Star Lotulelei after being chosen by the Panthers in the opening round of the NFL draft (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Last season’s record: 7-9

Key players released: DT Ron Edwards, CB Chris Gamble (later announced retirement), LB James Anderson, LB Kenny Onatolu

Key free agents lost: LB Jason Phillips, TE Gary Barnidge, WR Louis Murphy, G Mike Pollak

Key free agents re-signed: LB Jordan Senn, TE Ben Hartsock, QB Derek Anderson, DT Dwan Edwards, CB Captain Munnerlyn

Key free agents added: CB Drayton Florence, CB D.J. Moore, WR Ted Ginn, LB Chase Blackburn, WR Domenik Hixon, S Mike Mitchell


Rd. 1 (No. 14 overall)… Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

2 (44)… Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

4 (108)… Edmund Kugbila, G, Valdosta State

5 (148)… A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State

6 (182)… Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon

Analysis: The Panthers went 7-9 in quarterback Cam Newton’s second NFL season and finished six games behind the first-place Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South. Yet there were some other indications last season that they might not be quite as far from contender status as it seems. They ranked 12th in the league in total offense and 10th in total defense.

After hiring widely respected New York Giants front office executive Dave Gettleman as their general manager in January, the Panthers focused largely on their secondary in free agency by signing safety Mike Mitchell and cornerbacks Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. They also added wide receivers Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon.

Carolina fortified the middle of its defensive line in the draft by using its first two picks on defensive tackles, taking Utah’s Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall selection and Purdue’s Kawann Short in the second round. Whether a team with other needs should have focused so intently on a single position in the draft’s early stages is debatable. But Lotulelei, in particular, is a player who should make others around him on the defense better, potentially occupying multiple blockers and allowing the linebackers behind him to run free.

Have the Panthers done enough to become a winner? Much depends on whether Newton takes a significant step forward. He cut down on his interceptions as a second-year pro, throwing 12 last season after amassing 17 in 2011. But he also had a lower completion percentage and threw for fewer yards and fewer touchdowns. If he fares better, the Panthers could be a team worth watching.

The problem for them is that the Falcons should remain formidable and the competition from the rest of the division could toughen. The New Orleans Saints have back their coach, Sean Payton, following his one-year suspension in the wake of the bounty scandal. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis. The path to a postseason berth in the NFC South could have more obstacles than it did last year.

Why Redskins fans should care:  Newton and the Panthers will try to get above .500 and get into the NFC playoff chase, and Newton will attempt to regain a prominent spot beneath the young-quarterback spotlight after Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson grabbed so much of the attention and accolades as rookies last season.

Conversation starter: Will Griffin, Luck and Wilson face the same sort of second-year struggles that Newton did at times last year?

Background: Schedule | Depth chart | Draft results | Home page

Previous team reviews: Cardinals | Falcons | Ravens | Bills

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