Carolina Panthers team needs: Draft well or bust

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter the 2013 NFL offseason, we discuss the Carolina Panthers' team needs in detail.

The 2012-13 NFL season did not go as smoothly as the Carolina Panthers would have hoped for.

After a sensational rookie campaign by first overall pick Cam Newton, the Panthers seemed to be in store for a monstrous second year from their QB. Unfortunately, Newton and the Panthers had a rough start, losing six of their first seven games.

The team appeared to be experiencing growing pains, as well as an identity crisis. This is not unusual given has just started a rebuilding period under Ron Rivera.

In the past two seasons, the Panthers have added essential components to their team in quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. If things go as planned, Newton and Kuechly will be the leaders of this team -- on offense and defense -- for the next decade.

Ryan Kalil, Jon Beason and Steve Smith are also major role players for this up-and-coming franchise. From the outside looking in, the Panthers have the pieces to make some noise in this league, but they've struggled to get rolling.

At the end of this past season, Carolina began to see the light.

They finished the season strong, winning five of their last six games to close 2012. They scored 30-plus points in four of their final match-ups, and stole notable wins against Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego and New Orleans.

The team had not seen such efficiency and consistency on a game-to-game basis all season. They ended the season on a hot streak and are hoping to carry that momentum forward into the offseason and into 2013.

Biggest Need: Defensive Tackle

Make no mistake, the Panthers have need all over their offense and defense -- but it's their defensive front that has been lacking for the better part of a decade. The team view Luke Kuechly as being as essential to their defense as Cam Newton is to their offense, and to this end finding a strong defensive tackle at the point of attack is vital in helping their middle linebacker entering his second season.

Other Needs: CB, WR, OL

The Panthers scored less than 20 points only five times all season. They have been more efficient on the offensive side of the ball but desperately need to upgrade on defense. They spent last year's first-rounder on a defensive player, and they may have to do that again.

The secondary must be made a priority if (when?) the team cuts Chris Gamble to save cap space. Captain Munnerlyn is also a free agent, potentially leaving the Panthers very vulnerable against the pass for 2013. As it stands they're slated to rely on mid-round rookies from 2012, and undrafted free agents.

Steve Smith isn't getting any younger, and while Brandon LaFell showed promise in 2012, there's still a long way to go. Publicly the Panthers mentioned they'd be interested in a big-name receiver like Mike Wallace, but the idea of them having that money in free agency is a pipe dream. Instead they'll need to get more creative.

Protecting Cam Newton needs to be made a bigger priority, and to this end securing a new offensive tackle and guard is a must. Leaning on a patchwork line in 2012 caused major problems, and Newton was under duress for much of the year.

NFL Draft Outlook:

The Panthers finished at an unimpressive 7-9, which unfortunately is not bad enough to get them a top-10 pick, but not good enough to get them in the postseason. Carolina possesses the 14th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft -- one spot ahead of New Orleans and one spot behind Tampa Bay.

Carolina is in a position to trade up or down in the first round, and they also have some flexibility in terms of options. They have more than a couple positions of need and could go wide receiver, cornerback or even defensive tackle in Round 1.

James Dator of Cat Scratch Reader believes the Panthers are in a favorable spot:

The Carolina Panthers would love to trade down. They have needs all over their roster, holes to fill, and desperately need an influx of talent. It's impossible to predict three months out what could happen on draft day, but there's one scenario that could prompt a trade-down for the Panthers.

Salary Cap Situation:

The Carolina Panthers are struggling to get under the salary cap after their spending spree in 2011. Electing to retain their own talent first has resulted in a serious drain on the team's cash reserves. They're currently almost $500,000 over the cap, and will need to make more moves.

Some of the names that have been considered to be restructured or released include DeAngelo Williams, Chris Gamble and Jon Beason.

At this point, if the Panthers are to make strides, it has to be through the draft. The only way Carolina can truly move forward is by bringing in talent through the draft. This means getting production out of their late-round picks as well. The Panthers' fiscal state will force this team to go younger and replace established players that are absorbing too much cap space.

NFL insider Jason LaCanfora reported:

I don't reckon this will be a big free agency year for them... I don't know if they are going to be in the market for a stud tackle and even at corner I think they are going to have to draft replacements for guys like Gamble that they might lose.

More in the NFL:

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Joe Flacco and the history of $100 million contracts

The NFL's disappearing middle class

NFL news roundup: Roger Goodell terrified, Shawne Merriman retires and the latest on free agency

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