The new calender year of the NFL season has begun and with it so have the signings of some of the game's biggest names. The Carolina Panthers have been mostly quiet, signing cornerback Drayton Florence and re-signing backup quarterback Derek Anderson this past week.
Given the lack of signings thus far for the Panthers, the front office is shifting its focus to the draft and which players can make immediate impacts. It wouldn't hurt finding a diamond in the rough, either, as some players have broken onto the professional stage as under-the-radar studs.
Carolina will be hoping that April's draft produces a home-run pick in the first round and perhaps gives the Panthers a solid late pick who can make a difference on game day.
They have a lot of needs to address and, as of now, only five picks with which to address them. The 2013 NFL draft will be an important one, as it will set the tone for general manager Dave Gettleman, who will be making key decisions on the players who will be the Panthers' future.
One thing to take away from this mock draft is that it is very defense heavy. The reason behind this has to do with the amount of points Carolina gave up early on in the season. Even when they had some struggles on offense, they were still able to put points on the board.
If the Panthers are to be successful in 2013, they need to correct the things that cost them in 2012.
The Carolina Panthers desperately need help on their defensive line. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have the line anchored on the edges, but the interior could use an upgrade to help in the run-stopping game and help the linebackers.
Defensive tackle is pretty deep in the first round, and if players like Richardson, Shariff Floyd and Star Lotulelei are still on the board, the Panthers will have a big decision to make.
Ultimately, they will go with Richardson, who could be the player they've been looking for to shore up the defensive interior the past couple of seasons.
He has size at 6'3" and 294 pounds, but he is pretty quick for a man that big. At the combine, he ran a 5.02 40-yard dash and improved upon that time at Missouri's pro day by recording run times between 4.71 and 4.82.
The flexibility and explosiveness he possesses could allow for more pressure from the inside and turn Carolina's defensive front into an explosive unit, creating a proverbial hell for opposing quarterbacks.
Dave Gettleman cannot afford to miss on this pick, and if Richardson develops into the kind of player many think he will become, the Panthers defense will be vastly improved. First impressions are everything in this league, and both Gettleman and Richardson will need to make big ones.
I wrote a recent article discussing the possibility of Carolina taking an extended look at Tyrann Mathieu. The logic will not change here, as the Panthers need a cornerback and difference maker in the second round.
Much like their first pick, they cannot afford to swing and miss on this selection.
Mathieu has some negative history but has seemingly risen above the bad press following a good combine and recent appearances on the NFL Network. He is no stranger to the national spotlight and has stepped up in big games.
What makes this a crucial selection, however, is that the Panthers do not get another pick until the fourth round, and by then it may be too late to get a cornerback of value. Essentially, this pick has high risk, high reward written all over it.
Mathieu was a top pick a year ago in early mock drafts, which had him projected as a mid-first-rounder. Where he goes in this draft will depend on how teams view him, and that will mean a lot of discussion among ownership, the front office and coaching staff, given their hesitance to draft players with off-field issues.
The biggest concern about Mathieu is his size (5'9"), but he plays his position exceptionally well. He is not afraid to go up against opposing players.
That should remind fans of another Carolina player who is small in stature.
If Brian Winters is still available when the Panthers pick again in the fourth round, they need to pick him up. Winters garnered a lot of attention at Kent State's pro day and was just the third player from the school to be invited to the NFL combine.
Some of Winters' attributes include physicality, durability and versatility. These traits could benefit Carolina as they are looking to rebuild their offensive line and find solid linemen to one day replace Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. Adding Winters to the line would allow them to play him at guard but move him to the tackle position if warranted.
Protecting Cam Newton will become a big issue soon, but in the meantime, it would be nice for the Panthers to have young, reliable players who can step up and make the overhaul of the offensive line as painless as possible.
Winters could be a steal in the fourth, but even if the Panthers make a trade to move into the third round, they should definitely draft him.
The Panthers need help in the secondary, and after using their second-round pick on a cornerback, they will use their fifth-round selection on a free safety. Haruki Nakamura hasn't played up to expectations, so it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Carolina bring in some young blood to provide a little competition.
Zeke Motta has been on a couple of mock drafts this year, and this one is no different. With a line that will finally be upgraded and perhaps one of the best linebacking units in the league, the Panthers would be comfortable with sending a player like Motta in on a blitz.
There is a level of concern about him being able to defend passes over the top since Notre Dame had a good pass rush during his collegiate career. However, given the issues with the current level of play in the Carolina secondary, it may just be a matter of molding Motta into the type of defensive back the Panthers need to patrol the field.
It wouldn't be a crazy assumption that Motta could be a starter in his rookie year, as the depth and talent at free safety have been found lacking.
Carolina may want to add a linebacker after releasing James Anderson, and Ty Powell could be the man who fits the bill. Powell hails from a small school, Harding, but did impress at the combine.
He did so well that his draft stock could rise to the point at which he is a fourth-round selection.
However, in the event he is still on the board in Round 6, the Panthers should take a chance on him, as he would provide a rotational option at outside linebacker and could even take some snaps at defensive end.
Last year, Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott moved Greg Hardy to defensive tackle, and if he plans on continuing that strategy, how cool would it be to have some versatility on the defense? A line composed of Charles Johnson, Sheldon Richardson, Hardy and Powell could make for a unique scheme, especially with the Panthers linebackers behind them.
Powell's biggest detraction comes from the fact that he did not play for a major school, but if Josh Norman can start much of the 2012 season after playing for Coastal Carolina, then anything is possible. Powell has the skills to play the game, but the question will be whether or not he can translate them to the pro game.