Veteran or Rookie: Projecting Which Will Best Suit the Carolina Panthers' Needs
The Carolina Panthers have needs to address this year and little room under the salary cap to fill them with the quality talent that is heading into the free-agent market. That leaves the draft as the best option for building towards the future and it keeps the team both young and affordable. However, they will need to choose between the incoming rookie class or veteran free agents in order to fill the gaps on the roster.
Rookies offer youth, talent and are affordable. Veterans may have a history of injuries, big demands and, in some cases, be a shell of their former selves. Both parties do carry their share of risks. There is the possibility of a rookie not panning out and becoming a bust. A veteran may not play up to his contract or spend a lot of time on the injury report, if not the injured reserve.
Obviously, Carolina's front office has a lot of decisions to make and, fortunately, it would appear general manager Dave Gettleman has done alright after one season of assembling the roster.
There are plenty of needs to be filled this offseason. It seems certain that offensive tackle and wide receiver will swing in favor of the rookie class. Positions like cornerback or defensive end are among those that can go either way.
The next few slides will discuss each position of need and whether a rookie or a veteran player is best suited to meet the team's need.
The need at wide receiver in Carolina has been so great that fans have suggested the Panthers draft one early in the draft.
While they have a recent history of taking a wide receiver in the draft, the earliest they have done so was in the third round of the 2010 draft when they selected Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards. In the years that followed, Carolina selected Kealoha Pilares (2011) and Joe Adams (2012). Only LaFell has made any significant contributions to the offense, but he is still not considered a solid number-two option next to Steve Smith.
Moving into 2014, the need for a playmaker at wide receiver goes well beyond a player to take the focus off of Smith. Now, the need is to find his replacement. Smith may have a lot left in the tank, but his best years are behind him and the only way to truly make him effective is to have a young and talented receiver who can make a difference in his rookie season and take over the reigns upon Smith's retirement.
Ted Ginn Jr. had his moments after he signed as a free agent last year, and while Domenik Hixon made a clutch touchdown catch against New Orleans in Week 16, neither are capable of being the future or the impact players the Panthers desperately need.
Taking a wide receiver in the first two rounds may be the only option for the Panthers in this year's draft. While general manager Dave Gettleman likes to start building from the inside, an exception may be made this year. Carolina needs a player who can grow with Cam Newton and help usher in a new era of Panthers football.
Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews are two receivers to watch closely as draft day approaches.
Another big need of the Carolina Panthers is also on the offense. However, this need is centered around protecting Cam Newton and winning the battle up front. Offensive tackle has been decent over the years, but with Jordan Gross possibly retiring and Byron Bell slipping at right tackle, Carolina must find a way to shore up the outside of the offensive line if they are to be successful at moving the ball.
Granted, it seems like a no-brainer the team drafts a tackle within the first couple of rounds. However, they can just as easily shore up the position with a veteran. If Gross signs a new deal with Carolina, it may go a long way in helping with the transition of old to new.
Having a solid rookie protecting Newton's blindside is very similar to taking a talented wide receiver early; it opens the door for the tackle to grow with Newton and the offense like Gross has done since 2003.
Verdict: Either One (for now)
It's hard to believe Gross will hang it up following a Pro Bowl season. He would be a great mentor to a young offensive tackle and would give the Panthers a great setup in 2014. The best case is to take a rookie in the draft to play left tackle and move Gross to the right side. This will make Bell a backup, or Carolina could shift him to the inside if needed. However, the Panthers may be looking at a season that is without Gross and if that is the case, Carolina will not have the luxury of depth that they would if Gross were in the fold.
Rookie players to watch include Zack Martin and Morgan Moses. Both are considered potential first-round targets for Carolina.
The Panthers secondary is the defense's greatest need, despite being one of the best in the league in 2013. Cornerback appears more uncertain than safety and with Captain Munnerlyn entering free agency, there is no certainty who will lock down the two positions next season. Munnerlyn would like a long-term deal with the Panthers, but the salary cap issue may prevent that from happening.
If the latter is true, Carolina will have a lot of youth at corner and not much else. That would leave Melvin White, Josh Thomas and Josh Norman.
Drayton Florence signed a one-year deal last season, but it seems unlikely he returns on a similar contract unless Munnerlyn cannot be re-signed. Regardless, having a strong veteran presence like Munnerlyn would benefit the team in the long run.
If a ball-hawk cornerback can be picked up on draft day, he would make the unit that much better. Munnerlyn was very opportunistic last year and if the two are paired together, the outside may not be as friendly as it has been in the past.
Of course, Munnerlyn isn't without his flaws. He was exposed in games at Miami and Tampa Bay when Mike Wallace and Vincent Jackson found ways to beat him deep. Carolina may have won those games, but it showed they can be vulnerable in certain situations.
Carolina should focus on drafting a rookie and if they can, re-sign Munnerlyn. This would allow the Panthers to move Munnerlyn back to the nickel slot position and allow a younger, talented rookie to patrol the outside with White, Thomas or Norman.
