Panthers eye Hakeem Nicks to replace Steve Smith on a busy Thursday

jperson@charlotteobserver.comMarch 13, 2014 

Giants Cowboys

New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks runs after catch from Dallas Cowboys strong safety Will Allen as the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington,TX, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013.

RON T. ENNIS — Star-Telegram

The Carolina Panthers’ front office hasn’t spent the entire first week of free agency dealing with Steve Smith’s situation.

It only feels that way.

While trying unsuccessfully to trade Smith and eventually releasing him, general manager Dave Gettleman has kept an eye on candidates to replace Smith as the No. 1 receiver.

The Panthers remain interested in New York Giants free agent receiver Hakeem Nicks, who told ESPN’s Josina Anderson he was meeting with the Colts on Friday in Indianapolis. There was a report Thursday the Panthers made an offer to Nicks, although a source said it wasn’t accurate.

Nicks, the former Independence High and North Carolina standout, has mentioned the Panthers as one of three teams he wants to play for. The Chargers also are said to have interest in Nicks, 26.

Besides his ties to Charlotte, Nicks is familiar with Gettleman, who was the Giants’ pro personnel director when they drafted Nicks in the first round in 2009.

But with the Panthers’ salary cap position, Gettleman is content to wait until the second week of free agency to find better value, as he did last offseason. The majority of the Panthers’ free agent signings last year came during the second week.

Carolina also is keeping tabs on Green Bay free agent wideout James Jones, whose agent also represents Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

The Panthers don’t have any receivers on their roster who caught a pass in 2013. Ted Ginn Jr., one of Carolina’s top priorities among its own free agents, signed a three-year deal with Arizona on Thursday.

Ginn posted career highs with five touchdown catches and a 15.4 yards-per catch average in his only season in Charlotte, and gave the Panthers a proven returner. Kenjon Barner, seldom used as a rookie, likely will step into Ginn’s role if the Panthers don’t sign another returner.

Ginn’s departure puts pressure on the Panthers to re-sign No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell, who visited New England this week.

While the Panthers are looking to surround quarterback Cam Newton with playmakers, they moved Thursday to bring back Newton’s backup.

Derek Anderson, the Panthers’ No. 2 quarterback since 2011, re-signed on a two-year deal, a team official said. Terms were undisclosed.

“Happy to be coming back to Charlotte next season! #keeppounding#wantthatring” Anderson tweeted.

Anderson has attempted only four passes in three years as Newton’s backup. But the Panthers’ coaching staff likes the dynamic between Newton and Anderson, a former starter in Cleveland and Arizona who went to the Pro Bowl in 2008 with the Browns.

MUNNERLYN TO MINNESOTA: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he was betting on himself last offseason when he accepted a one-year deal to re-sign with the Panthers. That bet paid off Thursday in the form of a three-year contract with Minnesota worth $14.25 million, with $7 million guaranteed, according to a league source.

It’s the biggest payday for Munnerlyn, who made $1.1 million last season when he finished with three sacks and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns.

Munnerlyn, 25, is the third Panthers free agent to cash in after playing on a one-year deal last season. Free safety Mike Mitchell signed a five-year, $25 million contract with Pittsburgh, while Ginn took a three-year deal with the Cardinals.

HARPER VISITS: Free agent safety Roman Harper was in Charlotte on Wednesday meeting with the Panthers, a league source said. Harper, a two-time Pro Bowler cut by New Orleans in a salary cap move, left without a contract but is expected to remain in talks with the Panthers.

Harper, 31, played in only nine games, with five starts, last season. He’s the type of undervalued player Gettleman signed last year and said he was looking for again this offseason.

Harper would give the Panthers an experienced safety to replace Mitchell and possibly Charles Godfrey, who is coming off Achilles surgery and is a potential salary-cap casualty.

Harper, the Saints’ second-round pick in 2006, was due to make more than $3 million in salary and bonuses this year for a Saints team that was tight against the cap.

The Panthers like to use their safeties to blitz, something Harper does well. His 17 sacks since 2006 are the most by any defensive back during that span. He also has 14 forced fumbles.

Harper missed seven games last season with a knee injury before returning in Week 10. He had five tackles in the Saints’ playoff loss to Seattle.

EXTRA POINTS: Panthers wideout Domenik Hixon signed a one-year deal with Chicago. Hixon, a former Giant, caught seven passes and scored one touchdown in his only season with Carolina – but it was a big one.

Hixon, playing for an injured Smith, caught the game-winning, 14-yard pass from Newton against New Orleans in Week 16 that clinched the Panthers’ first playoff berth in five years.

•  Left guard Travelle Wharton, a free agent who started 12 games last season, is still mulling retirement. Wharton, 32, said he’s received calls from teams, but hasn’t heard much from the Panthers.

“I’m really just enjoying my family time right now,” Wharton said. “I don’t want to say I’m done and I don’t want to say I’m going to keep playing for another five or six years. I don’t know.”

•  Offensive lineman Garry Williams and tight end Richie Brockel both will make $650,000 in base salary this year, according to the NFLPA salary database. The players re-signed with the Panthers this week.

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

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