10 Biggest Issues Facing Carolina Panthers This Offseason
Dave Gettleman is heading into his second season as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers and in the precarious position of rebuilding a 12-4 division champion.
I emphasize the word rebuilding because there are many ways in which an NFL team can actually rebuild. The conventional use of the term conjures up thoughts of general managers and head coaches scapegoating their team's repeatedly disappointing play by blaming the natural process of aging or, on the flip side, an influx of youth.
However, the Panthers are not too young, nor are they too old. So why must they rebuild? And I know Panthers fans are shuttering with images of Jimmy Clausen flashing through their minds every time they read that word, so please bear with me—you won't see it but one more time.
The Panthers must rebuild—last time, I promise—because free agency hit them harder than any team in the NFL this year.
One-year signings like Mike Mitchell and Ted Ginn Jr. exceeded expectations with the team in 2013 and sought out hefty contacts elsewhere, when Carolina was unable to open up their budget, due to salary-cap restrictions.
Combine those one-and-dones with the departures of Panthers veterans like Captain Munnerlyn and Brandon Lafell, and you get a messy situation for any team, let alone a team as cap strapped as the Panthers.
With the offseason nearly all ahead of us, the Carolina front office has plenty of work to do. Read on to find out the most pressing issues it will face over the coming months.
Honorable Mention: Cornerback
The Panthers don't have many proven players at cornerback, but there is no reason to believe this group will perform any worse than last year's.
The team did lose Captain Munnerlyn, who was a great nickel back, although he struggled against the league's faster and more physical receivers. I believe he's very replaceable and was overpaid by Minnesota.
The Panthers' current top five corners are all 5'11" or taller, with three standing at 6'1". There's tangible talent among these players and they should play physical coverage all season, allowing the league's best pass-rushing front seven to make their life easier.
10. Backup Quarterback of the Future
The keyword here is backup.
The Panthers have their franchise quarterback in Cam Newton and despite a contract expiration that is on the horizon, the front office can focus on finalizing that contract extension after this offseason—and trust me, the extension will absolutely get done in spite of those rogue Panther fans theorizing that Gettleman's end-plan is to kick Newton out of town.
The player whom Carolina should begin to focus on replacing is Derek Anderson. He's not old (30) and he's an above-average backup, but using a late-round draft pick on a quarterback would be smart on several levels.
Namely, a late-round draft pick will make roughly half of Anderson's $1.3 million average salary. This doesn't amount to huge savings, but when your starting quarterback has yet to miss a game over his three-year career, this is a smart place to save money.
Although it's unlikely that the Panthers will be able to fetch a first-round pick for a talented backup, it's not unreasonable to foresee a team parting ways with a third-round pick for a promising quarterback prospect, as long as that player has shown signs of serious potential.
The Panthers did recently sign quarterback Joe Webb, but he's expected to contribute at other skill positions and on special teams. He hasn't shown much upside at the quarterback position.
Derek Anderson re-signed with the Panthers to a two-year deal this offseason, according to Spotrac.
9. Young Running Back
The Panthers roster is littered with talented running backs, but there is only one, Mike Tolbert, whom I can imagine lasting with the team beyond the 2015 season.
After 2015, the team will be able to part ways with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams without getting stuck with enormous amounts of dead money. According to Spotrac, if the Panthers make Stewart a June 1 cut after the 2015 season, they would save nearly $5.8 million in cap space.
The youngest running back on the team, 24-year-old Kenjon Barner, won't ever be the team's full-time starter; he lacks the size and skill set to take on such a role.
Looking for a three-down back now could set up the Panthers for huge cap savings in the future if the selected player(s) pans out.
8. Upgrade at Right Tackle
Byron Bell was given another chance to prove he's a capable starter when the Panthers placed a second-round tender on the restricted free agent. This is one chance too many in my opinion, but I'll leave it to Bell to prove the doubters wrong—that is, if he's not replaced before the start of the season.
Bell has been the starter at right tackle for three seasons now, but he hasn't shown adequate improvement. His inconsistency in pass protection is not compensated for by road-grading run blocking; he's an average run blocker, at best, and the Panthers likely won't invest any more money in him beyond the 2014 season.
The Panthers should look to the draft for the dominant run blocker that they've been missing the past few seasons. With the number of weapons Carolina has in the backfield, it needs to stop wondering what it could achieve behind a solid offensive line and find out for sure.
7. Deep Threat
With Ted Ginn Jr. gone, the Panthers are in desperate need of a deep threat to stretch opposing secondaries and allow Cam Newton to exercise the rocket he has for an arm.
Since his rookie season, Newton hasn't been able to find consistency in the vertical passing game. This can be partially chalked up to a change in offensive philosophy, but the major missing component is a legitimate deep threat—or two.
The team did sign Tiquan Underwood, whose skill set vaguely resembles that of Ted Ginn Jr., although he's a couple steps slower. However, he won't see much playing time because he's a subpar blocker and a one-trick pony in the passing game.
Drafting a player like Brandin Cooks in the first round could return the offense's vertical passing game to its 2011 form, when Steve Smith averaged over 17.6 yards per catch during his 1,394-yard season.
