NFL Carolina Panthers

2013 NFL Draft: Top Five Priorities for the Carolina Panthers

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2013 NFL Draft: Five Positions of Need for the Carolina Panthers

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers have scored big with their last two top picks, drafting quarterback Cam Newton first overall in 2011 and taking linebacker Luke Kuechly at No.9 in 2012. Last season’s 7-9 record, including wins in five of their final six games, showed promise but more is clearly needed if Carolina is to take the next step toward being a playoff contender in 2013.

Carolina had a top-10 rushing offense in the NFL last season (ninth-130.5 yards per game), but otherwise the production on that side of the ball did not matchup to the talent level. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who served as quarterbacks coach for the Panthers in 2011 and 2012, will be asked to help Newton take the next step and become one of the elite signal-callers in the league.

The Panthers have bigger deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. They intercepted just 11 passes all last season and allowed multiple big plays in the passing game at critical moments in games. They did have 39 sacks (tied for ninth in the league), but 23.5 of those came from defensive ends Charles Johnson (12.5) and Greg Hardy (11). At the very least, adding some depth at all three levels of the defense should be a priority in the draft later this month.

Free agency should not change Carolina’s draft plans all that much, though they have added veterans at wide receiver (Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn), cornerback (Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore) and linebacker (Chase Blackburn).

With the 2013 NFL Draft fast approaching, here are my top five priorities for the Panthers.

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5. Linebacker

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Kuechly proved himself to be the long-term answer at middle linebacker, but two aging and injury-prone veterans (Jon Beason and Thomas Davis) surround him right now. Beason, who Kuechly has replaced at middle linebacker, had offseason shoulder and knee surgeries and could still be released since he is due to make over $5 million next season. The Panthers need to add some more youth to the mix here, even if they can coax one more solid season out of Davis and Beason.

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4. Offensive Line

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil are clearly the best two players in this unit, and after that the talent drop-off is steep. Left guard Amini Silatolu was drafted in 2012 and started 15 games, but upgrades are needed at right guard and right tackle. Newton was sacked 36 times last season (tied for 16th in the league), but he took a lot of big hits and if not for his mobility that total may have been much higher. Protecting their franchise quarterback better should be a priority for Carolina

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3. Wide Receiver

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Adding Hixon and Ginn bolsters the depth here behind starters Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, but Smith will turn 34 in May and bringing in his eventual replacement is still a need. Drafting a wide receiver in the first round is possible if the Panthers see a fit, but an early-round pick should be used here regardless.

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2. Defensive Tackle

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Many mock drafts have the Panthers choosing a defensive tackle with their first-round pick, currently 14th overall. Dwan Edwards had six sacks in 2012 and was re-signed, but the talent level on the Panthers’ interior defensive line is not outstanding and needs someone with upside added to the mix.

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1. Cornerback

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As with wide receiver, adding two veterans helps here but there is more work to be done. Eight of Carolina's 11 interceptions last season came from linebackers and safeties, and with the talent-laden pass offenses elsewhere in the NFC South that has to change for the team’s record to improve in 2013. A corner with some playmaking ability that can step right into a starting job could be on Carolina's radar in the first round, and surely no later than the second round.