Although Carolina's defense was stout in 2013, they remained vulnerable to the league's higher octane passing attacks—including division rival New Orleans, who shocked the Panthers with an impressive four-touchdown performance in Week 14.
With both of 2013's starting safeties gone, concerns have risen that the defense will take a step back in 2014. However, the offseason has hardly begun and there are many avenues left to shore up the secondary's back-end.
Some were disappointed with the team's signing of strong safety Roman Harper, but he fills the void left by the departure of Mike Mitchell very neatly.
Although Harper is five years older than Mitchell, he is a similarly physical player, even at this stage in his career. He is a prototypical box safety and perhaps an even more adept pass rusher than Mitchell. Look for him to pick up where his predecessor left off and rejuvenate his career following an injury-hampered 2013 season.
As it stands, Charles Godfrey is slated to be the starter beside Harper. This is not a bad fit, but Godfrey's $7.1 million hit against the team's 2014 salary cap makes him a viable June 1 cut. This would open up $5.1 million in cap space for the team and give them some much-needed breathing room.
Another direction that the team could head with Godfrey would be a contract restructuring. In order to remain on the team, he would likely need to take a pay cut and push the bulk of his salary to 2015 and 2016.
The only other viable starter on the roster is Robert Lester, a second-year player out of Alabama who received significant playing time for the team in 2013.
Lester plays with the intensity that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott loves, but he's not the coverage safety that the Panthers truly need at this point.
His deep coverage was inconsistent last season, contributing to the defense's main problem—allowing the home run ball. It's possible that Lester makes strides in coverage this season as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL game, but I don't think the team wants to count on him as a day-one starter just yet.
If the team were to designate Godfrey as a June 1 cut, an intriguing free agent replacement would be Charles Woodson, who excelled at free safety last season for Oakland.
Although Woodson, now 37, will likely retire within a season or two, he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Although he is a coverage-oriented safety, he still managed 97 tackles and two sacks in 2013. A one-year, $1 million deal would provide great value for Carolina, who could groom Lester or another young player for the season.
In the draft, there will be a handful of safeties in the middle to late rounds for Carolina to snag. Brock Vereen of Minnesota is a player who I have an eye on.
He's a rangy free safety who could be better in coverage than anyone currently on the team's roster. He doesn't have the size to match up on tight ends, but Harper, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis all have the capability to do so, making this a shortcoming that could be hidden within a highly talented defense.
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