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NFL Carolina Panthers

2014 NFL Draft: Ranking the Carolina Panthers’ Top Five Needs

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2014 NFL Draft: The Top Five Needs For the Carolina Panthers

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The Carolina Panthers were perhaps the most surprising team in the NFL last season, as they finished 12-4, won the NFC South and earned a first-round playoff bye. A 1-3 start made the hot seat under head coach Ron Rivera even warmer, but a mid-season eight-game winning streak led to “Riverboat Ron” being named NFL Coach of the Year.

The Panthers face some questions this offseason, with general manager David Gettleman’s comments at the NFL Combine regarding wide receiver Steve Smith and the retirement of veteran left tackle Jordan Gross. But getting quarterback Cam Newton signed to a long-term deal, as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract, may wind up being the team’s top offseason priority.

Defensive end Greg Hardy set a career-high with 15 sacks last season (third-most in the league), and the Panthers took care of one of their top offseason concerns by putting the franchise tag on him this week. Carolina had a league-high 60 sacks last season, with Hardy and fellow defensive end Charles Johnson (11 sacks) leading the way, so one of the top pass-rushing duos in the league will remain intact next season.

Carolina only had five picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, but they found an immediate starter in defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (three sacks) and their other four draft picks (defensive tackle Kawann Short, linebacker A.J. Klein, running back Kenjon Barner and guard Edmund Kugbila) have a chance to become contributors down the road.

As they look to build on their success from 2013, here are the top five draft needs for the Carolina Panthers.

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5. Offensive Guard

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Travelle Wharton started 12 games at left guard for Carolina last season, but he has hinted at retirement. The team may have found a right guard in Nate Chandler, but if he moves to another spot on the offensive line a void would be left there. Edmund Kugbila could be a starting option, but this is still a potential area of need for the Panthers.

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4. Safety

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Mike Mitchell and Quentin Mikell are both unrestricted free agents, and Charles Godfrey may be gone after suffering an Achilles’ injury and appearing in just two games last season. 2013 undrafted rookie Robert Lester may step in at strong safety, but the later rounds of the draft may present an opportunity to add some needed safety depth.

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3. Cornerback

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Captain Munnerlyn was the best player in the Panthers’ secondary last season (three sacks, two interception return touchdowns), and Pro Football Focus agreed by ranking him as their 11th-best cornerback for 2013. But he is headed for free agency, and if Carolina decides not to make an effort to keep him cornerback will become an even more urgent need in May’s draft.

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2. Wide Receiver

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Smith will turn 35 in May, and Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon are all slated to become free agents. No matter what other moves are made during free agency, finding a future No. 1 target for Newton is a must.

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1. Offensive Tackle

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Gross’s retirement obviously creates a void at left tackle, but right tackle Byron Bell is a restricted free agent and the Panthers may seek an upgrade there. In any case, I think the Panthers are now very likely to use their first-round pick on a new left tackle.