The Carolina Panthers may have been one-and-done in the playoffs, but they had such a promising season in 2013 that there is much to be hopeful about. They don't have a whole lot of weaknesses on their roster and actually have a lot of strengths, such as their running backs and defensive line.
When it does come to their weaknesses, the Panthers are most troubled in their secondary. They do have some talent back there in Captain Munnerlyn, but an upgrade in the secondary is definitely needed, and they could find their man in free agency. This is, of course, assuming that they re-sign key free agents like Munnerlyn and Jordan Gross.
Even if they are able to bring back Gross, they will still need a solid option for the opposite side of their offensive line at the right tackle position. They may look to a veteran guy like Eric Winston to fill that spot, which, considering what he brings to the table as a proven, talented veteran lineman, would be a wise move by Carolina's front office.
Look for the Panthers to comb the free-agency pool for help with their offensive line and secondary, as well as some depth at other positions.
It’s not like the Panthers need a quarterback now that Cam Newton is coming along, but it’d be nice to have a solid backup for sure. In looking at what type of quarterback would best fit into Carolina’s offense if Newton is out, it seems like a similarly big and nifty-footed passer would make the best replacement.
Josh Freeman may not be at the top of most people’s lists, but he has had good seasons before and would be a more-than-worthy backup to Newton. He’s athletic enough to move out of the pocket but stands tall in the face of pressure due to his bigger frame.
Tarvaris Jackson is another quarterback who may fit that mold. He’s proven himself as a capable runner before and is an experienced enough player to maintain whatever continuity was there when he was the starter.
Neither one of these guys is going to be putting up huge numbers if called upon, but both could definitely mirror Newton’s ability better than most.
The Panthers are lucky enough to have two very good runners in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, along with their resident power back, Mike Tolbert. In looking at which runners would fit best, a versatile, speedy back would likely be the best option for their type of offense.
Leon Washington is extremely gifted in space and is a nice pair of hands out of the backfield. Ahmad Bradshaw would also mesh in nicely with the Panthers' stable of runners. He’s had a lot of experience as a rotational back and was pretty effective when he was with the New York Giants.
Bradshaw could be a change-of-pace back to Williams and the rest of Carolina’s runners, and he would also be competent in pass protection.
He and Washington fit into the system Carolina runs in different ways, but they would both make an impact if given the opportunity.
Carolina has a pretty great No. 1 receiver in Steve Smith, but the team doesn't have that solid No. 2 guy to complement his skill set. He’s done a tremendous job as the feature receiver and certainly hasn’t been playing like a 34-year-old. While he can surely hold down the top receiver spot for now, the Panthers do need a successor or even just a complement to Smith.
Considering his small stature, a taller, big-bodied receiver would be the best option on the opposite sideline, and there’s a couple impending free agents who fit that bill. Former Tennessee Titan Kenny Britt could be the vertical threat that Carolina needs, although he would come with some baggage. Britt wasn’t a whole lot of trouble for Tennessee, but he definitely had his moments.
He’s not the only big receiver that the Panthers would be smart to target. They would also be smart to kick the tires on Jeremy Maclin if possible. He missed much of 2013 with injury but should be back to 100 percent by the time opening day arrives.
Another option that Carolina will have is former New York Giant Hakeem Nicks, a smaller but sure-handed receiver who also possesses great speed. Nicks put up great numbers for the Giants and would be a nice sidekick to Smith—he could also end up being a great replacement for him long term since he is just 26 years old.
Greg Olsen had a great season as the Panthers’ lead tight end in 2013, but a second tight end would definitely be of aid to Carolina. Their offense is great for athletic, pass-catching tight ends, and there’s not many tight ends more athletic than Dustin Keller.
He missed nearly all of the 2013 season with a torn ligament but will be fresh by the time next season starts and could be a nice complement to Olsen.
Fred Davis is another tight end who could be a valuable pass-catcher in Carolina’s offense. He displayed his worth with the Washington Redskins for many years before losing his job to rookie upstart Jordan Reed.
Davis is a more-than-capable tight end option who could make a big splash in Carolina’s offense if added to the roster.
Assuming Carolina is able to re-sign Jordan Gross, the team will still need a tackle to play opposite of him. One mauling tackle the Panthers will have a chance to grab is Eric Winston, a veteran lineman who’s proven to be one of the most consistent blockers in the NFL today.
Winston would make for a great bookend pair with Gross and would definitely bolster Carolina’s already potent run game.
The Panthers also need help on the interior of their offensive line, and former Dallas Cowboy Brian Waters would be a great choice. He’s one of the most respected guards in the league and has proven his worth as one of the best blockers in the game.
Waters would help shore up the middle of an offensive line that already paved the way for the NFL’s top rushing offense. Just imagine what Carolina's running backs could do with these improvements.
Defensive line is another position that the Panthers are very strong in and could just use talented players to put into their already stacked stable of linemen. They’re very big and fast up front but could certainly use some of Jared Allen’s pass-rushing ability.
As arguably the best pure pass-rusher in the league, Allen would fit nicely in their rotation and would likely have a more efficient output. He is starting to get up there in age but is still an effective player. If the Panthers can put him in a slightly minimized role but still give him plenty of opportunities to get at the quarterback, then they could build an even better front seven.
Considering they are so talented up front, the Panthers would be smart to scout a free agent with a lot of versatility, and it’s hard to argue against Justin Tuck’s reputation as a well-rounded defender.
The Giants lined him up all over the defensive line this past season and at one point ran a front that was similar to Carolina’s, one in which Tuck flourished. What’s also great about Tuck is his experience in the playoffs and as a leader.
The Panthers are finally contending again, and Tuck could help give them the boost they need to make the next leap.
The Panthers are great at attacking opposing offenses and limiting their yards and point totals. Carolina boasts an athletic linebacking corps that is great at stopping the run, but the team could use a bit more help rushing the passer from the outside linebacker spot.
Former Redskin Brian Orakpo has shown time and time again that he is an elite pass-rusher, and he would have a chance to shine in the Panthers defense as either a down lineman or a linebacker.
Jonathan Vilma is another veteran linebacker who could be a nice addition to Carolina’s defense because of his leadership and the fact that he could act as a tutor to younger linebackers like Luke Kuechly or A.J. Klein.
Vilma has been plagued with injury the past few seasons, but he would be a cheap pickup and could pay dividends even if it’s just a couple of years with the team.
The Carolina secondary is far and away the weakest area on the team's roster, but the Panthers will have a chance to find themselves some help in free agency.
Plenty of great talent is out there, and a good place for them to start would be with Vontae Davis. He was part of a Indianapolis Colts defense that played well down the stretch this past season and is a physical corner who can match up with almost any receiver in the NFL and not get embarrassed.
Aqib Talib would also be a great pickup for the Panthers. He proved himself as one of the league’s top corners during his time with the Patriots and would add to the attitude and physicality of Carolina’s secondary.
As I mentioned on the last slide, the Panthers need a lot of help in the secondary, and an athletic, hard-hitting safety could be just what the doctor ordered for their gritty defense.
One of the most talented safeties that will be available in free agency is Jairus Byrd, an All-Pro caliber safety who was one of the lone bright spots on the Buffalo Bills for a long time.
T.J. Ward is another guy who could fit well into Carolina’s defense. He has a knack for hitting the guy with the football and has the speed to play sideline to sideline. Ward laid the lumber plenty of times as a Cleveland Brown, and he would be a nice enforcer on the back end of the Panthers defense.