There are a few prospects entering the draft that have early-round potential. They are Jason Verrett, Lamarcus Joyner and Loucheiz Purifoy. All three are projected as first-to-third-round prospects.
Safety is probably the one aspect of the secondary that looks to be trending up from within. Charles Godfrey missed much of the season with an injury, but his absence helped pave the way for undrafted free agent Robert Lester and showed the importance of signing both Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell.
It seems likely that safety will be a position that will feature the same faces from 2013. However, Mitchell and Mikell are both free agents and it is likely that only one will be brought back. It'll be interesting to see whether or not Godfrey will have his contract restructured in an effort to free up more money to retain some key players.
From a rookie standpoint, there is a possibility the safety position will not be addressed until the mid-to-later rounds of the draft. Lester did a lot to make himself a legitimate front-runner for the starting job in 2014 and Godfrey should be healthy enough to resume his starting role as well.
Filling this need will be about depth more than anything. Carolina should lock up either Mitchell or Mikell before the draft in May—the former being the best option based on his age (26) and experience in the league (five years).
The early depth-chart projection at safety has Charles Godfrey and Robert Lester assuming the starting jobs. Godfrey will be interesting to watch as Carolina may try to restructure his deal or possibly trade him to open the door for Mitchell. It seems unlikely the Panthers draft a safety within the first three rounds.
Ron Rivera, the team and the fans have all made it avidly clear: They can't see a Carolina team without Greg Hardy. However, there are two questions regarding this situation. First, can the team afford him? And second, do they sign him to a long-term deal or place him under the franchise tag?
General manager Dave Gettleman will once again have to counter the big contracts handed out by his predecessor and make the hard decisions regarding the team's future. Hardy deserves a big pay day, but the figure he has in mind and the one the team is envisioning may be far apart.
In the event Hardy is let go, that leaves Frank Alexander and Mario Addison. Both men are capable defensive ends, but are not nearly as dominant as Hardy became over the past few seasons. Gettleman could remedy this via free agency or the draft.
If Gettleman explores the free agent market, he may try using his connections to the New York Giants to sign Justin Tuck. The long-time New York defensive end may consider a new opportunity and at the age of 30, he could be a cheaper option than Hardy. Tuck still has a lot left in the tank and turned in a good season last year with 63 tackles and 11.0 sacks. Bringing him in as a replacement to Hardy would keep the double-teams off Charles Johnson and allow Carolina to continue rotating out Alexander and Addison like they have done in the past.
The needs at offensive tackle, wide receiver and cornerback outweigh the need for a defensive end regardless of what happens to Hardy. Tuck may not be an option and they could find a cheaper alternative to bridge the gap and be a part of a rotation until the following season when they can address the position properly.
Hardy may not be the guy lining up at defensive end, but the position looks to be filled by a veteran in 2014.
Offensive tackle may be the most pressing issue on the Carolina offensive line, but the guard position is a possible area of concern too. The interior saw a who's who of players rotated in and out of the left and right positions in 2013, culminating with the conversion of two defensive tackles into offensive guards.
If Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila can return from their injuries and grow into solid linemen, the position will not be looked upon as a liability. However, the need to open the running lanes and protect Cam Newton at the snap must improve if the offense is to improve next season.
Silatolu and Kugbila are still young, but they have yet to prove themselves. Fortunately, they still have their upside, which may bode well for Carolina. That is not to say the Panthers won't explore the free-agent market and look at the scouting reports of the guards in this year's draft class.
Travelle Wharton was brought in to shore up their need at guard after he was released by Cincinnati. However, he will be entering free agency as well. It's probably a safe bet Carolina offers him a new deal as they will want to maintain a level of continuity up front.
Verdict: Either One
Carolina could sign a couple of veterans to a short-term contract and then draft an offensive guard in the mid-to-late rounds in order to breed competition at the position. This tactic worked well for the secondary last year and could prove valuable again in 2014.
Why the Carolina Panthers have yet to lock up Graham Gano to a long-term contract is unknown (unless it has to do with team's financial situation), but it seems ridiculous to think they would let Gano test the waters of free agency after he proved to be a solid kicker in the post-John Kasay era.
After the Justin Medlock experiment imploded, Gano was brought in mid-season in 2012 and has held on to the kicking duties despite some competition last summer from undrafted free agent Morgan Lineberry.
Gano was 24 of 27 in field goal opportunities this past season, which was good enough for 88.9 percent. It should be noted that was his best season when he appeared in all 16 games. His leg strength proved valuable on kickoffs as he was able to record 63 touchbacks on 80 kickoffs (78.8 percent).
Gano should be retained for the foreseeable future and is still young enough to give the Panthers a long-term presence at the position. He has the strength and accuracy to help Carolina put points on the board when they get into their opponent's territory. Plus, it is very unlikely the Panthers use a draft pick on a kicker as only two or three project as late-round options.
With Gano, Carolina has a proven kicker who can be around for a long time. He should be one of the team's first free agents to be re-signed.