INDIANAPOLIS — Fans waiting for the Carolina Panthers to go after New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks or any other big-name, high-priced free agent might want to tamper their expectations.
That was the message delivered Thursday by general manager Dave Gettleman, who predicted the Panthers’ free agency moves are going to look a lot like last year’s.
“We’re going to look at guys that we feel have been overlooked that can help us,” Gettleman said.
That means a lot of one-year deals for under-the-radar free agents to round out the secondary and receiving corps. That was Gettleman’s approach last year when he cobbled together a playoff roster by signing a number of older or undervalued players such as defensive backs Drayton Florence, Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell and receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.
“It’s going to have to be” one-year deals, Gettleman said at the NFL scouting combine. “You don’t have a choice.”
The Panthers are in much better shape than when Gettleman was hired in January 2013, when Carolina was about $16 million over the cap.
The Panthers are nearly $20 million below the reported $130 million cap for 2014. Earlier estimates had this year’s cap at $126.3 million.
With Gettleman restructuring the contracts of several veterans last offseason and Carolina being prudent in free agency, the Panthers will roll over $11.6 million in unused cap money toward this year’s cap.
But even if the cap rises to $130 million, it’s unlikely the Panthers will spend that much.
“Every penny helps,” Gettleman said. “Again we’re trying to get the thing under control. If it goes to 130, very frankly, I don’t know if we’re going to spend to 130. We’re going to be smart.”
Gettleman said the relatively flat cap – it was $129 million in 2009 under the old collective bargaining agreement – has squeezed out what he called the NFL’s “middle class.”
“You’ve got guys making big money, and you’ve got guys making small money. (In) 2009 the cap was $129 million. It’s 2014 and we’re all going to jump up and cheer if it hits $130 (million),” Gettleman said. “The agents and players don’t understand that the money isn’t there the way it used to be. You’re not getting those $5-7 million spikes.”
Gettleman looks to be clearing future cap space so the Panthers can re-sign their two cornerstone players – quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
The Panthers can negotiate with Newton on a long-term extension at any time or exercise a club option for 2015, while the re-negotiation window for Kuechly opens next offseason.
What that means for defensive end Greg Hardy, the most important of the Panthers’ 21 pending unrestricted free agents this year, is unclear. Gettleman shed little light on Hardy, who is looking for a deal commensurate with the league’s top pass rushers after tying a team record with 15 sacks last season.
Gettleman said he didn’t know whether the Panthers would use the franchise tag before the March 3 deadline to do so. It would cost them roughly $12.5 million if they placed it on Hardy.
Asked specifically about Hardy, Gettleman said: “Right now we’re talking to agents. He’s part of the puzzle. We’re cap-challenged.
“Last year we started we were quite a bit over. We had to do some maneuvering to just get under for the first day of the league year,” Gettleman continued. “The progress we’ve made this year is we don’t have to do any of that. But that doesn’t mean we’re sitting here with $35 million under the cap. So if you always go for the immediate, instant gratification, you’re going to get burned.”
As for left tackle Jordan Gross, Gettleman is waiting to hear from Gross about his future. Gettleman said he’s had two lengthy discussions with the 11-year veteran, and will talk with him again when Gross returns from a family trip to Idaho late this week or early next.
Gross, 33, agreed to restructure his contract last offseason to help the team with its salary cap situation. The contract automatically voided two weeks ago, making Gross a free agent.
Gross, who went to his third Pro Bowl this year, has said he would play for the Panthers or not at all.
“He’s mulling it over in his mind,” Gettleman said. “It’s a huge decision. Any of us, when it comes time for you to lay it down, it’s a big decision.”
Gettleman said Gross has earned the right to decide his own fate, but added there are salary cap ramifications if Gross decides to keep playing.
“We’re cap-challenged,” Gettleman said. “Obviously, he had a solid year. He’s been a great Panther. We’ll talk to him and move forward.”
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