Panthers look to plug holes during offseason

As the Carolina Panthers convene to pen their offseason shopping list, it must be noted that despite the optimism surrounding this franchise right now, this was a 6-10 football team that was bludgeoned the last time it took the field.

New Orleans clobbered the Panthers on Sunday, so the vibe when the team returned to Charlotte on Sunday night was probably what it should be heading into the offseason.

A year ago, Carolina was coming off a 2-14 season and had the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. So much of the focus in the media was on that top pick for the four months leading to the selection of Cam Newton. The rookie quarterback is the main source for the excitement about the team’s future after he passed for more than 4,000 yards and set several impressive records in his inaugural professional campaign.

There were other developments this fall, though, notably the growth of wide receiver Brandon LaFell, linebacker James Anderson’s consistency and leadership, first-year head coach Ron Rivera’s patience and ability to keep the team even-keeled despite the results, and the resurgence of veteran receiver Steve Smith.

Smith embracing Newton and its trickle-down effect on the team may have been the most important early developments this past season.

But the reality of the situation is that the Panthers have plenty of holes and question marks. Among them is a need to add a player of substance to every grouping on the roster with the exception of tailback and tight end.

The need is big along the interior defensive line, preferably one or even two players with some experience. A pass-rushing defensive end would be nice, and perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad way to spend the eighth or ninth overall pick in the first round. North Carolina’s Quinton Coples or Clemson’s Andre Branch, who came on real strong this season, would be nice choices.

The Panthers need help in the secondary at both cornerback and safety. It’s risky drafting at these positions, but if corners Morris Claiborne from LSU or Dre Kirkpatrick from Alabama are available when it’s the Panthers’ turn, it won’t be easy to pass on either.

Rivera’s offensive line could use some work. Really, the Panthers need to begin replenishing their blockers, and if a great tackle is available at No. 8 or No. 9, such as Riley Reiff from Iowa or Matt Kalil from USC, that may be a direction the team wants to go. Kalil’s older brother, Ryan, is the Panthers’ starting center.

Smith turns 33 in May, so there’s a possibility he won’t turn in a 79-catch, 1,394-yard receiving performance next season like he just did. It only makes sense for the organization to begin thinking about who might be Newton’s long-term favorite target.

Talk in the Queen City suggests a strong interest by fans and many in the media to go after Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, a terrific talent along the lines of Larry Fitzgerald and Julio Jones.

But Newton is so good he may not need a top-flight receiver to move the franchise forward, especially at the expense of using the top pick on another, more pressing need.

Free agency is one way to plug some holes and maybe even find some stability for several years to come. But the Panthers’ history isn’t to spend freely, so expect more calculated moves, which will be interesting to watch. And the moves they make could offer some insight into what general manager Marty Hurney, owner Jerry Richardson, and Rivera might do in late April.

Regardless, the Panthers probably aren’t going to fix all of their personnel issues between now and late July. So operating judiciously — with an eye on 2013 as much as 2012 — will serve the organization well.