Facts are facts, this season is done, it's now only a question of how bad the final damage will be. So let's face facts, from now on it's all about getting ready for the 2013 season, and deciding what's the best and fastest way to turn this ship wreck around.
To prep for next season, you can't look at the elements (draft, free agency, salary cap, GM and HC search) of building a good team in isolation, because each of these elements must come togeather smothly to work togeather for success, and realize that each element impacts all the other elements. The best example of this might be free agency, where a team almost always overpays for talent, and we must realize that salary cap rules will prevent the Panthers from cutting or trading their high salary players. So almost all of the Panthers off-season changes will come through the draft, signing of USFA's, along with the cutting, re-signing or signing of very low cost FA's.
What are the Panthers greatest areas of need for next year?
1. O-Line - I believe this is by far the greatest need. Poor O-Line play this season has killed the running game, caused Cam to often have to run for his life, and damaged his confidence. Critical to the Panthers draft plans will be if they believe RT Byron Bell is capable of being a good RT in the future, or does he need to be replaced. If they decide that Bell must be replaced, then that means that 2 of their top draft picks must be spent on both a OG and a OT, in the top 2 rounds, if both are expected to be starters.
2. Free Safety - It's the biggest hole in the Panthers secondary, and it must be improved this off-season, probably with a 2nd round pick.
3. Nose Tackle - Ron Edwards will be 34 years old next season, it's the last year of his contract, and Fua is his backup. As many as 6 NT's could be drafted in the top 50 picks, and the Panthers need to get one of them.
4. #1 Wide Receiver - Is this the year we've all feared for so long, the year Steve Smith starts to decline with age? For the last 2 weeks, Smith has no longer been the Panthers leading receiver, trailing TE Greg Olsen in receptions (44 to 45 catches, while being targeted 15 more times than Olsen, 84 to 69). However, I'm not sure this draft has that #1 WR, Keenan Allen may not have the top speed that's needed, Justin Hunter has bad hands, DeAndre Hopkins is only average size (6-1, 200), and Tavon Austin might be the next Steve Smith, but you can't play 2 5-9 WR's at the same time.
5. Corner Back - Chris Gamble was playing very well before he went on IR, Josh Thomas has played far better than anyone expected, and Josh Norman shows a lot of promise, but Captain Munnerlyn is a URFA at the end of this season, so the Panthers probably need to draft a CB in the first 2 rounds, and certainly by the 4th round.
6. Strong Safety - Godfrey's salary jumps to over $5 million for the 2014 season, so they need to draft his replacement this year, so he can have a season to develop before he has to start.
7. Tight End - The Panthers have very little depth behind Olsen, and all of them will be FA's at the end of this season. The Practice Squads Nelson Rosario might be able to become the receiving TE, but they also need a good blocking TE, and if he could also catch, the 2 TE sets would help the O-Lines blocking as well.
8. D-Line - If the Panthers can't re-sign URFA DT Dwan Edwards (5 sacks), then he will have to be replaced, possibly by moving Hardy to UT, and starting Alexander at DE. So if Dwan Edwards leaves, then they will have to draft either a pass rushing DT, or a DE.
How can the Panthers best fill these needs through the draft?
The Panthers only have 5 draft picks in 2013, an many more needs than that. The best option for the Panthers might be to trade down a few times, adding more picks. Currently, the Panthers are tied with the Browns (2-8) for the 3rd pick in the draft, 2 games behind the 8 teams with 4 wins, that start with the 8th pick.
1-A. The 2 best all around (very good pass and run blockers) OT's are the pair from Texas A & M. LT Juke Joeckel is the drafts top rated OT in the draft by everyone, a sure top 10 pick, and maybe even the #1 pick. RT Jake Matthews is the son of HOFer Bruce Matthews, and will be a 3rd generation NFL player. He's thought to be a good LT, but has only played RT, and he's projected to go in the middle of the 1st round (#12-#18). The drawback on Joeckel is that he may not even last until the Panthers pick, while Matthews will allow them to trade back at least once, maybe twice, adding an extra 2nd round pick or 2.
1-B. I don't have any faith that any OG outside of those ranked among the top 5 OG's will be able to start next season. The top 2 OG's (Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper) likely will go in the 1st round, with the 4th and 5th (Dallas Thomas and Larry Warford) in the 2nd round. I still favor Barrett Jones, but the opinions of him differ. WalterFootball.com thinks Jones is a early 2nd round pick ((Walt #38, and Charlie Campbell #42), but NFLDraftScout.com thinks he will go in the late 20's (#28, Rang #27, and Bruger #26). So, I'm hopeful that Jones might last until the Panthers 2nd round pick, with Larry Warford as the fall back option, at the end of the 2nd round.
