That is the size of it, folks. Let us go by position.
QB: Newton has a lot of ability and potential but still lacks the players around him to maximize his effectiveness. Newton is a play action vertical passer akin to Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Troy Aikman, not an Aaron Rodgers/Tom Brady/Drew Brees type and the poor interior blocking (which leads to an inconsistent running game) and the lack of a WR who can get good separation and make plays on the ball while it is in the air other than Steve Smith is really going to hurt.
RB: the good news is that the Panthers have 3 guys who could start for a lot of NFL teams. The bad news is that since RB is a position of diminished importance in the NFL, it isn't saying a whole lot. The Panthers have too much invested (in terms of salary/cap space and draft picks) in this position to get so little production. The worst part is that despite the money and the high draft picks, the RBs still need an OL to be effective instead of being able to make a bad OL better. No one is going to trade for any of those guys, and in the short term releasing one of them would hurt the salary cap more than help it.
OL: Ryan Kalil is great. LT Jordan Gross is just an average/above average player at this point. Silatolu is a work in progress. No one on the right side of the OL is good enough to start. Some of the backups may not be NFL players.
WR: Steve Smith is 34. The other guys would battle for 4th or 5th roster spots on most NFL teams, including ones that aren't very good. And Ted Ginn, Jr. is turning out to be the guy that 49ers and Miami fans and coaches thought that he was. Ginn will improve special teams though.
TE: Same as WR. Greg Olsen and a bunch of guys who would struggle to survive first cuts on a lot of teams. It is revealing that where Olsen is seen as such a boon and critical piece to the puzzle in Carolina, Chicago let their former 1st rounder go for a 3rd rounder and no one in the Windy City regrets the trade.
Defense is better than this dumpster fire but still:
DE: Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are great. But even there: the Panthers were lucky, not good to get Hardy in the 6th round and have him pan out. Depth at this position is good.
DT: While Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short do improve this position, they are rookies. 32 year old journeyman Dwan Edwards will start, making this area OK and nothing more. Depth is a real problem here, even if they move Hardy inside as part of certain packages.
LB: One of the best groups in the NFL. But also one of the most expensive, and since they don't run the 3-4 or a version of the 4-3 that really showcases the LBs, it is a situation akin to that at RB where they have too much invested (3 #1 picks and a ton of cap space) to justify the proportional impact on the roster.
Safety: when a reserve from the Raiders for a cheap deal constitutes a real upgrade you have problems. Godfrey is just a guy at the other safety spot, but similar to the RBs cutting him is more expensive than keeping him.
CB: with all the middle round draft picks and minimum salary free agents, a bargain basement delight. An odd situation where there are plenty of guys to throw at the 3rd and 4th WRs of other teams, but there are going to be real problems covering the #1 and #2 guy, especially if they are both good.
The worst part is that the flaws build on each other. On defense the problems at safety will be magnified by the issues at CB and vice versa. On offense the obvious ways to deal with the OL issues (i.e. by rolling Newton out or with a quick passing game) are unavailable because the WRs aren't good enough to reliably get open when Newton rolls (as it limits his passing choices to one side of the field and often one WR) or quickly off the line of scrimmage. So other than the hopes that the front seven play on defense will cover up issues in the secondary, the Panthers don't have the personnel to cover up flaws. You are only able to cover up flaws in one area when you have strengths on others, and the Panthers don't have that.
The Panthers' plight simply comes down to years of poor drafting and other bad personnel decisions. Not only has this resulted in a ton of busts that aren't making an impact and/or are out of the NFL but also the areas that the Panthers' are good at needing too much of an investment to get there. And while I like Gettleman's management of the Panthers' cap problem this offseason, these tendencies continued. Of the Panthers' 5 draft picks, 4 were still more DTs, LBs and RBs, and that is in addition to the LBs that were added in free agency. And the OL pickup was more similar to the Dennis Pitta/Amini Silatolu profile (high upside but raw meaning little chance to help the team immediately). That being said, it is difficult to really criticize the decisions. Because certain Panthers' players dragged their feet in restructuring contracts, there wasn't enough cap room to add players at the positions that the Panthers really needed help. In the draft, questioning the decision to take Star Loutelelei at #12 is kind of silly. Maybe Larry Warford over Kawann Short in the 2nd round, allowing the Panthers to still address DT with Alabama NT Jesse Williams in the 4th? Should the Panthers have forced things with WRs, DBs and OLs in the 5th and 6th round instead of getting still more LBs and RBs? Perhaps passing up productive major college interior OLs like Khaled Holmes and Barrett Jones for Edmund Kugbila because of injuries to the former wasn't a great idea after all? Maybe, but it is fair to consider that the draft should be judged on the types of players Star, Short, Klein, Kugbila etc. ultimately turn out to be down the line instead of grading them on their ability to help this roster go from 7-9 to 10-6 (a tall order considering their schedule) this season.
