Carolina Panthers’ GM Dave Gettleman faces big task filling gaps

jperson@charlotteobserver.comMarch 29, 2014 

  • Panthers’ strengths, needs and projections

    Less than six weeks before the May 8-10 draft, the Observer looks at the Panthers’ areas of strength, the positions they need to address and a projected depth chart.

    Five Positions of Strength

    Defensive line: While Gettleman was bashed for not going after any top-tier free agents, it’s worth noting several publications had Hardy ranked among the top free agents had he hit the open market. The Panthers paid a steep price by putting the franchise tag on Hardy, and could still work out a long-term extension to bring Hardy’s cap number down.

    But the move was further proof that Gettleman is not going to stray from the Giants’ defensive philosophy of starting with a strong pass rush. With the exception of DT Colin Cole, an unrestricted free agent who remains unsigned, the Panthers’ front seven from last season is intact.

    Linebacker: The Panthers’ first offseason commitment to the front seven was the extension they gave linebacker Thomas Davis. Carolina picked up the two option years for Davis, 31, who finished with 123 tackles and four sacks in 2013, two years after the third ACL surgery on his right knee.

    Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were among the best linebacking tandems in the NFL last season, and veteran Chase Blackburn and promising second-year player A.J. Klein compete at the third spot.

    Quarterback/running back/center: In baseball, they call it being strong up the middle. Likewise, for the Panthers’ offense.

    Fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton took a step forward last season in recognition of coverages and his route progressions. Center Ryan Kalil came back from foot surgery to make his third Pro Bowl, and the well-compensated running back committee was deep enough to overcome Jonathan Stewart’s injury issues.

    Newton, who is taking classes at Auburn, will miss all of the organized team activities this spring while he recovers from March 19 surgery on his left ankle.

    Newton will have time at training camp to develop a rhythm with Cotchery, Underwood and the team’s young receivers. The bigger concern is protecting the franchise quarterback from further punishment and injury.

    No. 1 tight end: Rivera said at the league meetings the Panthers might not have a true No. 1 wide receiver in 2014, which would put more pressure on tight end Greg Olsen. The former Bears tight end, acquired in a 2011 trade, was Carolina’s leading receiver in 2013 with a career-high 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns.

    It was the first time since 1997 a Panthers’ wideout did not lead the team in receiving.

    Behind Olsen, the Panthers have a raw receiving project in Brandon Williams and a couple of blocking specialists in Richie Brockel and newly acquired Mike McNeill. Ben Hartsock, another blocking tight end, is an unrestricted free agent.

    Kicking game: The Panthers locked up kicker Graham Gano with a four-year, $12.4 million deal 11 days before the start of free agency. Gano was nearly automatic in 2013, making 24 of 27 field goals and booming 77.8 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks, the NFL’s highest percentage since 1994.

    Third-year punter Brad Nortman also is coming off a big season. Nortman set franchise records with a 41.6-yard net average and a 47.8-yard gross average, which ranked fourth in the league.

    Five Positions of Need

    No. 1 wide receiver: Rivera created a stir Friday when he told USA Today the Panthers would be interested in DeSean Jackson, released by the Eagles on Friday amid reports he has ties to known gang members in Los Angeles. But multiple team sources said the Panthers, in fact, will not go after Jackson.

    The Panthers could be content to wait until the May draft to find Smith’s successor. Draft experts believe there will be impact receivers available when the Panthers pick 28th.

    When asked whether Cotchery was signed to be a No. 1 receiver, Rivera said he was signed to help develop the team’s young wideouts. Gettleman is hoping Marvin McNutt or Tavarres King turns into the next Victor Cruz.

    No. 2 wide receiver: Cotchery excelled in the slot last season in Pittsburgh, using his size to take advantage of mismatches with smaller nickel corners and catching a career-high 10 touchdowns.

    Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Cotchery is a versatile receiver who can play anywhere he’s needed. And while Underwood looks to be an ascending player, his seven starts last season in Tampa Bay were more than twice his total (three) from his first four years combined.

    The Panthers showed last season they want to be a run-first team under coordinator Mike Shula. But if Cotchery gets hurt and Underwood/McNutt/King don’t pan out, then what?

    Clearly, the Panthers need more at the position. If free agent Sidney Rice tires of waiting and drops his price, the Panthers should grab him.

    Left tackle: Maybe Byron Bell’s struggles against speed pass-rushers were because the natural left-hander played right tackle his first three seasons. That’s what the Panthers are hoping, anyway.

    Gettleman and Rivera made it clear at the owners meetings Bell will be given every opportunity to win the job protecting Newton’s blind side.

    The 330-pound Bell has shown he has the size and strength to be a successful run-blocker. But his footwork has to improve if he is going to hold up as a pass-blocker.

