Tom Sorensen

GM Dave Gettleman grinds away at improving Carolina Panthers

Greg Jennings was the free agent for which I was pulling. Jennings caught four touchdown passes in his final six games last season with Minnesota. At 31, he still is a No. 2 receiver. And he tends to thank fans in the city he leaves by taking out an advertisement in the local newspaper. I respect players who take out advertisements in the local newspaper.

Jennings is is available, but I don’t see the Carolina Panthers signing him. Despite my interest, I never did.

Good general managers are true to their philosophy, and Carolina’s Dave Gettleman is a good GM. His philosophy is obvious.

He wants to sign free agents to fill obvious gaps on the roster. Once the gaps are filled, he is free to draft the best available player regardless of position. (Last season he had to take a wide receiver with his first pick.) Although the presumption is he’ll take an offensive lineman on April 30, he’s not obligated to.

What if Todd Gurley, a long-striding running back out of Georgia, unexpectedly slips to No. 25, where the Panthers draft? If he’s there, will Gettleman take him? I don’t think he will.

About free agency: Why didn’t Carolina sign Jennings or a better player? Why didn’t it sign a player with the potential to be a star?

The Panthers did. They signed tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen’s lone drawback is he is not new; he has played for Carolina the past four seasons.

Aside from being slightly used, Olson, 30 has: proven he can play; proven he can play with quarterback Cam Newton; proven he is a leader; and proven he’s a guy you want in your huddle, locker room and town.

The biggest name the Panthers will attempt to sign is Newton, who also is not new. The Panthers on Tuesday offered no comment when asked about the negotiations with their quarterback. In other shocking news, a golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. is about to begin.

Even if the Panthers fail to sign Newton, he will be tethered to the team for the 2015 season. And if they fail to sign him before the 2016 season, the Panthers could apply the franchise tag to their franchise quarterback. If they do, it’s tough to envision their franchise temp signing a long-term contract.

Newton will not sign an incentive-laden contract like San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick because he doesn’t have to. Matt Ryan makes $20 million a season in Atlanta. You expect Newton to accept less?

For Carolina, free agency is nothing more than a warm-up act, and Gettleman’s approach has been quiet and quietly effective. Ted Ginn Jr. is the most impressive of his acquisitions. Ginn ensures that, as he awaits a punt, fans will put off the beer or bathroom run until the play ends.

At 29, Ginn still is one of the league’s fastest players, his speed immediate and his stride a testament to track-team grace. When I see Newton prepare to step into his throw and go deep, I stop watching him and look for Ginn.

The riskiest free-agent signing is potential starting left tackle Michael Oher. Oher is coming off two poor seasons, one with Baltimore and one with Tennessee. Can he again be the player he was? That obviously is Gettleman’s guess.

Gettleman has made mistakes. You might be angry with him for putting a line in front of Newton early last season that would have been overmatched by a stiff wind.

But by the end of the season that line was sufficient. Once 3-8-1, the Panthers won their final four regular-season games and made the playoffs with a record of 7-8-1. They won a playoff game and lost to Seattle 31-17 in the NFC divisional round. That finish is a testament to the players Gettleman provided and the work coach Ron Rivera did with them.

For Carolina to improve, Gettleman must sustain his draft night and day success. At one juncture last season seven rookies started.

He had five picks in his first draft with the Panthers and six in the second. This year he’ll have nine.

In early April everybody, including New England and Seattle, has holes to fill. The Panthers need – well, you know what they need. They need an offensive tackle, a cornerback and a running back.

They also need a No. 2 receiver.

Jennings is available.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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