2. Free Safety - In the second round Tony Jefferson (rated from #34 to #78) or T. J. McDonald (rated #54-#56), or Zeke Motta in the 4th round.
3. Nose Tackle - The Panthers could just stay where they are in the 1st round (around the 3rd or 4th pick currently), and draft NT Star Lotulelei, but that would prevent adding more draft picks by trading back. It will be hard to pass up Star, but the Panthers have far more needs than just one player, and NT isn't a major impact position. Fortunately, the NT position is very deep in the 2013 draft, and it's possible that as many as 6 NT's could be drafted in the 1st round. Here's how they are currently projected to go, Star Lotulelei in the top 4 (NFLDS #1, Rang #2, Bruger #3, and both Walt and charlie at #4), Jonathan Hankins likely in the top 10 (ranked from #3 to #18), Johnathan Jenkins ranks around #14 to #20, Jessie Williams is ranked in the 2nd half of the 1st round by NFLDraftScout.com (#17, Rang #24, and Bruger #21), but mide to late 2nd round by WalterFootball.com (Walt #49 and Charlie #59), while Louis Nix III is expected to be a late 1st or early 2nd round pick. I'm leaning toward UNC's Sylvester Williams in the early 2nd round (rated from #40 to #61, but he could go in the late 1st because of his pass rush, 6 sacks), because of his pass rush ability, due to the possible loss of Dwan Edwards as a URFA.
4. Wide Receiver - The Panthers need to find a replacement for Steve Smith now, as his play may be staring to decline, along with Murphy being a URFA at the end of this season, and 3 URFA (LaFell, Gettis, and AE) WR's at the end of the 2013 season. No doubt they need to add a very good WR in the 2013 draft, but they probably don't have enough draft picks, and the 2013 draft has few possible #1 WR's (Keenan Allen around #10-#22, and maybe DeAndre Hopkins in the late 20's). The 2013 draft really doesn't have much depth after the 2nd round, yet (someone may jump out during the Combine or Pro Day). They may just have to hope Bryant or Green can develop, or some other UDFA.
5. Corner Back - The 2013 draft probably only has one top 10 CB, DeMarcus Milliner (ranked from #4 to #8), and not much depth beyond the 4th round. Jonathan Banks seems set at around #20, but Xavier Rhodes is sort of ranked all over the place now (#19 to #41), but I doubt he falls out of the 1st round. I like Desmond Trufant (ranked #50 to #62) in the late 2nd round, and maybe Blidi Wren-Wilson in the 4th round.
6. Strong Safety - The need for 2014 is real, but it will need to be addressed in the late rounds. I love Shamko Thomas (ranked around #230 by NFLDS) in the 5th or 6th round. He's a big hitter, with great speed. Ray Ray Armstrong is a good fallback option as a UDFA, he was a likely 2nd round pick, before the NCAA and NAIA banned him this season.
7. Tight End - The Panthers need to add a blocking TE, who can also catch (I wish they had claimed or signed Wesley Saunders), so they can play a 2 TE set at times. The best fit is probably Dion Sims (32 catches), who was the leading receiver for Michigan until he missed 3 weeks, and is likely a 3rd or 4th round pick. If they miss out on Sims then they could go for Joseph Fauria or Travis Kelce later.
8. D-Line - This likely comes down to BPA with a late pick, a minimum priced FA, or UDFA.
Here's what my mock draft looks like:
1st round (trade back twice to around 12th) - OT Jake Matthews (6-5, 305, 5.14-40)
2nd round - OG Barrett Jones (6-4, 305, 5.10-5.28-40)
2nd round (by trade) - NT Sylvester Williams (6-3, 320, 5.08-5.19-40)
2nd round (by trade) - CB Desmond Trufant (6-0, 186, 4.42-4.49-40)
4th round - FS Zeke Motta (6-2, 215, 4.53-40)
5th round - SS Shamako Thomas (5-10, 210, 4.39-40)
6th round - TE Travis Kelce (6-5, 260, 4.68-40)
I really hated to have to take 2 O-Linemen at the top of the draft, but it seems that RT Byron Bell is no longer considered good enough to start next season. That change forced me to pass up FS Tony Jefferson (5-11, 212, 4,49-4.53-40) in the 2nd round, but maybe they could trade 1 of their 2nd round picks for a late 2nd round pick, and a 3rd or 4th round pick, but I wouldn't count on it.
What do you think?