CHARLOTTE — General manager gets team out of salary-cap bind and pointed toward training camp
When Dave Gettleman took over as general manager in January, the Carolina Panthers were about $16 million over the salary cap and coming off a fourth consecutive season in which they failed to make the playoffs.
Five months later, as he sat under a white tent on a hot June afternoon following the Panthers’ final minicamp practice, Gettleman said he likes the direction of his team as it breaks for several weeks before training camp in July.
Third-year quarterback Cam Newton looks comfortable running a more user-friendly offense. The defensive line is as deep as it’s been in years.
And though he didn’t make any big splashes in free agency, Gettleman brought in several players to fill holes in the secondary, the receiving corps and special teams.
“I thought we had a real solid offseason. We obviously had issues early on. We addressed them. I think we’ve come through the other side pretty well,” Gettleman said Thursday.
“I feel good about the way we’re positioned right now. Obviously, you’re not going to know until training camp when the pads go on. Like everybody else, you don’t know.”
But the Panthers feel good about several areas following a month of organized team activities and minicamp, including the beefed-up defensive front, a deep and talented linebacking group and the development of Newton.
“We feel we’re really strong in some spots, important spots. I feel really good about where we are,” Gettleman said. “Cam’s had a really good spring in all facets of the game. Really at the end of the day, I think this is a club that understands when it’s time to go to work. And they’ve really had a heck of a spring.”
Barring any injuries between now and late July, the Panthers will head to Spartanburg mostly healthy. The biggest health concern is running back Jonathan Stewart, who missed all of OTAs and minicamp recovering from offseason surgery on both ankles.
Gettleman would not speculate on whether Stewart would be ready for the start of training camp, saying: “We’ll see. Time will tell.”
Franchise rushing leader DeAngelo Williams, who restructured his contract during the offseason, got plenty of reps this spring, as did fullback Mike Tolbert. The Panthers did not run a lot of zone read during OTAs, and it appears the option package will be de-emphasized under first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
In the passing game, Newton demonstrated great timing with tight end Greg Olsen throughout the spring. Former Giants wideout Domenik Hixon missed minicamp with a hamstring injury, although receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr., another free agent acquisition, got open deep several times to haul in Newton passes.
The Panthers did not sign a veteran to replace No. 2 tight end Gary Barnidge, who went with former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to Cleveland. But both Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera believe blocking tight end Ben Hartsock is more versatile than his career receiving statistics indicate.
“Ben Hartsock’s had a terrific spring. He’s a lot better than I think people understand,” Gettleman said. “There’s a lot of things he does that bring real value to the table. I’ve been preaching, a lot of times the answer’s on your roster.”
Defensively, the addition of first- and second-round picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short at defensive tackle has given coordinator Sean McDermott the ability to be creative with his personnel groupings up front. McDermott can keep ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks in 2012, outside or line them up inside in certain pressure schemes.
Rivera said the line is the deepest it has been in his three years in Charlotte.
“We’ve come into the last couple seasons and that was one of our question marks,” Rivera said. “The emergence of Greg Hardy last year and the play of Charles Johnson and going out and (re-signing defensive tackle) Dwan Edwards … was huge for us.
“Now we’ve added a couple good young men that we got in the draft and you bring in Colin Cole, who really seems to still have it. So I’m excited to see what that group can do and become for us.”
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 after leading the league in tackles, anchors a front seven that should be stout, especially if linebacker Jon Beason returns at close to full speed following two injury-shortened seasons.
The potential Achilles heel is the secondary, where free safety Charles Godfrey is the unquestioned leader following the release and subsequent retirement of longtime cornerback Chris Gamble.
“I thought Charles Godfrey took a big step,” Rivera said. “I think the big thing was moving him from strong safety to free safety at the end of the season really paid dividends for him and we really saw his improvement as a football player. ... I saw things that a veteran safety needs to do, and he did them very well.”