Carolina Panthers are ready to reload

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 18, 2014 

  • Panthers roster breakdown

    *Ended season on injured reserve

    Unrestricted free agents (21)

    WR Domenik Hixon

    WR Brandon LaFell

    WR Ted Ginn Jr.

    QB Derek Anderson

    QB Jimmy Clausen *

    TE Ben Hartsock

    OL Jordan Gross (contract automatically voids if on roster Feb. 7)

    OL Geoff Hangartner

    OL Travelle Wharton

    OL Garry Williams *

    OL Bruce Campbell *

    DE Greg Hardy

    DT Colin Cole

    LB Jordan Senn

    LB Jason Williams

    LB Dan Connor

    S Quintin Mikell

    S Mike Mitchell

    CB Captain Munnerlyn

    CB Drayton Florence

    K Graham Gano

    Restricted free agents (3)

    TE Richie Brockel

    CB James Dockery *

    OL Byron Bell

    Exclusive rights free agents (1)

    OL Jeff Byers *

Dave Gettleman spent more than 25 years in the NFL before becoming a general manager last January with the Panthers.

And while Gettleman understands the knee-jerk reaction of fans following a loss like last weekend’s playoff defeat to San Francisco – from calls for offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s firing to pleas for a young, fast receiver – Gettleman isn’t going to do anything rash.

“What’s very dangerous is your most recent snapshot,” Gettleman said. “You can’t forget that we played 16 games before (the loss to the 49ers). You have to view it as a whole. If you’re looking at a young player, how much did he progress during the course of the year? You’re looking at an older guy, did he lose something at the end of the year? These are all things that take time.”

Gettleman will spend the next three to four weeks evaluating the roster before finalizing a plan to build on this season’s success while operating with a salary cap-challenged budget.

The Panthers have 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents, a list headed by defensive end Greg Hardy. But their biggest offseason priority will be locking up franchise quarterback Cam Newton with a long-term contract.

Gettleman seemed to indicate he would stay with the trend of offering one-year deals to second-tier free agents. But given his ties to the Giants’ organization, it’s not unreasonable to think Gettleman will consider free agent wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, the former Independence and North Carolina star.

The Observer looks back at the Panthers’ 2013 season and projects what the 2014 roster might look like at every position.

Observer writer Joe Person looks back at the Panthers’ 2013 season and gives each position group a grade. He also projects what the 2014 roster might look like at every position.

Quarterback

B+ There were times Newton looked like a game manager running Shula’s offense. Then he’d elude a couple of pass-rushers and take off running, or hurl a dart into coverage for a key first down or touchdown. Newton had career lows in passing and rushing yards, but became a better quarterback in his third season. He audibled more, did a better job recognizing coverages and took what the defense gave him.

2014 outlook: The Panthers could exercise their club option on Newton for 2015, although that might not be the best message to send to a player who received considerably less money than any recent No. 1 pick under the new collective bargaining agreement. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but the Panthers need to get a deal done.

Running back

B- DeAngelo Williams got off to a torrid start and was on pace for his first 1,000-yard season since 2009. But the rushing attack suffered with the return of Jonathan Stewart at midseason. With more carries to share, none of the backs could get in a rhythm. Fullback Mike Tolbert had a season worthy of his first Pro Bowl berth – 361 rushing yards, 184 receiving a team-high seven touchdowns (rushing and receiving).

2014 outlook: It might be time to break up the crowded backfield, even if it means taking a big cap hit on Williams or the oft-injured Stewart. Tolbert is a bargain at $3.35 million. No one knows what Kenjon Barner can do because he couldn’t get on the field as a rookie.

Wide receiver

C Steve Smith, who will be 35 next season, averaged 11.6 yards a catch, the second lowest of his 13-year career. That he remains the team’s most important receiver – watch the regular-season finale at Atlanta if you’re not sure – speaks to the need to upgrade at the position. Ted Ginn Jr. was one of Gettleman’s best acquisitions, but he’s a complementary receiver.

2014 outlook: The Panthers will look to re-sign Ginn at the right price, while free agent Brandon LaFell likely will be asked to take a team-friendly, one-year deal to stay in Charlotte. Gettleman needs to address this position either in the draft or through free agency. Giants’ receiver Hakeem Nicks, who turned 26 last week, is coming off a disappointing season but still will command a big contract.

Tight end

B+ Greg Olsen broke his own record among Panthers tight ends with a team-leading 73 receptions. Olsen will never get the recognition of Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but he catches everything thrown to him and is a leader in the locker room.

2014 outlook: Blocking specialist Ben Hartsock is a free agent and could be back on a one-year deal. But the Panthers have two big, young tight ends they want to evaluate – former basketball player Brandon Williams and D.C. Jefferson, who was added to the practice squad before the playoff game.

Tackle

B- Everyone seems ready to push Jordan Gross into retirement. But it’s not like he was a slouch this season. In fact, if the 49ers beat Seattle to make the Super Bowl, Gross will take Joe Staley’s spot in the Pro Bowl. Gross is not a dominant tackle, but he outplayed right tackle Byron Bell.

2014 outlook: Gettleman loves big-bodied linemen, and he could use one or more high draft picks on a tackle this year after taking two defensive tackles in 2013. That doesn’t mean Gross’ time is through: He could be back in a mentoring role to help the transition to the left tackle of the future.

