The Carolina Panthers are poised to make a big leap next season, although an unfavorable salary cap situation is attempting to hinder them. Rookie GM David Gettleman has been under pressure since day one, as the financial situation he inherited was dire.
By the end of the 2012 season, the Panthers compiled a record of 7-9. The finished total was not an indictment on how the team was playing toward the end of the season, as they won five of their final six contests.
Cam Newton's level of play in the season's latter half has invigorated the fanbase, as the Auburn product threw 10 touchdowns versus just two interceptions over the final six weeks.
Considering that having a competent quarterback is the first step in producing a consistent winner, the Panthers have to feel great about having Newton lining up under center.
Last year's first-round pick, Luke Kuechly, won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, leading the entire league in tackles. Clearly, the Panthers have franchise cornerstones on both sides of the ball; now all that's left to do is build around them.
Let's take a look at a complete guide of Carolina's upcoming free-agency period.
The Carolina Panthers will not be major players in free agency, due to their cap situation. The team is currently around the cap line of $123 million, largely due to the restructuring of the contracts of numerous veterans.
With Charles Johnson, Jordan Gross and Chris Gamble (although he's likely to be cut) all set to hit the Panthers cap at more than $10 million per player in 2013, it's not surprising that the team is right up against the cap.
It may be a blessing in disguise that the Panthers cannot make any big splashes in free agency, as spending big money during the process doesn't guarantee future success. In my opinion, the best way to build a winner is through the draft and shrewd financial planning.
Free agency represents an opportunity for executives around the league to overpay for aging talent, which is an opportunity Gettleman won't be fully granted this season, due to the poor financial situation.
The Carolina Panthers don't have much in the way of free agents, as only a handful of starters are without contracts. While the Panthers may choose to retain a couple of their free agents once the process starts on March 12th, I'm expecting a decent amount of turnover.
In order to replace the role players they are losing, it will be up to David Gettleman to find solid football players in the later rounds of the draft.
Simply put, the Panthers have their money tied up on players currently on the roster and don't have a high-profile player from a season ago eligible for the open market.
Unrestricted Free Agents( List from NFL.com)
Derek Anderson- QB
Antwan Applewhite- DE
Gary Barnridge- TE
Dwan Edwards- DT
Ben Hartsock- TE
Sherrod Martin- S
Captain Munnerlyn- CB
Louis Murphy- WR
Jason Phillips- LB
Mike Pollak- OB
Jordan Senn- LB
Restricted Free Agents
Andre Neblett- DT
Nate Ness- S
Ryan Kalil was the last Panther hit by the franchise tag.
The Carolina Panthers did not use the franchise tag this offseason. A combination of unstable finances and a lack of a true prospect for the tag were both factors in the decision.
Ryan Kalil was slapped with the tag two years ago, although he later signed a long-term extension with the team.
The Panthers' decision not to use the tag was a no-brainer. This is the second straight year in which Carolina decided not to use the franchise tag, which is indicative of how the team likes to come to contract extensions prior to the expiration of their players' contracts.
The Panthers have not re-signed any of their free agents thus far. Looking forward, the team may look to retain Dwan Edwards and Captain Munnerlyn. Outside of those two, the Panthers aren't likely to make significant offers to retain the rest of their free agents.
Considering the Panthers salary cap situation, they were forced to part ways with players rather than re-signing them.
Earlier in the offseason, the Panthers cut ties with Ron Edwards. They also restructured the contracts of Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen and Jonathan Stewart, all of which gave the team a little more financial flexibility.
Also, Carolina did not have many premium free agents this offseason. The only player who must be retained is Edwards, as he was by far the team's best interior defensive lineman in 2012.
Considering that defensive tackle is still a glaring need for the Panthers, GM Dave Gettleman should focus on re-signing Edwards.
This offseason is about righting the financial system moving forward, which means being patient and making responsible decisions from now on.
Steve Smith could use some help.
In terms of bloggers around the web assessing the Carolina Panthers' needs, my opinion feels in line with those who think the defensive tackle position must be addressed in a serious manner.
