After the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, all 32 teams officially entered the offseason and started plotting how they could position themselves for a shot at Super Bowl XLIX. Shutdown Corner will look at the offseason blueprint for each of the 32 NFL teams, presenting one team a day (using the 2014 draft order, starting with the Houston Texans and finishing with the Seahawks), leading you right up to the start of free agency on March 11.
2013 record: 12-4
Projected current salary-cap space (according to OverTheCap.com): $7.1 million under the cap
Possible salary-cap casualties: WR Steve Smith, S Charles Godfrey
Draft situation: Carolina has the 28th overall pick, and one pick in every round. It traded its seventh-round pick, but gained another seventh-round pick in a trade with the Giants.
[Be sure to check out Shutdown Corner's NFL free-agent rankings. Click here for the list of offensive players, and click here for the list of defensive and special teams players]
Revisiting 2013: It was a tremendous year for the Panthers. After a slow start, Carolina won 11 of its final 12 regular-season games. A last-minute win over the Saints in Week 16 was the key to the Panthers winning an improbable NFC South title. The front seven on defense, led by NFL defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly, carried the team, and quarterback Cam Newton continued to be one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. The difference for Newton in 2013 was he led some game-winning drives and more people finally noticed how good he is. That was long overdue. The Panthers lost their first playoff game to San Francisco, but that doesn't erase everything they accomplished.
Reasons for optimism: Newton is statistically off to the best three-year start to a career of any NFL quarterback ever, and he should only continue to improve. That's a great start. The front seven has a lot of young and elite talent and makes the Panthers defense one of the best in the NFL. The Panthers made the big and expensive decision to franchise tag free agent defensive end Greg Hardy, one of the keys to the defense. As general manager Dave Gettleman said at the combine, that's part of "keeping your strengths strong."
Glaring hole to fill: For a team that had so much success, there are a lot of holes. The biggest might be on the offensive line. The line wasn't great in 2013, then suffered a major blow when left tackle Jordan Gross retired. The Panthers might also lose guard Travelle Wharton, who resurrected his career last year, in free agency. Youngster Byron Bell will likely move from right tackle to the left side to replace Gross, but then there's just a hole on the right side of the line. With limited cap space and a draft spot near the end of the first round, the chances of the Panthers being much better on the line next year are small.
Toughest decision: At the combine, the Panthers were surprisingly noncommittal about Smith's future with the team. Smith will turn 35 this year, his numbers took a huge dip last year and he's due a $4 million salary. In a vacuum, you can see why the Panthers would consider cutting him. But who would that leave Newton to throw to? Disappointing Brandon LaFell is not a No. 1 receiver and he's a free agent on top of that. Ted Ginn, who had a solid season, is a free agent too. The Panthers have been surprisingly lax in getting Newton any help, and that's a shame. Smith might not be what he once was, but without him the Panthers suddenly have maybe the worst receiving corps in the NFL.
Best-case offseason scenario: Without a ton of cap room and a lot of their own free agents to sign, the Panthers need a near-perfect draft. They need to find instant help at cornerback, safety, receiver and on the offensive line. A couple of those holes need to be filled by rookies or low-cost free agents if Carolina wants to make it back to the playoffs. There is a good core in Carolina. But Gettleman has a lot of work to do to fill in the rest.
Previous Blueprints: 32. Houston Texans; 31. Washington Redskins; 30. Jacksonville Jaguars; 29. Cleveland Browns; 28. Oakland Raiders; 27. Atlanta Falcons; 26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 25. Minnesota Vikings; 24. Buffalo Bills; 23. Detroit Lions; 22. Tennessee Titans; 21. New York Giants; 20. St. Louis Rams; 19. Chicago Bears; 18. Pittsburgh Steelers; 17. Dallas Cowboys; 16. Baltimore Ravens; 15. New York Jets; 14. Miami Dolphins; 13. Arizona Cardinals; 12. Green Bay Packers; 11. Philadelphia Eagles; 10. Kansas City Chiefs; 9. Cincinnati Bengals; 8. San Diego Chargers; 7. Indianapolis Colts; 6. New Orleans Saints
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