    With Gross retired, right guard Nate Chandler is the team’s most athletic offensive lineman. The former defensive tackle successfully moved to guard last season, and now could be shifting to tackle. He could be an option on the left side.

    No. 1 cornerback: On the day Rivera said the Panthers might not need a No. 1 wideout, he also questioned how many teams had a No. 1 corner other than Seattle. He seems more concerned about finding a nickel corner to replace Munnerlyn.

    Given their cap restraints and their commitment to Hardy, the Panthers never were going to be in the market for a high-priced corner. But they thought – wrongly – they could re-sign Munnerlyn.

    Instead, they signed former San Diego and Arizona CB Antoine Cason to the veteran minimum. Cason couldn’t win a starting job with the Cardinals, and looks to have lost a step. But Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks coached Cason in San Diego, and believe he can help.

    Melvin White started 10 games as an undrafted rookie last year, and held his own most games. Like Cason, White also lacks top-end speed.

    This is likely Josh Norman’s last chance to prove he can be more than a practice star.

    Free safety: This may be a moot point if Charles Godfrey returns to his pre-Achilles surgery form and mans the centerfield spot opposite strong safety Harper. But Gettleman gave less than a ringing endorsement of Godfrey last week by saying he was “part of the evaluation.”

    If Godfrey, who has a $7.1 million cap figure, is cut or comes back less than 100 percent, the Panthers will be left with essentially two strong safeties in Harper and Robert Lester. Lester, undrafted out of Alabama, played well in spots last season, but his coverage/communication breakdown in the playoff loss to San Francisco was critical.

    Joseph Person

  • Panthers offseason moves

    Say good-bye to: WR Steve Smith, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Brandon LaFell, WR Domenik Hixon, QB Jimmy Clausen, T Jordan Gross, G Geoff Hangartner, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Mike Mitchell, LB Jordan Senn.

    Say hello to: WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Tiquan Underwood, QB Joe Webb, TE Mike McNeill, S Roman Harper, CB Antoine Cason.

  • Panthers projected depth chart

    *Asterisk indicates positions where a 2013 starter is not with the team.

    OFFENSE

    Quarterback

    Cam Newton Panthers have to get their franchise QB a franchise WR

    Derek Anderson Veteran will have to hold off Joe Webb to retain backup job

    Running back

    DeAngelo Williams After WR exodus, Williams tweeted he and Stewart would be popular among fantasy leaguers

    Jonathan Stewart Hasn’t been able to stay healthy since signing contract extension

    Fullback

    Mike Tolbert Versatile blocker/runner/dancer is one of team’s best values

    Richie Brockel Another jack-of-all-trades, the ‘Mauler’ re-signed for two years

    Tight end

    Greg Olsen With Steve Smith gone, receiving numbers should continue to increase

    Mike McNeill Former Ram could take Ben Hartsock’s spot as blocking TE

    Wide receiver*

    Jerricho Cotchery Primarily a slot receiver, caught career-high 10 TDs in 2013

    To be filled in free agency or draft

    Wide receiver*

    Tiquan Underwood Not as quick off the ball as Ted Ginn, but fast when he gets to full stride

    Marvin McNutt There has to be a reason Dave Gettleman kept him and Tavarres King on active roster last season

    Left tackle*

    Byron Bell Move to the left side could be a career-changer – good or bad

    To be filled in free agency or draft

    Left guard

    Amini Silatolu Said to be progressing well from knee surgery

    To be filled in free agency or draft

    Center

    Ryan Kalil Pro Bowler will take on more of a leadership role with Jordan Gross retiring

    Brian Folkerts Played in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams

    Right guard

    Chris Scott Will be interesting to see if Scott reports to OTAs and minicamp in good shape

    Garry Williams Swing lineman was starting right guard before tearing knee ligaments in Week 1

    Right tackle

    Nate Chandler Former UCLA tight end is Panthers’ version of utility infielder

    Garry Williams

    DEFENSE

    Defensive end

    Charles Johnson First player in franchise history with at least nine sacks in four consecutive seasons

    Frank Alexander Only one sack in 12 games last season

    Defensive tackle*

    Dwan Edwards Battled injuries during much of the 2013 season

    To be filled in free agency (re-signing Colin Cole?) or draft

    Defensive tackle

    Star Lotulelei Occupied blockers and was stout at point of attack as a rookie

    Kawann Short Second-round pick is more of a penetrator than Lotulelei

    Defensive end

    Greg Hardy Biggest offseason move for Panthers was bringing back the Kraken

    Mario Addison Fifteen pressures and 2.5 sacks in part-time duty last season

    Strongside linebacker

    Thomas Davis Pro Bowl-caliber season in ’13 when he posted career highs in tackles, sacks, interceptions and pass breakups

