CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While the Panthers' offense finally appears headed in the right direction, their defense still needs plenty of tweaking.
Hence Carolina's goal heading into the NFL draft.
The Panthers did little to upgrade the league's 28th-ranked defense in free agency — their biggest acquisition was fullback Mike Tolbert — which means they're expected to rely heavily on the NFL draft to fill needs on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
General manager Marty Hurney said the team will ultimately take the "best player available" with the ninth overall pick if they don't trade down. But he concedes upgrading the defense at some point during the draft is vital considering it allowed 377.6 yards and 26.8 points per game in 2011.
"Obviously we go into this draft hoping we can get some players to help our defense," Hurney said.
The Panthers made major strides last year on offense behind quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft and AP Rookie of the Year.
Newton took over an offense that ranked dead last in the NFL in almost every major statistical category the year before — points scored, total yards and passing yards — and helped energize the organization. He threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for 14 more and the Panthers finished seventh in the league on offense.
Coach Ron Rivera, who knows a thing or two about defense having spent nine years as a linebacker with the Chicago Bears and six as an NFL defensive coordinator, said now it's time for the other side of the ball to step up.
"We've got a quarterback that people know about. We have playmakers that people know about," Rivera said. "If they're going to look at us and say we have a weakness they're going to say, 'Well, we can exploit their defense.'
"If I'm a defensive player and I hear that, I'm going to be a little upset about that and try to do something about it. And that's what I think our guys are trying to do."
Hurney and Rivera are optimistic the return of three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason, the team's defensive captain and team leader, from a torn Achilles will give them a major big boost.
They're also hoping to get something from outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who looks to become the first known NFL player to return from three torn ACLs in the same knee.
And the return of 12-year veteran Ron Edwards from a torn triceps should add some needed experience at defensive tackle where the Panthers had to play three first-year players last season.
"We're hoping that some of the players that come back will fill those needs," Hurney said.
It's about time for the Panthers to use a first-round pick on defense.
Four of the last five players they've selected in the first round have been on offense — Newton, offensive tackle Jeff Otah and running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. The Panthers also selected quarterback Jimmy Clausen with its second-round selection in 2010, a year in which they didn't have a first-round pick.
The Panthers can use some help at just about every defensive position.
They're extremely young up front and don't have much in terms of pass rushers off the corner behind starters defensive end Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, something that Rivera considers a priority in the league.
Edwards' return brings some experience at defensive tackle, but he turns 33 in July and is on the downside of his career.
At linebacker, the Panthers were able to re-sign Jordan Senn but lost valuable middle linebacker Dan Connor to the Dallas Cowboys in free agency. Beason should be back but there's no guarantee Davis will make it through the season or be the same player he was once, so linebacker is an option.
And the Panthers could certainly use a No. 2 cornerback to go along with Chris Gamble. They spent last offseason looking for an answer there before finally settling on what they had at that spot with the undersized Captain Munnerlyn.
"When you look at how this league has started to change," Rivera said, "if you can get immediate pressure on the quarterback, you can help the back end. And if the back end can hold up you help the front end. So you're looking for good players at both.
"You either find a good rusher or a good cover guy, but whichever way you go you help the team."