I wrote a post several months back about the furture of NFL offenses and defenses, and those conclusions will help deternine what the Panthers draft needs will be in 2012. The Panthers have been preparing for this future for a few years now, and I expect them to continue in that direction.
First let me list some of the major points involved in future NFL offenses and defense, and the future is now.
(1) Passing dominates NFL offenses (except for Tebow's Broncos) - The long time standard NFL offense of 2 RB's, 2 WR's, and a TE, now has almost countless virations, 2 or 3 TE's, as many as 5 WR's, 0 to 2 or even 3 RB's. As a consiquence the defense of the future needs to be able to cope will all these offensive formations.
(2) Offense's are evolving toward more no-huddle sets, almost to the point of becoming their base offense. - The good news is that Cam Newton is the perfect QB to run a no-huddle offense in the next year or 2, but first the Panthers have to improve the quality and depth of their defense, so their defense won't be on the field to long.
(3) Future NFL defenses must be a hybrid defense, a combination of the 4-3, 3-4, and even the 3-3-5 defense. - The future NFL defense must be able to morph from a base 4-3, to a 3-4 (a DE dropping back as a OLB), and to a 3-3-5 (a DE dropping back to OLB, and a LB dropping back as a DB) defense, in order to matchup with all the different NFL offensive sets. This is because if a team depends upon the substitution of nickle and dime DB's, they will sometimes be caught in mismatches, and when this happens, offenses will instantly shift into a no-huddle offense, preventing the defense from substituting to correct the mismatch.
(4) Because passing now dominates NFL offenses, pass rushers are covited, and needed more than ever. - A strong pass rush shortens the time that the DB's have to cover receivers, making their pass defense more effective.
(5) Because of the increased use of 3, 4, and even 5 WR sets, teams now need to have safties who can cover WR's one-on-one, and that big and slow SS's must be replaced with someone who can cover a WR. - The were way ahead of the curve on seeing this need, and getting 3 S's that have CB experience (Godfrey, Martin, and Pugh), and speed.
What do these trends mean for the Panthers?
(1) The Panthers are currently using a 1 RB, 4 receiver (2 TE's and 2 WR's) offensive set most often. - The Panthers need 2 good receiving TE's, so they must re-sign Shockey, or find another in the draft, or as a free agent. The Panthers are only using 3 WR's (Smith, Naanee, and LaFell) this season, and probably need a 4th, but Gettis will return next year. However, Naanee will be a free agent at the end of this season, and he will need to be either re-signed, or a replacement found.
(2) The Panthers need to improve their defensive quality and depth to cope with no-huddle offense's.
(3) Here is how the Panthers are building a hybrid defense. The Panthers have 2 very good pass rushing 4-3 DE's (Johnson and Hardy), but their 3 backup DE's are combo 4-3 DE's/3-4 OLB's (Kiser, Applewhite, and Norwood). The Panther have 2 NT's (Fua and Kearse), but not the big 330 pound NT needed for a 3 man D-Line. The Panthers lack a dominate pass rusher at the other DT spot, though both McClain and Neblett each have 1 sack, and in the last game they tried to correct this by playing DE Greg Hardy at DT. That may well hint that finding a pass rushing DT will be a major off-season goal. In the past WLB Thomas Davis has filled the need for a LB that could drop back in coverage as a 5th DB, but the chance of his return from injury is far from certain, so they need to find a replacement. The Panthers go in 1 of 2 directions at LB, the fast WLB who can drop back in pass coverage, or a pass rushing 3-4 OLB, or both. The Panthers are blessed with 3 S's who can cover one-on-one like CB's (Godfrey, Martin, and Pugh), but they could use a bigger SS, with good speed, like FS Michael Greco (6-2 7/8, 224, 4.40-40) who was injured during preseason. The Panthers have 6 good CB's, but 5 of them are 5-10 or shorter, so they could use a CB 6-0 tall.
So, what are the Panthers greatest areas of need, through the draft, free agancy (they may not have the salary cap room), or trade?
(1) A fast WLB who can drop back in pass coverage (usually only a couple in each draft).
(2) A big NT (330 pounds or more), I prefer a young veteran free agent like Pat Sims, because drafts usually only have 3 or 4.
(3) A pass rushing DT (likely just a few in this draft).
(4) A future OLT, through the draft (Kalil, but the draft has several).
(5) A 2nd quality deep threat at WR. I prefer a trade for a proven WR like the Bears Johnny Knox (6-0, 185, 4.34-40, 45 catches as a rookie in 2009, and he lead the Bears with 51 catches in 2010, at 18.8 YPC).
(6) A RG - re-sign Schwartz and Hangartner.
(7) A good tackling S, like the Raiders free agent SS Tyvon Branch (6-0, 205, 4.31-40).
(8) A good pass rushing 4-3 SLB or 3-4 OLB.
(9) A cheaper FB. Fulton is a good FB, but the Panthers hardly use him, and won't want to match his current $1.2 million salary. A pickup I think would be great would be to sign ex-Auburn RB Mario Fannin (5-10 3/8, 231, 4.38-40, 1.51-40), who blocks like a FB, but with the speed of a very fast WR or RB, who would also be a running and receiving threat. He was in training camp with the Broncos, but was released with an injury settlement when he hurt his ankle.