Predicting Carolina Panthers' Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency

Stephen FenechCorrespondent IMarch 20, 2013

Predicting Carolina Panthers' Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency

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    While the Carolina Panthers haven't been major players in free agency, there have been some changes from last season's starting lineup. 

    As the market continues to taper out, some remaining free agents will be brought in at a reduced rate. The Panthers are in a situation that forces GM David Gettleman to be patient, although he would likely take the same approach even if he did have some disposable money.

    With the NFL draft a little more than a month away, we will have a good idea about what the team will look like prior to the event. In the coming month, the Panthers may fill holes in the secondary or along the offensive front, as depth is needed in each area. 

    Panther nation should view the cap situation as a blessing in disguise, as the new front office has no choice but to look to the draft in order to make significant improvements to the roster. 

    Carolina still has a couple of past players in the free-agent pool it would like to bring back, and the defense would take a hit if Dwan Edwards and/or Captain Munnerlyn were not re-signed. 

Quarterback

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    Projected Starter: Cam Newton 

    Surprise, surprise, Cam Newton will be the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback when the season kicks off.

    The Panthers were fortunate to have the first overall pick when Newton left Auburn a year early for the draft. Based upon this year's crop of prospects, it should be noted that a superstar quarterback is not built into every draft class. 

    The quarterback slot on the depth chart will remain completely unchanged, as Derek Anderson re-signed with the team in free agency. 

    With Jimmy Clausen entering the final season of his rookie contract, the Notre Dame product will serve as the Panthers "in case of emergency" plan. 

    The status quo at the signal-caller position remains the same, but hopefully only Newton sees significant action in the upcoming season. 

Backfield

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    Projected Starter: Jonathan Stewart 

    Jonathan Stewart was drafted in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. The move was considered surprising because the team invested a first-round pick in DeAngelo Williams two years prior. 

    The Panthers' backfield will operate as a timeshare, with Stewart and Williams set to split the carries. Part of the reason for the Panthers poor salary cap situation is the money the team has locked up in its rushing duo, so it's imperative for each rusher to play well. 

    After dominating on the ground during the 2011 season, Stewart and Williams will be looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2012 campaign. 

    The Williams/Stewart combination should set a goal of about 2,200 yards  between them, as that type of production would ignite the entire Panthers offense. 

    Mike Tolbert will continue to play fullback while being a threat inside the red zone, as his large frame and powerful rushing style make him a threat in short-yardage situations. 

Receivers

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    Projected Stars: Wide Receiver: Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell & Tight End: Greg Olsen 

    The Carolina Panthers should look to address the wide receiver position in April's draft, although it's hard to pin down exactly when they should target a wide receiver. 

    Depending on the players available when the Panthers are on the clock with the 14th selection, Carolina may have no choice but to address the wide receiver position in the middle rounds. 

    Cordarrelle Patterson has the physical ability to be dominant, but he only played one season at Tennessee and has a lot of questions surrounding him due to his lack of game tape. 

    Focusing on what the Panthers currently have on the roster is alarming, considering that surrounding Cam Newton with options is crucial to his development as a passer. 

    Entering his 13th season this fall, it's hard to dispel the assumption that Steve Smith is going to fall off eventually. Are you comfortable with the receiving corps outside of Smith?

    Brandon LaFell is the Panthers' second wideout, but he has been inconsistent since being drafted out of LSU. 

    Outside of Smith and LaFell, Carolina's roster is void of talented wide receivers. 

    Greg Olsen may have been Newton's favorite target last season, as he targeted his athletic tight end 104 times. 

    Sure, giving Newton more offensive weapons should be a priority. But is it more of a priority than improving his pass protection or than improving the rush defense. Such is David Gettelman's plight, as ranking needs is a tricky business. 

Offensive Line

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    Projected Starters: LT- Jordan Gross, LG- Amini Silatolu, C- Ryan Kalil, RG- Geoff Hangartner, RT- Byron Bell 

    While the offensive line improved as the season went on, the unit needs to be improved in order to protect franchise quarterback Cam Newton. Injuries ravaged the Panthers offensive line, which forced the coaching staff to shuffle players around without much preparation time. 

