By John Tuvey, Executive Editor Panthers Offseason Needs We continue our team-by-team look at offseason needs with the Panthers, who opened the season as a popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl but endured a rash of injuries and ultimately fell short of the postseason. Aside from getting everyone healthy, what can Carolina do this offseason to live up to such lofty expectations?
Areas of Need: Assuming Keyshawn Johnson opts to returnâ€”he had threatened retirement following the departure of offensive coordinator Dan Henningâ€”the Panthers should have the bulk of their offensive personnel back. Three-fifths of the starting offensive line ended the season on injured reserve, but all three should be back in time for 2007. The Panthers wouldn't be against adding another bookend tackle alongside Jordan Gross, but such players don't exactly grow on trees. Carolina could also use an upgrade at the tight end position, where they've been relatively devoid of production since Wesley Walls' salad days a few years back.
Though he struggled at times and was injured at others, Jake Delhomme is still this team's quarterback. However, it's unlikely Chris Weinke will return as his backup; when your team has so little faith in you that they have you throw only seven passes in a game you start, it's usually a sign you should start looking elsewhere. Brett Basanez and J.T. O'Sullivan are the current backups, but the Panthers may explore other optionsâ€”including a young quarterback to groom as Delhomme's eventual replacement. With DeShaun Foster still under contract and DeAngelo Williams entering his sophomore season the Panthers appear set at running back. However, don't be surprised if they try to add a power back to the mixâ€”something Eric Shelton was supposed to do, though it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Defensively, the Panthers will need to address their linebacker position. Last year Will Witherspoon left via free agency, and now they're facing the possibility of perennially injured Dan Morgan having his career cut short by a fifth concussion. Morgan has been cleared medically but is due a $2 million roster bonus, and the Panthers may balk at that given his tenuous availability. Morgan's backup, Chris Draft, is an unrestricted free agent, as is Na'il Diggs, leaving converted safety Thomas Davis as the only "veteran" linebacker assured of returning. Needing experience as well as depth, the Panthers will likely address this position via both the draft and free agency. Expect the draft to also yield some depth on the defensive line, where Mike Rucker ended the season on IR and Ma'ake Kemoeatu underachieved. With youngsters Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble at the corners, $36 million man Ken Lucas is an expensive nickelback. Carolina has the cap room to keep Lucas around and would have to scramble for corner depth if they opted to purge his contract. The safety position could use some depth, and if they don't re-sign free agent-to-be Shaun Williams and decide Mike Minter isn't worth $3 million a year, they'll need starters as well.
Help is on the Way? The Panthers have plenty of decisions to make about their own personnel before they start thinking about free agency and the draft. Several players have underperformed their contracts, but kicking them to the curb would leave even more holes that would need to be filled via the draft and free agency.
With the 14th selection in the first round, the Panthers have a plethora of options to address several of the needs discussed above. Maybe they like Penn State's Levi Jones as a tackle opposite Gross; perhaps a safety like LSU's LaRon Landry or Florida's Reggie Nelson will fill that void. If Keyshawn departs, a big receiver like LSU's Dwayne Bowe or USC's Dwayne Jarrett would be a nice complement to Smith. Or perhaps Brady Quinn slips down the board a la Aaron Rodgers a couple years back; would John Fox tab him as Delhomme's successor?
It's going to be an interesting offseason for a team that many thought was the one to beat in the NFC in 2006, and it will start with how the Panthers opt to treat their own players. From there, free agency and the draft will either be used to patch up a few minor holes or address some major needs created by a significant roster shakeup.
Wants and Needs: The Panthers don't have any glaring holes in their lineup, but they do have multiple areas at which they'd love to upgrade, or at minimum add depth. One of those positions—quarterback—was addressed during free agency with the signing of former Texan David Carr; his addition means the Panthers can wait on adding a developmental quarterback, as Carr is still relatively young in quarterback terms. With no extra picks, however, Carolina still has plenty of work to do. Near the top of the list is linebacking help—a starter, if the team doesn't believe Dan Morgan can stay healthy (and we've seen enough to think that's the case). The Panthers would also like to add a younger pass-rusher to groom opposite Julius Peppers, and the secondary needs to add a safety who can step in and play right away. Offensively, Carolina hasn't had a quality target at tight end since Wesley Walls hung up his cleats and the line could use at minimum depth and preferably a tackle who can offer immediate help.
Potential Selections: Carolina has myriad options in round one, depending on what happens in front of them. John Fox would be perfectly happy if Penn State tackle Levi Brown slips to them… or he could finally address that tight end need with Miami's Greg Olsen. If the team opts to go defense with their first pick, Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis is likely near the top of list—again, if he's still on the board at No. 14—and Penn State's Paul Posluszny isn't a bad fallback option. Carolina would love one of the two elite safeties in this year's draft; there's next to no chance LSU's LaRon Landry will still be there, but Florida's Reggie Nelson very well could be. Obviously, remaining selections depend on where the Panthers go with their first pick. Expect them to add a pass rusher sooner rather than later, perhaps targeting Notre Dame's Victor Abiamiri or Texas's Tim Crowder later on Day One. Safeties thin out dramatically after the first two rounds, so if Landry and Nelson aren't an option Carolina will have to move quickly to add Miami's Brandon Meriweather or Texas's Michael Griffin. Those moves relegate the other needs to Day Two, where the Panthers could address the line with Boston College's James Marten or Virginia Tech's Brandon Frye; tight end with Iowa's Scott Chandler or Minnesota's Matt Spaeth; and linebacker with Wake Forest's Jon Abbate, Oklahoma's Rufus Alexander, or Florida State's Buster Davis—a Sam Mills clone, which will play extremely well in Carolina.