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Panthers' defensive depth chart, draft needs

What will the Carolina Panthers look for on defense when the NFL draft begins on Thursday? Perhaps this look at the depth chart will give you a clearer picture.

As noted with the offense on Tuesday, this isn't the team's official depth chart and it will change with pieces added from the draft.

But when you look at the talent on hand versus what's available, you'll better understand what Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman faces as he continues to build the team.

To the defense:

Left end

  • Projected starter: Charles Johnson

  • Backups: Mario Addison, Frank Alexander *, Wes Horton, Craig Roh, Alex Hall

  • Draft need: Johnson will be 28 in July, he's coming off a knee injury that hampered him late last season and he has a high salary-cap figure. Alexander is suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse program. While this isn't an immediate need, the Panthers won't pass on a top pass-rusher if he's the best player available in the first round.

  • *Suspended first four games

Right end

  • Projected starter: Greg Hardy

  • Backups: Mario Addison, Frank Alexander *, Wes Horton, Craig Roh, Alex Hall

  • Draft need: Coupled with everything said above, there are no guarantees the Panthers sign Hardy to a long-term deal. Even if Carolina doesn't take an end in first round, don't be surprised to see them go with a project in the later rounds like they did with Hardy in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.

  • *Suspended first four games

Tackle

  • Projected starter: Star Lotulelei

  • Backups: Kawann Short, Casey Walker, Linden Gaydosh

  • Draft need: Carolina used its first two picks on defensive tackles a year ago in Lotulelei and Short, and they were key to anchoring the front of the league's No. 2 defense. With Colin Cole set to turn 34 in June and signed to a one-year deal and Dwan Edwards turning 33 in May with a year left on his deal, the team won't hesitate to add another piece here.

Tackle

  • Projected starter: Dwan Edwards

  • Backups: Colin Cole, Linden Gaydosh

  • Draft need: See above.

Inside linebacker

  • Projected starter: Luke Kuechly

  • Backups: D.J. Smith, Ben Jacobs

  • Draft need: Kuechly is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the anchor of this defense. He never comes off the field. But it might be worth a mid- to late-round pick to add depth in case he is injured.

Strongside linebacker

  • Projected starter: Thomas Davis

  • Backups: A.J. Klein, Jason Williams

  • Draft need: As amazing as Davis was last season after recovering from his third ACL surgery, he's 31. Klein was solid as a rookie when Chase Blackburn was injured on the weak side, but there's room to add depth.

Weakside linebacker

  • Projected starter: Chase Blackburn

  • Backup: A.J. Klein

  • Draft need: Having Klein in case something happens to the soon-to-be 31-year-old Blackburn is a luxury, but as noted above, adding depth at a key position is likely in the middle to late rounds.

Left cornerback

  • Projected starter: Antoine Cason

  • Backups: Josh Norman, De'Andre Presley, James Dockery

  • Draft need: Cason is penciled in as the replacement for Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota in free agency. He was lost in the shuffle last year at Arizona. The Panthers are hoping he returns to the form he showed at San Diego in 2010 and 2011. But there are no guarantees. Behind him are players who have yet to prove dependable. If a cornerback is the top player on the board at No. 28, as Gettleman recently said, he wouldn't be "sad.''

Right cornerback

  • Projected starter: Melvin White

  • Backups: Josh Thomas, DeQuan Menzie

  • Draft need: As well as White played last season as an undrafted rookie, this remains a position that could use an upgrade. Even if the Panthers don't draft a corner in the first round, look for them to take one in the first three or four rounds.

Strong safety

  • Projected starter: Roman Harper

  • Backups: Robert Lester, Russell Anderson

  • Draft need: This position looks set with Harper and Lester, so don't look for Carolina to use a draft pick here this season.

Free safety

  • Projected starter: Charles Godfrey or Thomas DeCoud

  • Backups: DeCoud or Godfrey, Colin Jones

  • Draft need: Godfrey, coming off a season-ending ACL injury in the second game last season, restructured his contract on Tuesday to save the team $4 million under the salary cap in 2014. That had to happen for him to remain on the roster. So if completely recovered, this position is set. The team signed DeCoud, a free agent from Atlanta, to be the starter if Godfrey doesn't win the job. He might be the starter anyway with Godfrey settling in more as a nickel back.