The Carolina Panthers will be playing in their final game of the 2012 season and it seemed not too long ago, there was no reason to doubt they would be in the playoffs and possibly competing for a trip to the Super Bowl. As Week 17 draws closer, the Panthers find themselves eliminated from postseason contention and looking ahead to the offseason.
What was only viewed as a mere formality prior to this season beginning as been transformed into a soon to be busy winter and spring. Carolina not only has to address the typical team needs but are also looking to address needs in the front office and perhaps the coaching staff.
Of course, before any needs are discussed, decisions regarding those needs must happen first. The Panthers will need to make five important decisions following Sunday's game.
Jerry Richardson needs a GM who can get his team back to the playoffs next year
The Panthers made the decision to fire their previous general manager, Marty Hurney, after a series of frustrating losses that seemed to suggest this team was not ready to win right now. Ever since Carolina dismissed their long-time front office employee, they have hired Ernie Accorsi as a consultant to help find the right man for their vacant general manager position.
While a couple of names have surfaced, Carolina cannot make contact until after that team's season is over. The Panthers will need to fill this position quickly because they will expect their new hire to make decisions that could reshape the franchise.
Aside from having a general manager make decisions about the future of the team, he will be needed to lure free agents to Carolina and begin reviewing scouting reports for the upcoming draft in April.
There is no stressing how important this position is to the Panthers as they will need someone who can come in, make the right moves and assemble a team that will be ready to compete in 2013.
There has been a lot of debate about regarding the future of Carolina's head coach Ron Rivera. Some feel he should be let go because of his failure to get the Panthers to the playoffs this season, while others feel he should remain in place for one more season given the team's improvement over the past few weeks.
A case can be made for either decision as he has seen his team riddled by injuries and that could help his cause to stay in position. However, his string of success could be dismissed, given his recent victories have been against losing teams.
Keeping Rivera or replacing him will be second biggest decision the Panthers will need to make after securing a general manager. There is no doubt the new GM will have some input about Rivera and his staff, but it would not be shock if the current head coach is allowed to stay for one more season.
Regardless of the decision, Carolina fans should take solace in knowing that if Rivera is given one more year, he will need to make the playoffs. Anything less will be a failure and another coach will be brought in who will be able to get the job done.
Kuechly has paid off nicely in his rookie year. The Panthers need to strike gold again with 2013's first round pick.
This seems a no-brainer since the Panthers have been in need of an elite defensive tackle for awhile now. However, with the chance for them to finish at 7-9, they are moving out of the top ten with every victory they get. There are a couple of top-tier defensive tackles that will most likely be gone by the time Carolina is on the board. They could still address their need for an interior linemen but their draft position may prompt them to look at other needs such as offensive tackle.
Like last season, there is a chance for the Panthers to throw everyone a curveball and pick someone that nobody anticipated. It worked well this year so anything is possible. Whoever the Panthers draft first, they need to make sure they make an impact in their rookie year and help propel the team to the playoffs.
If Carolina is to reach the postseason, they will need to find a solid veteran contributor via free agency. The biggest name floating around is Kansas City receiver Dwayne Bowe. Given his production without the benefit of an elite quarterback, he would make an awesome complement to a receiving corps featuring Steve Smith and Brandon LaFall. With the maturation of Cam Newton continuing to blossom, the Panthers would make an ideal landing spot for the Chiefs standout.
There is also a need to upgrade the secondary and Atlanta's Brent Grimes is available after the season ends. However, with the emergence of Josh Norman, the cornerback position looks secure for awhile. That leaves the safety position and while Charles Godfrey has played well, Haruki Nakamura disappointed tremendously after being signed away from the Baltimore Ravens this past year. The safety pool looks very shallow as the pending free agents are either going to retire or be re-signed by their current teams.
Whoever Carolina signs, they need to make sure they get a quality return from their investment. Nakamura could get one more chance to prove himself otherwise he could be shown the door sooner rather than later. Look for the Panthers to target free agents that will help shore up the offensive line, receiving corps and secondary.
This sounds typical of any team as most of the previous year's starters are normally guaranteed starting positions. However, as the Ron Rivera era has proven, nothing is set in stone. This past summer, he had open competitions for every position although most knew who would be starting and in no danger of losing their jobs.
That same logic should apply in 2013 but if anything, there should a message sent to those who are on the fence. Every position on special teams should be put on notice as the unit was perhaps the most underachieving this past year. Also, there should be position battles in the secondary, offensive line and most likely among the defensive tackles.
Competition breeds excellence and if 2012 was any indication, regardless if you win a battle, your leash will be short until further notice. Just ask Justin Medlock.
Whether it's Rivera or another coach, the staff needs to have a watch list of sorts for the positions they are most concerned about. Hopefully, when camp breaks next year, they will have the pieces in place to be a contending team in the league.