1. Running Back
While the front man, Jonathan Stewart, will be the same next season there were a few changes made to the depth chart after him. The Carolina Panthers released DeAngelo Williams at the start of the offseason and re-signed Fozzy Whittaker, who is currently second on the depth chart. They also added return man Jordan Todman, who has experience at the position.
The concern is whether or not Whittaker and Todman are capable to back up Stewart if he is forced to miss a few games due to injury. Over the past five seasons, he has only had one season where he played in all 16 games (2011).
Stewart should be the featured running back and get a majority of the carries, especially with how he finished the year. However with the injury history, the Panthers needs a back who is capable of being the featured running back if Stewart gets hurt.
The Panthers have shown interest in the top two running backs in this draft, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, and it would not be a surprise to see them use their first round pick on either of these two.
2. Left Tackle
At the start of the offseason, the left tackle position looked to be a mess for the Carolina Panthers. Last year’s starter Byron Bell, who did not perform well, was a free agent and would not be back. That left David Foucault and Nate Chandler as the team’s only options on the roster for the position.
Well the moves made this offseason by GM Dave Gettleman has at the very least given the Panthers some flexibility, particularly in the Draft. Before free agency officially started, the Panthers signed Michael Oher to a two-year contract and at the end of March claimed Jonathan Martin off waivers. Both players have starting experience at left tackle and could step in for a season or two.
These two signings are probably the biggest reason the Panthers are able to go into the first round with the strategy of selecting the best player available. The front office will no longer have to look for an offensive tackle who is the most ready to start Week 1. Instead, they can look at players later in the Draft who may be a bit of a project but in the long run have a higher ceiling.
3. Wide Receiver
The front office did not waste any time bringing in free agent when they brought back a familiar target, Ted Ginn Jr., who played for the Panthers in 2013. They also added former Green Bay Packer Jarrett Boykin who had a great stretch in 2013 when the Packers lost Randall Cobb to injury.
These two players should not stop the Panthers from adding more players to the position. The team completely overhauled the position the previous offseason and while Kelvin Benjamin looks to have a promising future, the rest of the moves did not pan out as well.Similar to the majority of the other positions on this list, the team made the necessary moves to not have this be a pressing need. There is a chance that Boykin could develop into a solid number two wide receiver and Ginn is a stopgap in the slot for a season or two. Neither of these moves should stop the front office from bringing in another pass catcher or two to help Cam Newton.
4. Outside Linebacker
The Panthers were forced late in the season to primarily play out of the nickel defense because of the lack of options at outside linebacker. This defense has two of better linebackers in the game with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis but missing that third player to round out the position.
In the offseason, the team signed Jason Trusnik who is a special teams ace but also has experience at the linebacker position. He has primarily played inside linebacker in 3-4 defense but I believe could play outside linebacker in this defense. He should compete with Adarius Glanton and A.J. Klein if they do not add a player in the draft.
There are a number of intriguing options though, particularly Washington’s Shaq Thompson. There has been some question about what his best position may be in the NFL but there is no question about the type of athlete he is. In college he spent time at both safety and outside linebacker, but hopes to permanently move to outside linebacker at the next level. The organization was able to successful help transition Thomas Davis from safety to outside linebacker and could be a good mentor for Thompson.
The Panthers recently signed Charles Tillman, a two-time Pro Bowler, however he is not necessarily a long term answer. He may not even be the answer this year at cornerback and they should plan for that possibility.
The 34-year old former Chicago Bear has only played 10 games the past two seasons after each season was cut short by a tricep injury. The Panthers took a chance on the aging veteran however it was a smart risk. If Tillman is able to stay healthy and play the level he did three seasons ago, the secondary is going to be very tough to beat. He also has experience playing for Ron Rivera, when he was the defensive coordinator for the Bears from 2004-2006.
Similar to left tackle, the addition of Tillman allows the Panthers to address the cornerback position a little later in the Draft and look for a player who has the tools to play cornerback but may need time to develop. Unlike the other positions, the cornerback position is good enough in it's current state to compete in 2015 and is probably the least pressing need.