Guard

C+ This was the position hardest hit by injuries. Veteran Travelle Wharton, journeyman Chris Scott (before he was injured) and converted defensive lineman Nate Chandler filled in admirably during the regular season. But the guards were exposed in the goal-line runs during the divisional-round loss to the 49ers.

2014 outlook: The Panthers believe they have their guards on the roster in Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila, both of whom underwent season-ending knee surgeries in September. Silatolu, who started and played well as a rookie, is more polished than Kugbila, a fourth-round pick who was hurt throughout OTAs and training camp.

Center

A Ryan Kalil bounced back well from foot surgery that ended his 2012 season after five games. Kalil was nimble on his pulling blocks, again directed traffic along the line and made the Pro Bowl for the fourth time.

2014 outlook: Kalil is signed through the 2017 season, giving the Panthers an anchor up front for the foreseeable future.

Defensive end

A Greg Hardy had a monster season during a contract year with 15 sacks, although seven came in two games – against the Giants and Falcons. Hardy was shut out by Staley in the playoff game, vowing last week it wouldn’t happen again. Charles Johnson was slowed for several weeks by a knee injury sustained on a leg whip by Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon, but still finished with 11 sacks.

2014 outlook: Hardy is the $80 million (or more) question, and it sure sounded like Gettleman was trying to prepare fans last week for the possibility that Hardy won’t be back next season. The Panthers could put the franchise tag on Hardy for about $12 million. Or they could let him walk and go draft a defensive end (yes, another D-lineman) and/or develop young ends Mario Addison and Frank Alexander.

Defensive tackles

B Gettleman went two-for-two on his first two draft picks. Star Lotulelei (17 starts, 3 sacks) met expectations, and second-rounder Kawann Short (21 quarterback pressures) exceeded them. Veteran tackles Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole teamed with the rookies to form a dependable rotation that consistently created interior pocket pressure.

2014 outlook: Cole, who will be 34 next season, is the only free agent in the group. Edwards is under contract for one more season.

Linebackers

A Luke Kuechly is in the mix for the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award. Kuechly finished fourth in the league with 156 tackles, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Kuechly’s Achilles heel has been his coverage: He got turned around on Vernon Davis’ touchdown last weekend. Thomas Davis (123 tackles, four sacks) had a Pro Bowl-worthy season.

2014 outlook: All three starting linebackers are under contract, although look for rookie A.J. Klein to challenge Chase Blackburn at the weakside spot. Klein looked good in two starts when Blackburn was dealing with a foot injury.

Cornerbacks

C The so-called Legion of Whom held its own most weeks, with a few exceptions. Tom Brady picked on undrafted corner Melvin White during a Monday night game in November, and the entire secondary was picked apart by Drew Brees in a December loss at New Orleans. Captain Munnerlyn had his best year as a pro, while Drayton Florence ran hot and cold.

2014 outlook: The LoW figures to look quite a bit different next season. Four of the top five players in the secondary are free agents, including Florence and Munnerlyn. After taking a one-year deal last offseason, Munnerlyn probably will get a multiyear deal either in Charlotte or elsewhere.

Safeties

B- Mike Mitchell, a career backup in Oakland, proved to be a playmaker and a leader in the secondary. Mitchell’s aggressiveness led to some untimely penalties, but his four picks tied Kuechly for the team lead. Veteran Quintin Mikell, a September pickup, was a valuable addition.

2014 outlook: Mitchell, who signed a one-year deal, deserves to be back. The question will be whether Gettleman will make him a multiyear offer. If Charles Godfrey can return from Achilles surgery, Mitchell could slide to strong safety. Otherwise, Robert Lester will get a shot to start.

Special teams

A Ginn never took a return for a touchdown, but he changed several games with his speed, and set up the game-winning field goal against his former team, with a long punt return in Week 10 at San Francisco. Graham Gano was 24-of-27 on field goals and had the best touchback percentage (79.7) in the league in 21 years. Brad Nortman was much improved in his second year, while long snapper J.J. Jansen is headed to the Pro Bowl after his third consecutive season without a bad snap.

2014 outlook: Gano will become a free agent in March, and the Panthers certainly will look to bring him back. Ditto for Ginn, whose special teams skills make him a higher priority than LaFell.

Coaching

B+ Ron Rivera has gone from the hot seat to the catbird’s seat. Thought to be on thin ice after an 0-2 start, Rivera is now bringing in Coach of the Year honors (from Pro Football Writers of America and Football 101) and is line for a contract extension. Much has been made about Rivera’s about-face on fourth downs, but his rapport with players and calm demeanor had as much to do with the team’s turnaround. Shula’s balanced, measured attack helped the Panthers own time of possession each week, but the Panthers need more big-chunk plays. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s scheme took advantage of the defense’s ability to create pressure from its front four.

2014 outlook: Rivera said he expects his coordinators to be back next season, but he has to insist that Shula open things up a bit. McDermott, who interviewed for the Redskins’ head-coaching vacancy, will get more calls if the Panthers remain a top-5 defense. Rivera will try to do something that’s never been accomplished in team history: back-to-back winning seasons.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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