After the draft and free agency, I'm a little concerned about our defensive ends. We look to be going into OTAs with basically the same players as last year, minus Jared Allen. I'm confused as to why we didn't draft Dodd or Ogbah in the first round. Both had better draft grades than Butler. Since it was one of our weakest positions last year, don't you think we need some new blood? – Dwight in Kannapolis, N.C.
Some share your concern about the defensive end group, but two people who don't are general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera. Defensive line coach Eric Washington believes this could be the deepest end group he's had in Carolina, and the Panthers backed that belief not only by passing on the position during the draft but also by not signing an undrafted free agent at the spot.
"Ron and I have evaluated the team ad nauseam," Gettleman said after the Panthers selected defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of the NFL Draft. "We feel good about Charles (Johnson). We feel good about Kony (Ealy). We feel good about Mario (Addison). We like Ryan Delaire. He has some solid upside.
"We feel like we have some good, young, raw, talented defensive ends."
Rivera said there were "a couple of good defensive ends" on the board when the Panthers picked at No. 30, but he and Gettleman made it clear Butler was their highest graded player – even if some mock drafts had Emmanuel Ogbah or Kevin Dodd going before Butler.
While not a defensive end, Butler will only add to a pass rush that, despite some injuries, ranked sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks. Carolina is one of just four NFC teams – and the only team in its division – to record 40 or more sacks each of the last three seasons.
I'd like to think the way the defensive ends ended the season is a good representation of what they'll be in 2016. Johnson, after recording one sack in an injury-plagued regular season, had one sack in each of the Panthers' three postseason games. Ealy had a Super Bowl performance for the ages, tying a record with three sacks. Addison has recorded at least a half-dozen sacks each of the past two seasons, while Delaire and Rakim Cox showed flashes of their abundant athleticism last season.
How explosive can this offense be now that we've got our number one receiver back and arguably the best player that went undrafted? – Juan in Asheville, N.C.
It is exciting to add Kelvin Benjamin – a 1,000-yard receiver as a rookie in 2014 – to an offense that led the NFL in scoring last season, and by no means am I here to rain on your parade. But, as tight end Greg Olsen reminded us at the beginning of the offseason workout program, past success goes not guarantee future results.
"You're not entitled to anything in this game. It's not, 'The Panthers had a great year last year; let's just pencil them in,'" Olsen said. "The second you think you've arrived, the second you think you've got it, you're done."
The Panthers' awareness that it will take hard work to repeat the success of 2015 is a good starting point, but sometimes things you can never quite put your finger on prevent a return to form. I remember entering my first year with the team in 2010, the general consensus was that the offense could be sneaky good but the defense was rebuilding. Well, the offense averaged an NFL and franchise-low 12.2 points, while the defense was pretty pesky given the inordinate amount of time spent on the field.
So, yes, I am excited about adding Benjamin back in the mix after a season on the sideline with a knee injury, and the undrafted prospect you mentioned – Tulsa wideout Keyarris Garrett – is an intriguing player to watch throughout the offseason. Just keep in mind that the last team to repeat as NFL scoring champion was the Saints in 2009.
Will Jeremy Cash play for us at strong safety or outside linebacker? – Charles via Twitter
Cash, considered another undrafted gem grabbed by the Panthers, starred at safety for Duke, but he didn't play it safe. Cash often pressed toward the line of scrimmage and racked up tackles for loss as a result.
The Panthers unequivocally see Cash as a linebacker going forward. Director of college scouting Don Gregory recently expanded on Cash's planned role and discussed all of the Panthers' undrafted free agents, who will take part along with draftees and invited tryouts at this weekend's rookie minicamp.
View photos of the seven rookies the Panthers added following the draft.