CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - 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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
Edwards' return brings some experience at defensive tackle, but he turns 33 in July and is on the downside of his career.
"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."