    Father Time began to catch up with Jordan Gross last season, as the left tackle appeared to lose some of his foot speed in pass protection. The upcoming season will be enlightening in regards to Gross' future prospects. 

    When Ryan Kalil went down with a season-ending injury about a quarter of the way through the season, the Panthers were forced to shuffle along the offensive line. 

    Amini Silatolu looked lost at times as a rookie, so an improvement must be made in the second year of his career. 

    Looking into the crystal ball, the Panthers will likely look to upgrade the right side of their offensive line. Both Geoff Hangartner and Byron Bell are below-average for their position, which doesn't make things any easier on Carolina's skill players. 

    The offensive line will be improved through either free agency or the draft, with any addition being welcomed. 

Defensive Line

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    Projected Starters: Defensive End- Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, Defensive Tackle- Frank Kearse, Sione Fua

    The Carolina Panthers defensive line is strong at defensive end but weak at defensive tackle, which makes the production of the entire unit a wash. 

    Last season's best interior defensive lineman, Dwan Edwards, is currently an unrestricted free agent and may not return to the team. If he doesn't, the Panthers will direly miss the six sacks he provided from the defensive tackle position in 2012. 

    Earlier in the offseason, Carolina cut defensive tackle Ron Edwards. While Edwards struggled to stay healthy, his departure only adds to the Panthers' needs along the interior of their defensive line. 

    With both Edwards potentially out of the picture, the Panthers may be forced to play Frank Kearse and Sione Fua at defensive tackle, each of whom need quite a bit of seasoning. 

    For all of the questions surrounding the defensive tackle position, there are just as many answers at defensive end. The combination of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy is amongst the best in the league at defensive end, which makes the Panthers more of a threat in the pass-happy NFC South. 

    Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy combined for 23.5 sacks last season, and the duo could be set for an even better year in 2013. 

    With the Panthers' first-round pick, David Gettleman could choose to invest in one of this year's talented defensive tackles. 

Linebackers

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    Projected Starters: Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason 

    The Carolina Panthers current linebacking corps has the chance to be dominant but will need injury risks Thomas Davis and Jon Beason to remain healthy in order to do so. 

    Last year's first-round pick, Luke Kuechly, led the entire NFL in tackles last season. By earning that distinction, Kuechly won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and is set up to be just as good in his second season. 

    In its 4-3 scheme, Carolina depends on its defensive ends to generate a pass rush. Without the pressure to rush the passer on a consistent basis, the Panthers' linebackers can focus on shutting down the opposition's rushing attack. 

    It would be a surprise if the Panthers addressed the linebacker position in free agency or the draft, but it could be the right decision if the right situation presents itself. 

Secondary

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    Projected Starters: Cornerback- Josh Norman and Josh Thomas, Safety- Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura 

    The Carolina Panthers had no choice but to cut Chris Gamble due to financial reasons, as they simply could not afford to pay the Ohio State product nearly $10 million. Even though Gamble was injury prone, he was still one of the NFL's better cornerbacks when healthy.

    Captain Munnerlyn, who started the majority of the season an corner, is currently a free agent. According to Joseph Person of CharlotteObserver.com, the Panthers offered Munnerlyn a three-year deal worth $5 million. 

    Since Munnerlyn has not agreed to the proposed terms, there is a definite possibility that he will move on. Losing Munnerlyn and Gamble in one offseason would be tough, especially in the explosive NFC South. 

    Charles Godfrey was solid at strong safety in 2012 and earned the right to be the team's opening-day starter. 

    The situation at free safety isn't as cut and dry, however. It would be very surprising if Haruki Nakamura started the season at safety, as he struggled last season as the Panthers free safety. 

    David Gettleman must find a way to improve his secondary, or the Panthers will have a hard time competing for a division title.