Carolina saved coach Ron Rivera's job by winning their final four games last season and finishing 7-9. The Panthers started the year 2-8 for a second consecutive season. Rivera has been criticized for his 2-12 mark in games decided by seven points or less and that trend must end immediately. New General Manager Dave Gettleman has some building blocks to work with but if he doesn't find players to help out at key positions right away he might be working with a new coaching staff in 2014.
After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 quarterback Cam Newton lowered his interception total from 17 to 12 last season. While Newton started the year slowly, he earned a QB Rating of 95 or better in five of his final seven games. Newton is the only player on the roster that is untouchable. Even if he doesn't turn out to be an elite quarterback, the Panthers must build around him and see if his athletic ability leads them to the promise land.
Who will protect Newton in the long-term is a huge question mark. Jordan Gross has been a consistent presence as the team's left tackle since 2003. His new contract makes it unlikely he will return to Carolina next season. While the Panthers could worry about it during next year's free agency period or draft, selecting somebody, even a project on the offensive line, would be advisable.
A second wide receiver may no longer be necessary since the good but not great Brandon LaFell hauled in 44 balls for 677 yards last year. He is a compliment to Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. However, Smith turns 34 years old next month, and considering who Newton's go to guy is going to be in the long run is a valid question.
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On defense, finding some depth up front would aid a unit that re-signed Dwan Edwards. Of greater concern is the secondary. Carolina simply does not have anybody in the last line of defense that opposing quarterbacks are overly concerned with. Not only was the secondary average last year, but this year the returning group will be without Chris Gamble who was released and then retired. In a division with the passing attacks of New Orleans and Atlanta, the Panthers need upgrades at corner and safety.
Like every team that played around .500 ball, the Panthers have reasons for optimism and issues to address. In Carolina's case urgency to improve quickly is paramount to a coaching staff that needs to win early to remain employed.