The start of the 2013 NFL season is still months away, but with the combine wrapping up and pro days beginning to start, teams are doing everything necessary to prepare for a title run next season. The Carolina Panthers are no exception.
There have been moves made already. For the most part, they have been small, and it may be a few more weeks before the Panthers' direction begins to become more clear. Ron Rivera and new general manager Dave Gettleman have a lot of crucial decisions to make before, during and after draft day.
Afterward, the focus will turn to training camp and the upcoming season.
Carolina looks to enter the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and the road to glory begins now with the offseason preparations and future adjustments on both offense and defense to make this team a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Could Shariff Floyd fill the void at DT?
The Panthers have yet to dump any major contracts, and it is highly doubtful they will make any major waves in free agency. Among the players who could be let go are Chris Gamble, Jon Beason and DeAngelo Williams. However, the last two may have their contracts redone to move Carolina below the salary cap.
If the Panthers are unable to bring in help via free agency, then Dave Gettleman will need to assemble a quality draft class.
Carolina holds the 14th overall pick and could use it to address needs at defensive tackle or offensive tackle. Regardless of who they select first, that player will need to make an immediate impact if the Panthers are to have success in 2013.
After Round 1, Gettleman will have to make some savvy choices as to who else will comprise the 2013 draft class. The good news is he has a reputation for finding quality players as evidenced by the New York teams he put together that went on to win a couple of championships.
If the Panthers earn a grade of "B+" or higher immediately following the draft, the first phase will be complete.
Will DeAngelo Williams return in 2013?
As mentioned in the previous slide, Carolina needs to trim some salary in order to get under the cap. The Panthers have started this process by renegotiating the contract of running back Jonathan Stewart.
While it was thought to be a move that would see the departure of fellow back DeAngelo Williams, according to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer, the Panthers plan to retain him for the new season.
That still leaves the contracts of both Chris Gamble and Jon Beason. Both ended up on injured reserve last year, and both may be let go. Beason looks to remain in place, while Gamble seems to be primed for release.
Losing just one of these guys will be difficult, but both would be very bad for Carolina. The team will need to find a way to plug those vacancies.
The Panthers may try to re-sign Captain Munnerlyn and have him replace Gamble with Josh Norman taking over at the second cornerback spot. However, such a move could hurt defensively, though the Panthers did play well toward the end of the season with those two starting in the secondary.
Another key player who had his contract restructured was center Ryan Kalil. His new deal will pay him $750,000 in 2013. Carolina may want to cut a similar deal with offensive tackle Jordan Gross since he is set to make $8.7 million (per Spotrac) next season.
The Panthers have a lot of difficult decisions to make, and the last thing they want to do is gut the roster and start over. The talent is there, and if one or two key players can be replaced with younger, cheaper talent, then they may be alright. However, with their "win now" philosophy, the front office will explore all options before making any final decisions.
This should go without saying. Carolina has been bit by the injury bug the past two seasons and it took it's toll on the team. On a positive note, injury propelled Luke Kuechly to AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors which may not have been possible if he was still on the outside.
Thomas Davis finally enjoyed a full healthy season and made a strong case for comeback player of the year. Unfortunately, defensive captain Jon Beason went down in the middle of the season and was lost the rest of the way.
Injuries took their toll on Chris Gamble, James Anderson, Ryan Kalil and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers may have enjoyed more success had they stayed healthy, but in the end, the void they left was noticeable, save for Beason who may have unknowingly passed the defensive torch to Kuechly.
Carolina has a good team on paper, and if those same players can stay healthy and remain on the field throughout the season, the sky is the limit.
Multiple injuries can doom a team's season, and the Panthers need a little luck in the trainer's room when the 2013 season kicks off.
During the second half of the 2012 season, the Carolina Panthers became a tough team to play. The offense was coming together, and the defense seemed to be establishing their identity. Needless to say, had they played the same way during the entire season, the end result may have been different.
Unfortunately, the Panthers have the toughest schedule in the league in 2013 but mostly due to the fact they have to play their division rivals twice. While Atlanta won the division, both New Orleans and Tampa Bay finished with identical records matching Carolina. So there are a lot of wins there.
However, if Carolina can play the same kind of consistent football like they showed late in 2012, they could establish themselves as favorites to make a deep playoff run.
The biggest thing for achieving a winning record in 2013 is to win the games they are suppose to and get the upset in a couple others; the New England and San Francisco games are prime examples of upset wins.
It may be in their best interest to get hot late in the season and carry that momentum over into the playoffs.
If Carolina is to have a chance at the playoffs in 2013, they need to limit their mistakes and improve upon last year's numbers. Rarely does a team do well in a season that sees them playing poorly and producing stats that are worse than the year before.
Last year, Cam Newton threw fewer interceptions than in his rookie campaign. However, he was unable to improve his touchdown totals. Some of that can be attributed to forcing passes earlier in the season, but with him becoming more comfortable with his other receivers, it is possible to see him get close to 30 passing touchdowns next year.
The running game is another area that needs improvement as they have a lot of money invested into three quality rushers, but none of them were able to get 1,000 yards on the ground.
DeAngelo Williams found success late in the season and had a remarkable game in the 2012 finale. Between him and Jonathan Stewart, there is no reason why they can't put up huge numbers on the ground in a season.
Special teams became a headache at times. The team saw replacements at kicker and a temporary move at kick/punt returns. A combination of mistakes and poor production took points away from the Panthers, and in some cases, gave points to the opposition.
Hopefully, these areas are fixed for the new season, and the improvements pay dividends en route to a title run.
It is still too early to tell how the Carolina Panthers will perform when the new season starts in September. There are no guarantees on who will be on the roster. Changes have been made on the coaching staff and in the front office. The objective remains the same: win.
Ron Rivera has to prove he belongs as the head coach and anything short of a playoff appearance will be viewed as a failure. Hopefully, the third time is the charm.
The Carolina players have the benefit of being around familiar faces on the coaching staff, and with the promotion of Mike Shula, the offense should be able to pick up where it left off in 2012.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott seems to have his defense playing the way he envisioned, and with that in mind, the Panthers could be dark-horse candidates to reach the Super Bowl.
This early blueprint is just the beginning of what needs to happen. As the weeks and months go by leading up to Week 1, this blueprint may change. Right now, the Panthers need to focus on putting together the best team possible.