Whether or not the team addresses this issue in the draft or through free agency, it's a missing piece that should not be ignored for another season.
Disclaimer: The solution to this problem is not DeSean Jackson.
6. Starting Free Safety
Mike Mitchell energized the Carolina secondary last season, but he and fellow 2013 starter Quintin Mikell are off the roster now.
The signing of Roman Harper filled the void at strong safety, but the defensive backfield is left with a hole beside him.
Potential solutions on the roster are Charles Godfrey and Robert Lester. However, Godfrey is being vastly overpaid and could be a June 1 cut, and Lester doesn't appear to be much more than a stopgap until the team can bring in more competition.
Harper plays a similar game to Mitchell, so the defense won't lack run support from the secondary. However, the roster still lacks a rangy safety who can proficiently cover the deep half.
The Panthers defense prides itself on preventing the big play, but inconsistent secondary play would occasionally leave it prone to deep throws. This has been a recurring issue for years now, and this draft is deep enough to find a potential starter in the mid-to-late rounds.
5. Starting Right Guard
The Panthers currently have four potential starters at right guard on the roster. However, none of them are reliable starters, yet.
Chris Scott and Nate Chandler each started eight games in 2013, but neither performed particularly well. When you consider that Chandler began the season as a defensive lineman, you begin to realize how desperate the team was when these players were inserted into the starting lineup.
Amini Silatolu will likely be the starter at left guard, as long as he's healthy, which leaves Edmund Kugbila as the only other option at right guard.
Kugbila has the potential to be a great starter for the Panthers, but he was placed on injury reserve in 2013 and is still early in his development. If he makes major strides this offseason, I could see him in the starting lineup, but it's more likely that it takes him another season to find a starting role, potentially at right tackle.
4. Open Up Future Cap Space
I briefly touched on the Panthers' battle against the cap earlier, but this isn't a fight that will be won at one position.
The team must create savings at many, or all, positions.
The most obvious move left to be made is cutting safety Charles Godfrey, whose salary is scheduled to count $7.1 million against the cap in 2014. If the team was going to approach Godfrey about restructuring his contract, it likely already would have done so, increasing the likelihood that he will be designated as a June 1 cut.
Re-signing Greg Hardy will also create cap space, as will restructuring the contracts of players like Charles Johnson and Jonathan Stewart. Moving these players' cap hit further into the future makes sense, because the salary cap is projected to rise by a substantial amount in 2015 due to a new television deal with CBS.
3. Sign Greg Hardy to Long-Term Contract
As a result of the Panthers using their franchise tag on Hardy, he will count $13.1 million against the team's cap in 2014. This decision has contributed a great deal to the team's inability to pursue and/or retain free agents.
Extending Hardy is not just a smart move for cap reasons—it also makes sense because he is an elite pass-rusher and defensive leader. The defensive end tied a franchise record with 15 sacks in 2013 and led the team in quarterback pressures by a sizable margin.
At 25, Hardy's best years should still be ahead of him, meaning that securing him to a contract now could save the team a big sum of money in the end—it could also be the only way of keeping him on the roster past 2014.
2. Starting Wideout
Although the Panthers' front office has added two solid players in Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood, they are still without a true No. 1 receiver.
Steve Smith was the team's No. 1 in 2013, but with his departure, the Panthers are left with big questions regarding the position. There aren't any affordable options left in free agency, which leaves the Panthers to take to the draft to find Cam Newton a main target; this isn't exactly a recipe for success, as reaching for a starting receiver in the draft rarely pays off.
Luckily for the Panthers, however, this is a deep draft at the position, so finding a starting receiver in the first or second round is possible and can be done without reaching.
Oregon State's Brandin Cooks would be an upgrade over Smith, but it's not a foregone conclusion that he'll be available when the Panthers' first-round selection comes around.
Another option is Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, who could be the big-bodied receiver that the Panthers have been yearning for since Muhsin Muhammad's departure nine seasons ago. Although, his struggles with dropped passes might be a bit alarming for Panther fans who are far too familiar with that condition.
1. Starting Left Tackle
Since Cam Newton was drafted, the Panthers have had the luxury of a perennial Pro-Bowl left tackle guarding their franchise quarterback's blind side.
That player was Jordan Gross, who retired earlier in the offseason, leaving the Panthers without a replacement of a similar skill level.
Because Gross has been such a consistent presence at the position, the team has not been forced to bring in competition. They're now paying for it, with only stopgap solutions currently existing on the roster.
Many anticipated Gettleman taking to free agency to replace Gross, but as all the proposed names began to sign contracts elsewhere, it became apparent that he would look for an heir to the position in the draft.
Gettleman is a great talent evaluator and as we saw last year, he loves to double-dip in the draft by selecting players of the same position in consecutive rounds. This strategy is great for inducing competition and often results in more informed selections, because teams that are desperate enough to double up at a position are likely to have extensively scouted any potential draftees at that spot.
It's tough to imagine Carolina not drafting at least one potential starter through the draft, as it knows firsthand how valuable blindside protection is to a young quarterback.