That being said: remember how getting Robert Lester in the fold as an undrafted free agent was a top priority of the coaching staff and how they were raving about him all offseason? He has gone from being heralded as a potential rookie starter to now running 6th behind Colin Jones (who plays special teams) on the safety depth chart. Does this coaching staff have real problems when it comes to evaluating talent? And to what extent does the GM and front office heed the opinions of the coaching staff? Whether the coaches should have identified a different safety to make their main undrafted free agent signing, or if there were a lot of undrafted OLs/TEs/WRs out there that could have helped this roster a lot more than Lester ever will, it is really concerning, especially since the coaching staff were backers of some draft picks that also didn't pan out as well as being behind some questionable free agent moves (Legedu Naanee anyone)?
That may be why Gettleman hasn't made a move to sign any free agents to help this mess even though there are guys available. The whole emphasis appears to be "rolling over cap space for next season" so the Panthers can keep some of the few good players that they have. Though restrained in part by salary cap space and a small number of draft picks, Rivera has had a role in shaping this roster, so he is being given one last shot at trying to win with it.
We will know soon enough whether he will succeed, or at least have a shot. The third game is "dress rehearsal" where at least until midway through the 3rd quarter an actual gameplan - and the guys that the Panthers to use to execute it - will be in place. Will Rivera and the coaches put in a reality-based plan, or will they continue with wishful thinking, perhaps still trying to validate ideas that failed? If the latter is the case, Rivera won't last the season. The problem in that case won't be that Rivera didn't have the players to succeed. It would be that Rivera fundamentally does not know what is needed to succeed in the NFL, which means that he will never be part of a successful attempt to put together a roster with players that will make him successful.
But whether Rivera stays on or not the truth remains: the Panthers aren't that good. It is going to be at least a couple of years before that changes. And as the Panthers are in a division with two well-run organizations in the Panthers and Saints and are in the stronger of the two conferences (seriously, put the Panthers in the AFC West, NFC East and maybe even NFC South and they contend for the playoffs!) it may take that long before seeing good results on the field. Especially since the Panthers might actually have to get even worse on offense before they get better. Imagine if this is the last year in Carolina for Steve Smith, both OTs and at least one of the RBs (if not both). Based on age/salary/injury/performance issues, Gettleman would be perfectly justified to cut bait on all those guys. Look at it this way: suppose the Panthers were to dump Stewart and Williams (who aren't going to be effective without a good OL anyway) and go into 2014 with Tolbert and Barner. How much worse would they be on the field? Who knows, but they would be a lot better in cap space for 2015 because of it. Oh yeah, when the 2015 season starts, Williams will be 32. Stewart will "only" be 28, but still a gamble in terms of his ability to be healthy for an entire season even going back to his college days at Oregon.
The defense? While the DL will be kept together, Beason and Davis will have to justify their salaries in 2013 or they will be gone too. But with Blackburn and Klein ready to step in by then, how much worse will they be? Also, where the Panthers might be able to get a top OL in 2014 in free agecy, it will be only to replace Gross or Bell. And if they get a top WR in free agency or the draft, it will be to replace Steve Smith, not to play alongside him. So it would take a top free agent at LT and a 2nd round pick at RT in 2014 to actually improve the OL (for example) and there will still be WR, CB, safety and other needs.
Again, the Panthers aren't that good and it is going to take at least a little while to change that fact.