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Panthers can only improve with top pick, new regime

It's not easy being a Panthers fan. If you aren't, it's probably hard imagining being one ... at least recently. The team's freefall since the playoff loss to the Cardinals in January 2009 has been tough on a fan base that for the most part is pretty loyal.

All is not lost in what is too often considered NASCAR country. It's easy to beat up on the league's worst team in 2010, but the Panthers have a new defensive-minded head coach, the top pick in the draft, and nowhere to go but up.

As we complete our series of exit interviews, let's take a look at the top issues confronting the Panthers and where they go from here:

1. Will Rivera make a difference?

Panthers fans are hoping there's nothing lame about Ron Rivera, because former coach John Fox was lame ... as in, a lame duck. With no extension in place during 2010, the Panthers played for a coach they pretty much knew would not be back. That scenario has rarely proven to motivate a team to greatness.

With that distraction out of the way, Rivera inherits a blank sheet of paper to scribble on. It's not a stretch to say there should be immediate progress on the defensive side of the ball, although the team is expected to keep its 4-3 scheme. That's notable, considering Rivera commandeered the league's top-ranked defense with San Diego last season, a group that played out of the 3-4, or a hybrid mix.

The unknown here is how Rivera will fare running his own ship. He was a hot candidate four years ago, but no team wanted to take more than a nibble. Of all coaching changes in the NFL this season, this situation has the most room for upward movement.

2. What to do with Clausen?

Has any fan base, or even casual fans, been so ready to give up on a young quarterback? Let's get this straight: The Panthers drafted Jimmy Clausen in the second round a year ago, yet fans and analysts are geeked up about the 16-year old franchise taking a quarterback in the first round, perhaps even Cam Newton with the top overall pick?

There's no doubt Clausen struggled as a rookie, making stupid mistakes and sometimes looking robotic. But a lot of great quarterbacks, even Hall of Famers, got off to rough starts, including Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, and John Elway.

And what about free agent Matt Moore, who finished 2009 strong and suffered a bad concussion early last season? The front office must consider his situation before thinking about taking a quarterback. Either way, the Panthers have plenty of other holes to fill. Perhaps they should take the best player on the board or trade down, and call it a day.

3. Return of two-headed monster?

Let's pretend the Panthers do take the immensely talented Newton with the first pick. He'll need an effective ground game. Carolina used to have a good one.

The two-headed monster of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were more Shrek and Donkey than Godzilla and Mothra last season. Williams dealt with a foot injury that pretty much wiped out his season, while Stewart suffered from concussion problems and missed some time. The first running back to gain 100 yards in a Carolina uniform last year was third-stringer Mike Goodson, and the club had less than half the individual 100-yard games in 2010 than it did in 2009.

First, general manager Marty Hurney will have to make a decision on Williams, a free agent. Stewart must be healthy and ready to rock for Carolina to be competitive, especially if his backfield mate signs elsewhere, which seems a little more likely after the Panthers used their franchise tag on Ryan Kalil Tuesday. Everything will benefit from a more consistent running game. That includes whoever's at quarterback, the defense, and especially new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

4. Where to go in draft?

Not changing to a 3-4 scheme saves this club from completely needing to retool and alter the makeup of the defense. Rivera played in the 4-3 in the late '80s with the Bears, and was known for running that scheme in Chicago prior to joining the Chargers. He'll be looking for defensive line help to lead the 4-3 charge, particularly at tackle -- a simpler task than having to find a nose tackle like B.J. Raji in a 3-4.

Carolina could pass on Newton with the first overall pick and take his teammate at Auburn, defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Look for later picks to further bolster the defensive line, with an eye toward a wideout and secondary help. Of course, with as many holes as Carolina has, it goes without saying that maybe they should adopt the Jimmy Johnson method of acquiring as many picks as possible. Drafting the best player available is the better decision than trying to fill needs.

One important spot to consider is corner. With free agent Richard Marshall likely gone, there's a starting spot open. There are those out there in the draft universe who feel LSU corner Patrick Peterson is the most talented kid coming out. Why not him at No. 1?

5. Mr. Smith goes elsewhere?

It's hard to imagine the Panthers without Steve Smith making big plays, yet it appears the 10-year vet is slowing down. So, continuing the theme of acquiring as many picks as possible, there's a chance No. 89 could be gone.

My colleague Michael Lombardi said as much, with the Patriots being an appropriate landing spot. These clubs have been trade partners before: New England owns Carolina's second-round pick -- the first selection on Day 2 -- after a draft-day swap last year.

But before this franchise kisses him goodbye, keep in mind this is a guy who caught 65 passes for 982 yards in 2009, and produced five 1,000-yard seasons before that. With Smith gone, David Gettis and Brandon LaFell are going to have to play some serious ball.

Let's hope that happens. Carolina fans don't deserve another lackluster 2-14 year.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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