The Carolina Panthers made the transition to a contender in Cam Newton’s third season under center, but as much as the former No. 1 overall pick made strides, a lot of credit must be given to Ron Rivera’s defense.
Free agency is threatening to break apart the Panthers’ nucleus on defense, and it may also take its toll on some of Newton’s surrounding cast as well. The team is at about $21 million available in cap space to work with this offseason, but must also try and ink arguably the top defensive free agent, Greg Hardy, to a long-term deal, as well Newton, Luke Kuechly, and Star Lotulelei.
If the Panthers are unable to find a way to lock up Hardy with a long-term deal or slap him with the franchise tag, the defensive end becomes one of the team’s main needs. The franchise tag is estimated to cost Carolina about $12 million, though, making free agency a bit more of an issue and the draft all the more important.
Cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn and safeties Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell are all impending free agents. Given the aforementioned cap-space dilemma surrounding Hardy, the team may have to add between three and four defensive backs via the draft.
The Panthers should be in the market for the best corner available with the No. 28 pick, perhaps a Jason Verrett or Bradley Roby if they last that long. The team should also address the position in the fourth round or later to help add some depth.
As for safety, the team may have to look in the second or third rounds. Jimmie Ward would be a steal if he’s around in Round 2, but the team may have to wait for a Deone Bucannon of Washington State or Dion Bailey to fall to them in Rounds 3 or 4.
Year after year, it seems as if Carolina is in need of another wide receiver to plug in opposite Steve Smith. This year is no different. Brandon LaFell, who stepped up in 2013, is a free agent, as is Ted Ginn who also doubled as a return specialist. LSU playmaker Odell Beckham Jr. might be the perfect fit as the shifty wideout is capable of stretching the field as well as assisting on kickoff and punt returns. The team has also been linked to Kelvin Benjamin and Brandin Cooks who fit the mold of larger wideouts.
The team might also need to add a running back in the middle-to-late rounds, too. CBS Sports names DeAngelo Williams as a potential cap casualty because the vet is due $6 million. Carolina has Jonathan Stewart, who may have to accept a pay cut, and could add a complementary back like De’Anthony Thomas or Devonta Freeman.