Note: by this I do not mean that the Panthers should not improve the offensive line. Other than dealing with salary cap issues, dealing with the immediate OL issues posed by Byron Bell (can't play) and Jordan Gross (can play, but not for much longer even if he decides not to retire) plus getting insurance for OG (in case Kugbila is a bust and Silatolu has issues from his severe injury of the sort that Robert Griffin III is having right now, though granted there is a huge difference between getting hurt in September like Silatolu and January like RG3 ... but then again Silatolu was nowhere near the Pro Bowl player that RG3 was before the injury in the first place so yes it is a concern) should be the #2 offseason priority.
Why is it #2? Because the Panthers currently do not have A) a #1 WR or B) a #2 WR or C) anything at TE beyond Olsen and D) while everyone insists that making Steve Smith a slot WR is a great idea, looking at his salary cap figure for the next 3 years ($7, $10 and $12 million dollars) would tend to indicate otherwise. So after getting one good (not very good or great, just good) free agent WR is taken care of, the Panthers need to work on getting 3 OLs good enough to start using free agency and the draft. But the point is that the Panthers may not have to just automatically break the bank or use all their high draft picks on it. Of course, a guy who can (in my ideal scenario) play RT next season and then move to LT in 2015 after Gross hangs it up should be taken with the #1 pick. But after that? Mid-round picks and mid-level free agents (so long as they are good ones and not, for example, the disasters that the Falcons and Steelers have generally been acquiring, instead look at teams that have built GOOD lines relatively cheaply like Baltimore and the Giants) should suffice. No need to break the bank on the OL the way that Miami, Kansas City, Saint Louis, San Francisco etc. have done.
No, this isn't the old "you can build a great OL without paying for it" canard. Instead, it may be that a great OL is no longer necessary (and no, having a "running QB" in Cam Newton is not the reason, although I would point out that having Cam plus DeAngelo plus Stewart should justify prioritizing the interior OL at least in the short term)! Instead, why? Take a look at Peter King's column in Sports Illustrated. He states flat out: "Reason being, most offenses in today’s NFL don’t need great left and right tackles in order to thrive. All they really need are average tackles. Or, in some case, tackles who simply aren’t atrocious." So the irony is that while "The Blind Side" movie was a very important piece of filmmaking because of the social issues that it raised (curiously the movie managed to offend people on both extremes of the political spectrum), the book on which the film was based (which was more about using Oher as an example of the dominant LT that NFL teams are looking for than Oher himself) is outdated.
The reason: dominant left tackles are needed to protect the QB in a 2 back, 2 WR offense against aggressive defenses, and dominant right tackles are needed to effectively run the football for the same reason. But - as I stated in a comment replying to a fanpost that expressed a desire for Nnamdi Asomugha to come to Carolina - no one runs those 2 back, 2 WR based offenses anymore because NFL rules no longer allow the type of aggressive defenses that the traditional pro-style offense formations were designed to counter. So just as the big money shutdown CB is no longer needed to defend the #1 WR in a 2 back, 2 WR offense because now teams primarily use 3 and 4 WR formations (including where the TE is a glorified WR) and spread the ball around so having multiple capable CBs is more important than having 1 great one, having a good corps of WRs is more important than having A) a single great WR, B) a great RB or C) excellent LTs and RTs. And to make it work, you don't need the next Anthony Munoz, just a guy who is average or above average.
I agreed with the decision to draft Kuechly in 2012 and to double dip on Star and Short in 2013 because that is exactly how defenses are winning games and championships in this era. DBs can no longer do bump-and-run coverages so guys are going to get open no matter how good the DB is. Pass rushers can no longer brutalize QBs the way that Lawrence Taylor, Richard Dent, Charles Haley etc. did, and the blitzing that used to mark the Buddy Ryan 4-6 and Dick LeBeau 3-4 defenses would now result in more 15 yard penalties and ejections than sacks. So the ability to consistently pressure the QB and stop the run by dominating the line of scrimmage and between the tackles is the way to effectively play defense under these current rules, and Kuechly, Star and Short the types of guys needed to do it. And if you are going to invest in DEs, they have to be bigger than the glorified pass rushing OLBs like Jevon Kearse (listed at 255 but was actually 245) were because now rushing the passer is more than just coming at the QB off the edge full speed because it would result in a penalty more times than not even if you get to him.
So because the rules mean that defenses can no longer use those types of players and strategies, offenses no longer need guys who can block them. Recall the Jevon Kearse reference. The Rams won the Super Bowl against his Titans because they had a future Hall of Famer in his prime, Orlando Pace, at LT to keep him from decapitating Kurt Warner. In the Super Bowl the next season, Jonathan Ogden in his prime. Now compare that with the Ravens' LT in last year's Super Bowl: 33 year old Bryant McKinnie, career underachiever due to work ethic and weight problems that had been given up on by the Vikings, had spent much of his Ravens' tenure on the bench and was finally dumped by Baltimore also the next season. While it is true that McKinnie played better during the playoff run after new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was able to (temporarily) motivate him and put in a new simpler offense that greatly benefited him, McKinnie DID NOT become another Jonathan Ogden. He merely became, to paraphrase Peter King, not atrocious.
My ideal scenario:
0. Get Jordan Gross to play 1-2 more years.
1. Use the #1 draft pick on a guy who can play both OT positions.
2. Fill the other OL needs with mid-level caliber free agents, especially guys coming off their rookie deals that are good but not great and won't command more than $3-4 million a year. $3-4 million a year (or less!) isn't good enough at LT, but it is good enough for the other 4 positions on the line.
Why not wait until the 2nd round? Well if it were all about replacing Byron Bell, that is exactly what I would advocate: replacing him with a 2nd or even 3rd round pick. (Yes, Bell is so bad that an astute pick in the 3rd round on a RT, say on a guy who drops in the draft for whatever reason, would be an improvement.) But it is about a guy who can play LT down the line, and even getting LTs who "aren't atrocious" is difficult in the draft and expensive in free agency. In other words, the same reason why you shouldn't count on getting a 4-3 pass rushing DE who will contribute as a rookie after the middle of the 1st round.
The good news is that if the Panthers finish the season the way they started i.e. with a 9-7 or 10-6 record, then it will be a first round pick but not a high first rounder. It would be even better if the Panthers could trade down, but not out of the first round, so they could get an OT who can play the left side (while not necessarily being a "true left tackle") with a first round grade while getting picks later in the draft to address other needs (i.e. CB, safety, WR, TE). The better news is that Gettleman knows this already. The Giants didn't break the bank to get elite offensive linemen. They just drafted and signed good, solid players at all 5 positions while saving the bulk of their major investments for other positions (mainly DL, WR and of course Eli Manning's contract extension). That's the way to win in the modern NFL.