The Panthers won one more game in Year 2 of the Ron Rivera era, yet the feeling around Carolina is decidedly less optimistic than it was the offseason following Cam Newton's dynamic rookie season. Rivera will enter the 2013 season as a lame-duck coach with a new offensive coordinator, working for a skeptical general manager in Dave Gettleman who won't hesitate to ax Rivera if the Panthers don't show marked improvement. It's playoffs or bust in Carolina.
Biggest free agents
» WR Louis Murphy: The Panthers are fortunate that none of their key players will be on the market, but it would behoove them to re-sign Murphy, who emerged as one of Newton's favorite downfield targets. A one-year contract makes sense.
» CB Captain Munnerlyn: Since Chris Gamble likely will be a salary-cap casualty, it's important Carolina keeps Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn is a competent nickel back who also can serve as a stopgap punt returner. It shouldn't be hard to re-sign him.
» DT Dwan Edwards: The Panthers are expected to target defensive tackles in April's draft, so Edwards, who started 14 games last season, is expendable. But if the price is right, it wouldn't hurt to have a veteran on the roster.
What they need
The Panthers have holes across the board -- you don't start a season 2-8 by accident. The biggest areas of need lie along the offensive and defensive lines, at wide receiver and in the secondary. The Panthers haven't had a decent No. 2 receiver to pair with Steve Smith since Muhsin Muhammad, and Matt Ryan's comeback victory in Week 3 showed how easy it is to throw on the Panthers. Sorry, Haruki Nakamura.
Offseason crystal ball
DeAngelo Williams is as good as gone, a move that will create $5 million in cap savings and allow the Panthers to focus on a backfield tandem of Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross and linebacker Jon Beason also should have their contracts restructured, and Beason should prepare for a move outside as Luke Kuechly is entrenched in the middle.
Expect the Panthers to target a wideout and a defensive tackle early in the draft. Knowing Gettleman's history with the New York Giants, it wouldn't be a shock if they went defensive tackle in Round 1. These are two positions the Panthers can't afford to miss on, and their success in the draft should go a long way toward determining if Newton has a new coach in 2014.
Follow David Ely on Twitter @David_Ely.