    Jason Williams Re-signed primarily because of his special teams prowess

    Middle linebacker

    Luke Kuechly Became the first Panther to win AP’s Defensive Player of the Year Award

    Chase Blackburn Two-time Super Bowl winner with Giants can play all three LB spots

    Weakside linebacker

    A.J. Klein Played well in two starts when Blackburn was out with a foot injury

    Chase Blackburn

    Cornerback

    Melvin White Undrafted free agent started the final 10 games as a rookie

    Josh Thomas Lost his starting spot after getting beaten deep a couple times in Week 7 vs. Rams

    Cornerback*

    Antoine Cason Hoping for a bounce-back year after failing to crack the starting lineup in Arizona

    Josh Norman Here’s betting Norman has another strong preseason

    Strong safety*

    Roman Harper Will be utilized extensively in Sean McDermott’s blitz packages

    Robert Lester His three interceptions last season were third-highest on team

    Free safety*

    Charles Godfrey Some are writing him off, but is a talented player when healthy

    Position to be filled in free agency or draft

    SPECIAL TEAMS

    Kicker

    Graham Gano Brought consistency to a position after a couple of shaky seasons after John Kasay was cut

    Punter

    Brad Nortman Had the best statistical season by a Panthers punter in 2013

    Joseph Person

It was this time a year ago when general manager Dave Gettleman first left his mark on the Panthers.

After holing up in his office and watching film for most of his first two months on the job, Gettleman made a series of personnel moves last March to shape a Panthers team that ended the franchise’s four-year playoff drought last fall.

Now Gettleman, a long-time scout and personnel man before the Panthers gave him his first GM job at 61, is in the process of trying to do it again.

Much like last offseason, Gettleman is trying to patch together a secondary and plug holes along the line (the defensive front last year, the offensive line this year) and at wide receiver.

The difference this year is he also has to replace two of the best players in team history – Steve Smith, the franchise’s receiving leader, and left tackle Jordan Gross, who went to his third Pro Bowl in his 11th season before retiring in February.

Gross indicated to the Observer in Hawaii he had planned to play another season before Gettleman asked him to restructure his contract and take a pay cut last year.

But it was Gettleman’s decision to cut the popular Smith that shook the team’s fan base and made Gettleman the object of national criticism when three other receivers left via free agency.

Gettleman’s reaction to the piñata-like beating he took publicly?

“What was I thinking? I was thinking we were doing the right thing,” Gettleman said this past week at the league meetings in Orlando. “We had a plan. We had a philosophy. We made a decision and we were going to stick with it.”

His plan last year worked, largely because of his signings of backup players looking for an opportunity.

Receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a former first-round pick, was coming off two terrible seasons in San Francisco.

Safety Mike Mitchell had been a backup for four years in Oakland.

Cornerback Drayton Florence was a proven veteran, but he was 32 and returning from an injury-plagued season in Detroit.

Diminutive corner Captain Munnerlyn re-signed with the Panthers when he couldn’t find any better offers.

None of those transactions prompted a spike of PSL sales or a run at the ticket office. But each paid dividends.

Ginn gave the Panthers a deep threat to complement Steve Smith. Mitchell, Munnerlyn and Florence were mainstays in the so-called Legion of Whom secondary.

Ginn, Mitchell and Munnerlyn outperformed their one-year, team-friendly deals and parlayed their success into long-term contracts with other teams this offseason.

Gettleman’s plan for this season?

He has not elaborated on that yet. But the Panthers’ activity during the second wave of free agency provided clues to their thinking.

Having committed $13.1 million to defensive end Greg Hardy (and a total of $29.5 million in salary cap space to the defensive end position), the Panthers are hoping a strong pass rush and dominant front seven will allow to them to assemble a patchwork secondary.

Former New Orleans safety Roman Harper essentially assumes the role of Mitchell, albeit an older, grayer version who will play closer to the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Antoine Cason steps in for Florence on a “show me” contract after failing to win a starting job during his lone season in Arizona.

Offensively, the Panthers are hoping newly acquired receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood can replace the production of Brandon LaFell and Ginn.

But the Panthers are still without successors for Smith and Gross, although Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera expressed confidence last week in Byron Bell shifting from the right side to take over for Gross.

No unbiased observer could look at the current roster and suggest the Panthers are better off than they were at this point a year ago. But with a draft deep at the Panthers’ two biggest positions of need – offensive tackle and receiver – Rivera is hopeful.

“I think we are headed in the direction of being a better team. There are some things that we have to do,” Rivera said. “In talking with Dave, we still have time in free agency, time in the draft coming up. And we have some guys on the roster that we are hoping will take the next step and develop.”

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

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