakamura on the bench
Drafting a safety early in the draft isn't as common as it used to be, as safeties tend to be valued less than defensive lineman, cornerbacks and linebackers. The thinking of many teams is that they can find a decent safety in the later rounds, which is a strategy the Panthers are likely to use as well.
The Panthers should look for safeties who can play well in the box and make plays against the run, as Carolina safeties have struggled against the run far too much in recent seasons.
Daimion Stafford could be the right player for the Panthers, as he led the Nebraska Cornhuskers with four interceptions while posting 83 tackles.
If the Panthers drafted Stafford to play strong safety, they could keep Charles Godfrey at free safety. That duo would have a chance to be a very promising last line of defense.
With their final draft pick, the Panthers should focus on solidifying their offensive line, as injuries cannot be anticipated and the unit needs more depth.
Blaize Foltz was named to the 2012 All-Big 12 second team, as he was the best member of TCU's offensive line.
At 6'4" and 310 pounds, Foltz has the stature to compete in the NFL and be a difference in the running game. Foltz may be one of this draft class' strongest offensive lineman, and he will turn heads at February's Scouting Combine.
Foltz would not be expected to start next season and will be given the time needed to learn complex NFL protections and transition to the speed of the game.