Overview: With limited salary-cap space to work with after spending big to lock up some of their own core players last year, the Panthers didn’t sit on their hands in free agency, but they weren’t pursuing major stars. They have plenty of starpower in 2011 first overall pick QB Cam Newton, who was named rookie of the year. It would make sense for this year’s priority to be upgrading a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed last season, but GM Marty Hurney subscribes to a best-player-available philosophy. He has seven picks — the ninth overall pick along with one second-rounder, a fourth-rounder, a fifth-rounder, two sixth-rounders and a seventh-rounder — to help the Panthers narrow the gap in the NFC South. The only round in which the Panthers don’t have a pick is the third — that selection was sent to the Bears in a trade for TE Greg Olsen last year.
Need No. 1: Defensive tackle
The Panthers invested in defensive tackles last year, signing DT Ron Edwards in free agency and spending third-round picks on Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, but their work at the position is not done yet. Edwards missed all of last season after suffering a torn triceps in camp and will turn 33 in July, and Fua and McClain received a lot of playing time but didn’t exactly burst onto the scene. There is little doubt head coach Ron Rivera, who intends to be more involved with the defense this season, will accept good help anywhere he can get it on the defensive line, so Carolina is looking at prospects on the interior and off the edge.
Need No. 2: Cornerback
Captain Munnerlyn became the full-time starter opposite Chris Gamble at cornerback last season after Richard Marshall departed in free agency, but the feisty Munnerlyn fits best as a nickel back. Munnerlyn was the best of some not-so-great options for the Panthers at the position last year and they are going to need bigger, physical corners to match up against the competition at receiver they will face vs. division foes. Gamble had a strong bounce-back season in 2011 after a rough ’10 campaign, but his salary over the next few years — he’s signed through 2014 at $6.75 million this year, $7.9 million in ’13 and $8.85 million in ’14 — could become very unappealing to the team if he takes a step back.
Need No. 3: Offensive tackle/offensive guard
A swing guard/tackle with the ability to compete for a starting job would be a good fit on an O-line charged with protecting the face of the franchise. Carolina is hoping Jeff Otah will stay healthy and return to his early-career form at right tackle, but Otah has played only four games the past two seasons because of injuries. The Panthers are also getting OG-OT Garry Williams back from a season-ending ankle injury, added ex-Colts OG Mike Pollak in free agency, and traded for ex-Raiders OT Bruce Campbell. However, they need to continue firming up an O-line led by Pro Bowlers OLT Jordan Gross and C Ryan Kalil.