We've been discussing the draft a lot lately, but in a way it's putting the cart before the horse. First we need to recognize what the Panthers needs for 2012 are, and then figure the best way to address those needs, signing new free agents, re-signing their own free agents, or through the draft.
We all know the defense needs to be improved, along with possibly adding a WR, or OT, but we need to look beyound those current needs to which players the Panthers could lose in free agency. I went to RotoWorld.com, and checked their Panthers contract list, so I hope it's correct. Here is the list:
2012 Unrestricted Free Agents (URFA):
QB - Derek Anderson - likely re-sign
TE - Jeremy Shockey (2011 salary $3,813,000) - a must re-sign
TE - Gary Barnidge
FB - Jerome Felton (2011 salary $1.2 million) - need to re-sign at a reasonable price
WR - Legedu Naanee
OG - Mackenzy Bernadeau (2011 salary $1.2 million) - likely gone
MLB - Dan Connor
DB - Cletis Gordon
2012 Restricted Free Agents (RFA):
OG - Geoff Schwarts - a must resign
OT - Gary Williams
LB - Jason Phillips
LB - Thomas Williams (2011 salary $480,000)
2012 Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA, can only re-sign with Panthers unless they are released):
CB - R. J. Stanford
DT - Frank Kearse
TE/FB - Richie Brockel
2012 Likely Unrestricted Free Agents (their contract terms are undisclosed):
G/C - Geoff Hangartner - a must re-sign
OT - Reggie Wells
WR - Seyi Ajirotutu
NT - Ronald Fields
LB - Omar Gaither
LB - Jordan Senn
Players Who May Be Cut (To Save Money) Or Have Their Contracts Re-worked (Downward):
WLB - Thomas Davis - 2012 cost, $2.25 million salary, $8 million option bonus, $250,000 workout bonus, and $1.4 million of his signing bonus, total $11.9 million cap number. The Panthers can save all but $5.6 million of his signing bonus by cutting him (it didn't mention any guaranteed money).
NT/DT - Ron Edwards - The Panthers can save $5.5 million in salary over the next 2 yearsby cutting Edwards, and only take a cap hit of $1,666,666 for his signing bonus (no guaranteed money is mentioned).
2013 Urestricted Free Agents (the Panthers may want to extend the contracts of some this off season):
WR - Steve Smith (2012 salary $7.75 million plus $1.55 million of his signing bonus) - He should be re-signed, and will likely sign a 1 or 2 year extension for around the same amount.
RB - Mike Goodson -
TE - Ben Hartsock
OT - Jeff Otah (2012 salary $1.076 million, and $1.28 million of his signing bonus) - He may not be around to worry about.
S - Sherrod Martin - Re-sign him unless they add another S.
CB - Captain Munnerlyn - Re-sign him, but he won't be cheap.
CB - Darius Butler
LB - Jason Williams
P - Jason Baker
2013 Restricted Free Agent:
DT - Andre Neblett
From this list you can see that the Panthers may have their hands full thrying to re-sign their own free agents that they want to keep, and extending the contracts of Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart, along with maybe Sherrod Martin and Captain Munnerlyn, before they become free agents in 2013. That's also why they may consider cutting Thomas Davis and Ron Edwards.
The Panthers draft needs will influenced by any failure to re-sign their most needed free agents, or any new free agents they might sign. However, if the Panthers fail to re-sign Jeremy Shockey they will only have 2 TE's under contract, and both their FB's are also free agents. The Panthers currently have 10 good DB's (4 S's and 6 CB's), but at the end of 2012 a starting S, starting CB, and nickle CB will be free agents, so if they can't extend the contracts of the 2 starters they may need to draft a DB.
What Are The Panthers Top Needs:
A Pass Rushing DT/DE - Rookie DT Terrell McClain only has 6 solo, and 4 assisted teackles, with 1 sack, in 6 games played this season. He had by far his best stats in the last game with 3 solo, and 1 assisted tackle, with his 1 sack in the last game. He also had 8 QB pressures before last week, so he has some pass rush ability, but he needs another pass rushing DT to rotate with. It would help if that DT could also play DE (to backup CJ and Hardy), so he and McClain could slide out to 3-4 DE, when they switch to a 3-4 defense.
A Bigger NT - Sione Fua is 308, Ronald Fields is 314, Ron Edwards is 315, and Frank Kearse is 325, so the Panthers need a bigger NT if they plan to play any 3-4 defense. A complicating factor is that in the current draft rankings the top 4 NT's are projected to go from the late 1st to the top of the 3rd round, with no others ranked as draftable. So if the Panthers don't draft a NT in the 2nd round, they will have to sign one as a free agent.
OLB - The Panthers can't count on Thomas Davis returning to full health, so that means they really don't have a WLB for next season. Their choice is to draft a WLB, if they can find one who's capable of starting, who runs in the 4.5's or lower, if not then they will likely need to move James Anderson to WLB, and draft a SLB who can rush the passer. They very likely won't be able to find a pass rushing SLB, or a fast WLB after the 2nd round of the draft who's capable of starting. OLB Jason Williams is currently the only Panthers backup LB under contract for 2012.
OT - While LT Jordan Gross is still a Pro Bowl talent, RT Jeff Otah simply can't be counted on to stay healthy, and his replacement Byron Bell is still learing. Matt Kalil would be a great addition, but he will likely be gone before the Panthers make their 1st pick. The free agent OT market looks small and weak. I feel the the 3 defensive needs listed above are more urgent, and will push drafting an OT to the 4th round or later, unless it's just the BPA.
WR - The Panthers don't have a #1 WR to replace Steve Smith, who's a free agent after the 2012 season, and he's getting older. The Panthers are also lacking a true #2 WR, but more #3 WR types. Cam Newton leads the NFL in deep passes, but other than Steve Smith he really doesn't have a top quality deep threat (Gettis might be OK once he returns from injury), which would be a big help for Cam, and help Smith as well. I feel the Panthers need a fast deep threat at WR far more than a slower, taller, jump ball type WR like Alshon Jeffery.
CB - The Panthers currently have 6 good CB's who run 4.43-40's or lower, but except for Chris Gamble, all of them are 5-10 or shorter. Captain Munnerlyn has played well this season as a starter, though only 5-8. The main reason to draft a taller CB would be to protect against losing Munnerlyn, Butler, or S Martin as a free agent after the 2012 season.
I believe those are the Panthers top 6 positions of need, but what do you think?