With Ron Edwards being cut and Dwan Edwards heading toward free agency, the Panthers need for an interior defensive lineman has only grown since the season ended. While Carolina finished the 2012 season finished 14th against the run, the unit needs to improve on the interior.
With a talented group of linebackers on the second level, it's in the Panthers best interest to employ space-eaters to allow their linebackers to run free and make plays.
Cam Newton needs more weapons around him in order to continue his development into a more dangerous pocket-passer.
Steve Smith will be entering his 13th season in the NFL when training camp commences and will start to slow down eventually.
Brandon LaFell, who is the team's second wideout, was inconsistent last season and should not be counted on to become a reliable target on a weekly basis. That isn't to say that LaFell won't develop into that player, but rather that the Panthers should not assume he will take the next step in his development.
With the expected release of Chris Gamble, the Panthers are going to have a glaring need at cornerback. Also, Captain Munnerlyn, who was the team's second corner last year, is an unrestricted free agent.
The Panthers also have a need at free safety, as Haruki Nakamura had a dreadful season at the position last season.
Fortunately for Carolina, they should be able to address the safety position cheaply through free agency or via the draft.
The Carolina Panthers are strapped for cash but have a need at defensive tackle. That means Dave Gettleman will have to try to find the right player in a smaller group of players, as a handful of interior defensive lineman are way out of Carolina's price range.
Kevin Vickerson was a key member of the Denver Broncos defense last season, as he was a solid run-stuffer. Ironically, defensive tackle was viewed as the Broncos' biggest liability defensively entering last season, and Vickerson did his best to negate that assumption.
While signing Vickerson alone won't make the rush defense a top-10 unit, it would be a low-cost step in the right direction.
If the Panthers were to sign Vickerson, it would likely be to a short-term contract. Considering that the ex-Spartan is 30 years old and not the greatest pass-rusher, he should have no problem agreeing to a shorter deal.
Vickerson's value should be judged upon how he will make everyone around him better, especially in run defense. The opposition will have to double-team him in order to move him out of a hole, which means another defender should be able to move around the field freely, looking to make the play.
The Panthers have the starting quarterback position figured out, but will likely lose last year's backup Derek Anderson in free agency.
In an age when many teams carry only two quarterbacks, Dave Gettleman could opt to enter next season with Jimmy Clausen backing up Cam Newton. Hopefully Gettleman doesn't, as Clausen hasn't found the success on the NFL level to warrant being the next man under center if something happens to Newton.
This year's free-agent quarterback class is nothing special, and the Panthers won't have the luxury of spending big money on a premier backup.
Since Carolina is limited financially, they should take a look at Brady Quinn. Trust me, I'm not happy about this either, but Quinn is a step up from Clausen.
As a member of the Kansas City Chiefs last season, Quinn threw just two touchdowns versus eight interceptions. Granted, the team Quinn was playing for was a train wreck, but those are still terrible numbers.
So why is Quinn listed here if he was so terrible last season?
First, Quinn's market should be minuscule, which means he should sign a low-paying contract. Other than that, it would be an Irish combination behind Newton, as both Quinn and Clausen attended Notre Dame.
With Chris Gamble likely to be released in the coming days, the Carolina Panthers will be very thin at cornerback. If the Panthers don't find a way to re-sign Captain Munnerlyn, they would only have one capable corner on the roster.
Considering that Gamble is just too expensive to keep around, it's clear the Panthers should make re-signing Munnerlyn a priority.
According to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, Munnerlyn really wants to know whether or not he will return to the Panthers next season. In the article, Munnerlyn intelligently puts the puzzle together, as he said the following:
I hate to see Chris Gamble go because he still has a lot of great football left in him. But if they let Chris go, they’ll probably have to bring me back. It’s hard to go with a lot of young corners, unless they want to go out and get another free agent corner.
At worst, Munnerlyn would be a solid third cornerback. In the pass-happy NFC South, the Panthers will need at least three competent corners to contend for the division.