Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Carolina Panthers Made This Offseason
The general consensus from the media is that the Carolina Panthers took a step back this offseason—that they could not improve the roster because they were so cap-strapped by the ridiculous contracts handed out by former general manager Marty Hurney.
For Panthers fans, seeing their team being counted out by the media is nothing new. Before last season, few believed that they had any chance of competing with the Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints within the NFC South, but they quieted those doubters by going 5-1 within the division and gaining a No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Watch out for the Panthers to surprise their detractors once again in 2014 because if we learned anything from last season, it should be to not doubt Dave Gettleman's free-agent signings or draft decisions, no matter how questionable they may seem at first.
The following players represent the top roster upgrades that Carolina made over the offseason. They are ranked by the extent to which the upgrade will impact the team's performance in 2014 based on the role of the position in the team's offensive and defensive scheme, the difference in talent between the incoming and replaced starter and the intangibles that the players bring to the team.
7. Cornerback (Antoine Cason over Drayton Florence)
Antoine Cason comes to Carolina from the Arizona Cardinals, where he spent just one season and started no games after spending the previous three years as the starting cornerback for the San Diego Chargers.
Despite the limited playing time, Cason still managed two interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown. This playmaking ability, which he has displayed consistently throughout his career, comes as a welcome addition to a group of cornerbacks that struggled to create turnovers in 2013, with just seven combined interceptions.
Florence accounted for two of those seven interceptions, but a combination of aging and less than ideal size led the Panthers to let him go in favor of the 28-year-old free agent.
Cason will not only be an upgrade in zone coverage, but he's also more willing and able in run support. He's a solid hitter who's willing to step up to more intimidating backs, and he's also the better open-field tackler of the two.
Cason won't magnificently turn into a shutdown corner for Carolina, but he is a great fit in their zone scheme and doesn't have any glaring weaknesses in his game.
6. Strong Safety (Roman Harper over Quintin Mikell)
After spending the first eight years of his career with New Orleans, Harper comes to the division-rival Panthers after the Saints decided to let him go in order to free room to pursue big-time free-agent safety Jairus Byrd.
This is a solid signing by Carolina for several reasons, the first of which is need. The only strong safety on the roster was sophomore Robert Lester, who, despite showing flashes in his rookie season, was still not ready to take on a role as a full-time starter.
Beyond need, signing Harper makes sense because of fit. We saw how effective a high-energy, physical box safety can be in this defense when Mike Mitchell had a terrific season for the team in 2013, and Harper will play a very similar role. He may lag a bit behind 2013 starter Quintin Mikell in coverage, but he's superior as a run supporter and leader.
5. Second-String Tight End (Ed Dickson over Ben Hartsock)
Ben Hartsock was a solid blocker for the Panthers, which was especially important when the team ran a more run-oriented offense. However, since signing him three years ago, they've tried to create more balance, and that meant they had to acquire a different set of skills at the position.
Ed Dickson is infinitely more threatening as a receiver; his 1,178 receiving yards and seven touchdowns over four years tower over Hartsock's 11-year career numbers of 312 yards and one touchdown.
Dickson has also improved mightily as a blocker and will be trusted to come on the field in third down situations as a wild card to stay in protection or go out for a pass.
Having a more dynamic player opposite starter Greg Olsen will open up a lot of options for Carolina that it hasn't experienced since it had Jeremy Shockey for a season in 2011.
4. Second-String X Receiver (Jason Avant over Domenik Hixon)
A year ago, Domenik Hixon was signed with high hopes that he would fulfill his potential and become an impact player on the Panthers offense. However, he failed to gain traction in his quest to win playing time and largely remained on the bench.
While few knew what to expect out of Hixon before last season, it is very clear what Jason Avant will offer the team in 2014 and what he has already done to make them better.
Avant was an incredibly consistent piece of the Philadelphia Eagles offense during his eight years there, and that reliability made him alluring to a team that has struggled to find receivers who don't burn out after any more than two to three years.
Look for Avant to quietly become one of Cam Newton's favorite targets this season; he has some of the surest pass-catching hands in the league, and that is also a welcome addition after last year's group struggled so mightily with drops.
3. Second-String Defensive End (Kony Ealy over Frank Alexander)
The Panthers may have gotten themselves one of the premier steals of the 2014 draft when Kony Ealy fell all the way to their second-round pick at No. 60 overall.
Ealy is an incredibly versatile player who can look like an edge-rushing linebacker at times but also bump down inside and play on the interior defensive line.
Frank Alexander remains on the team, but the Panthers will be without his services for the first four games of the season as he serves a substance-related suspension. He's very solid in run support but has never developed the pass-rushing ability that we've seen short glimpses of in the preseason.
Ealy is an upgrade because of his dominance when he flips the switch and gets into high gear. When he is playing at 100 percent, he's a disruptive force regardless of the ability of the offensive lineman in front of him.
He needs to continue to add bulk to further his ability to anchor against the run if he is to become the team's starter in 2015.
2. Right Guard (Trai Turner over Chris Scott)
Another potential steal from the Panthers' draft class came in the third round in the form of Trai Turner, a road-grading guard out of LSU who has immense potential to become a great football player in the NFL.
Turner needs to refine his footwork in pass protection because pure strength won't do the job at this level, but his tenacity in the run game will immediately make a difference.
2013 starter Chris Scott remains on the team, but he'll almost certainly begin the season as the backup at either guard spot along with Edmund Kugbila.
Scott is not the run-blocker that Turner is, and at this point, that's Carolina's top priority at the guard spot. If the Panthers are to make another run at the division crown, they are going to have to get back to the franchise's ground-and-pound mentality, something that Turner will certainly aid in accomplishing.
1. Z Receiver (Jerricho Cotchery over Brandon LaFell)
Much fuss has been made of the Panthers' decisions at receiver this offseason, but the fact is that they should have an improved group from last season, and that improvement begins with the starting Z receiver who will play opposite rookie Kelvin Benjamin.
In 2013, Brandon LaFell dropped 7.0 percent of the passes thrown to him, good for 14th worst in the NFL among receivers with at least 20 receptions. On the other hand, Cotchery dropped just 2.6 percent of passes thrown to him.
The inability for the Panthers to be able to rely on the catching ability of their receivers dates back years, and they've finally addressed it with the addition of Cotchery and Avant, who was named earlier on this list.
Cotchery was also extremely effective in the red zone last season with 10 touchdown receptions in a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that was very conservative in its use of the 10-year veteran wideout. He was used mainly in a possession-receiver role, and he may play that role again in 2014, as Newton needs a reliable go-to receiver if Benjamin doesn't immediately step into that role.