4 – Outside Linebacker: With the loss of James Anderson, the top two OLBs the Panthers have are walking wounded. Thomas Davis had a wonderfully productive and injury-free season after 3 reconstructive surgeries on his knee from ligament tears, and Jon Beason has missed most of the last 2 seasons with injuries of his own, including an Achilles tear. With DROY Luke Kuechly nailing down the middle – as I said he SHOULD from day one last season – it’s difficult for me to imagine having to depend on this pair of OLBs to remain healthy for the entire season. While the Panthers do have a little depth left, they have no real impact players on either side since strongside LB Anderson left. With only 5 picks in the draft and only 2 in the first 3 rounds (rd 1 and 2), it’s tempting to let this position slide but chances are someone will miss some games. The team probably won’t address the linebacking position until round 4 at the earliest.
5 – Wide Receiver: This position would be ranked in the top 3 “need” positions if not for the low-cost acquisition of Ted Ginn, Jr. He’s a former #9 overall draft pick, so the man has a lot of natural talent and blazing straight-line speed. However, he never did develop into the #1 WR he was drafted to be, and Steve Smith has lost a step on the outside. Joe Adams, a slot WR/KR chosen in the 4th round last year has so far been a bust, and at #14 the most explosive player in the entire draft will probably be sitting right there in W.V. WR Tavon Austin, who ran a blistering 4.27 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine and is a big reason fellow Mountaineer, QB Geno Smith, is a borderline top-ten talent. With the Panthers needing more bodies than they have picks, Austin is the guy for some other team (St. Louis Rams, maybe?) to grab around here – they draft at #16 – and could well be trade bait to allow the Panthers to trade back and gain an extra pick in the top few rounds, depending on how far back they’d trade, if that scenario comes to pass. The Rams will be highly tempted to replace departed slot WR Danny Amendola with Austin, so there could possibly be a “taker” for the 14th pick overall. Whether or not Gettleman and Rivera draft an OLB early or not should tell us how they feel about the health status of their linebackers. If Beason can return to the form he had his first four years in the league and Davis can stay healthy and mobile on that trick knee of his, the team should be just fine here. Time will tell.
6 – Free Safety: Haruki Nakamura, with all of the 3-inch vertical leap, is a complete liability in pass coverage and should start the season #2 on the depth chart. The safety position is a little murky at the moment, with Gettleman signing another low-cost option there from the Raiders (Mike Mitchell), and D.J. Campbell started the last few games at strong safety at the end of last season. Campbell is young, Charles Godfrey is steady if unspectacular at either safety spot, and the team could really use a ball hawk at the free safety position. I don’t think the Panthers will draft a safety in the top two rounds – not with the issues on both lines being what they are – but they could take a late-round flier on one. Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro would be a major upgrade and possibly a future pro-bowl caliber star, but is a luxury pick that the Panthers cannot afford at this point. Still, there’s always a possibility, with today’s pass-happy NFL, that Gettleman and Rivera will take a Vaccaro as a playmaker on the back end to go with their above-average pass-rushing group of DEs. It sure would be nice to see more turnovers going the Panthers’ direction, and a safety with great ball skills would certainly put some teeth into the deep secondary, but I still feel the game itself is won or lost at the line of scrimmage, which is where the Panthers are going to look for help early rather than later.