CHARLOTTE -- Long before defensive end Mike Rucker decided to retire on Tuesday, the Carolina Panthers had decided to move on with a new core.
Rucker became the third major personnel change of the offseason, after defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was traded to the New York Jets and linebacker Dan Morgan was released.
But the decision to go a different way came much earlier, after the Panthers' original identity was lost and became something different.
After years of being known for a strong front four and an adequate back seven, the defense reversed field last year. Sparked by the addition of rookie linebacker Jon Beason and the maturation of Thomas Davis, the linebacking corps became what they hoped it would be but never became during the Morgan-Will Witherspoon years.
And with trade acquisition Chris Harris stepping comfortably into the shoes vacated by Mike Minter's retirement, the secondary once again played with verve. They were a solid three-deep at cornerback, with Richard Marshall blossoming next to Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble.
The problem remained the front.
With Julius Peppers struggling to a career-worst performance, the Panthers generated next-to-no pressure up front. They had just 23 sacks, 31st in the league. Of those, only 14.5 came from linemen.
With Rucker retired and Jenkins gone (along with backup Kindal Moorehead, who signed with Atlanta after getting no offer from the Panthers), only 7.0 of those sacks are back this year.
The hope is that second-year man Charles Johnson will fill Rucker's shoes, but the biggest component may well come during this weekend. The Panthers will need to remake their front four in the draft, but it's more likely to come from the inside out.
As much of a need as an end seems, coach John Fox said earlier this week they "don't feel like we'd be out to lunch by any means," if they didn't draft an end. Defensive tackle's another story.
Without Jenkins, they'll start Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis. All they have in reserve are lesser lights Steve Williams and Gary Gibson, a former camp-hand and a practice-squader.
They can make a move this weekend, and take a step toward becoming good again, by adding a few interior rushers. The New York Giants taught the world in January and February that any offense can be disrupted with a rush. The lesson wasn't lost on the Panthers, so look for them to find a player or two who could add some pop from the middle on passing downs. They can also use free agent end pickup Tyler Brayton as an interior rusher, but the key's going to be adding some young legs.
If a player such as Sedrick Ellis slips into range, they could easily make a move up to get him. Otherwise, there are a number of guys available in the second and third rounds who'd slide in nicely.
Part of the reason they're more comfortable at end is the development of Johnson and third-year project Stanley McClover. The door was open for McClover to make plays a year ago, but he didn't. If he can take a third-year step forward, their need at the position is moderate at best.
Otherwise, the Panthers are relatively set on the stop-side, as it pertains to the draft.
Linebacker was the one position they didn't mention at all when talking about their needs this week. They're already a solid nine-deep, after picking up Cincinnati's Landon Johnson to compete with Na'il Diggs, and retaining free agents Adam Seward and Donte Curry.
Harris was so good so quickly they rewarded him with a contract extension through 2012. They made former Detroit and Arizona starter Terrence Holt their annual veteran free agent addition at safety, and hope he can man it for a year until Quinton Teal's ready to play a bigger role. Again, they're set at corner for the short term, although they'll look for someone to groom, since Gamble's an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year.