The dust has settled on the Carolina Panthers 12-4 season and with that the attention shifts to the Carolina front office for free agency. In all, the Panthers have 21 free agents and given their current cap problems will have to let some of them go. I’ll break down some of the big names looking for new contracts.
Greg Hardy- Defensive End
Status: Free Agent
Why the Panthers should keep him: Hardy was nothing short of spectacular on the defensive line. The Kraken has always talked a big game and he backed up the talk in 2013. He finished the year with 15 sacks, tying a franchise record and getting selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Simply put, Hardy causes huge matchup problems for an opposing offensive line. Double him and leave either Charles Johnson or Star Lotulelei one on one. Try to play him straight up and he’s shown he can destroy offensive lines (See the New Orleans game) . Getting Hardy signed to a long term deal would put Carolina in excellent position in the future to make a Super Bowl run.
Why he could walk: To say the Panthers have salary cap issues would be like saying the Titanic had an issue with an iceberg. Hardy stated toward the end of the season he would be willing to give Carolina a hometown discount to keep him. There was no mention of said discount by the end of the season. Hardy knows he’s one of the best players in the league and wants to be paid like the best. That I can’t blame him for.
General Manager Dave Gettleman has played his cards very close to the chest on Hardy and other free agents. He even took it a step further and said at a January press conference that “Every team has let a big dog walk”. The $12. 5 million franchise tag is an option for the team but it would eat up the Panthers $11 million in cap space.
Jordan Gross- Offensive Tackle
Why the Panthers should keep him: Gross has played every season with Carolina dating back to 2003. Gross carries a lot of respect in the locker room given his veteran status and a lot of younger players look up to him. That alone is a great reason to bring him back. Production wise, I believe the former Utah star still has a few years left in the tank. Gross has stated that if he isn’t resigned by Carolina he will retire, saying he didn’t want to play for another team. Given his dedication and production in recent years, the Panthers could easily work out a 2 or 3 year deal without breaking the bank.
Why he could walk: As great as Gross has been, the undeniable fact still remains true, he isn’t getting any younger. He’ll turn 34 in the summer just before training camp. It’s admirable that he is still in the league, but if the Carolina front office feels it can get a younger tackle in free agency or the draft, you may see a Gross retirement ceremony soon.
Cam Newton- Quarterback
Why the panthers should keep him: I’ll go ahead and point out the obvious. Newton’s rookie deal isn’t up until after next season. With that said, Newton has earned the right to a long term deal. His rookie deal was one of the first under the new collective bargaining agreement which was 4 years at $22 million. Cam has proven that he is a franchise quarterback given his play that helped the Cats get back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. There were a lot of questions about if Newton was the guy to lead Carolina back to the promised land. The verdict is still out if Cam can get the Panthers a Lombardi trophy, but it’s tough to argue that he isn’t a franchise quarterback.
Why he could walk: It’s tough for me to imagine a scenario where Newton leaves the Panthers. Cam has said repeatedly he wants to remain and even finish his career in Charlotte. The only thing that would possibly hold things up is if Newton demands an unreasonable amount of money.
Captain Munnerlyn- Defensive Back
Why the Panthers should keep him: Munnerlyn is not a guy that will wow you with his athleticism but he will impress you with his IQ. In a season where the Panthers secondary struggled, Munnerlyn provided some key plays including two pick sixes one of which helped seal a win against the Jets late in the season. Captain got emotional when interviewed after the season saying he felt Carolina was his home and wanted to stay. The Panthers are set to meet with Munnerlyn next week at the combine. Expect other teams to pursue him if Carolina can’t work out a deal.
Why he could walk: Munnerlyn is among three other members of the Panther secondary up for a new contract. It could come down to who the front office feels is the best moving forward among that group. If that happens, Munnerlyn will have a great chance of being resigned.
Why the Panthers should keep him: Was there anyone on the Panthers that was as clutch as Graham Gano this season? You’d be hard pressed to find one. Usually kickers don’t make anyone’s top free agent list, but I’ll make an exception for Gano. The former Redskin finished 24/27 on the year and may have even reminded Panther fans of former kicking great John Kasay. Well, almost.
Why He Could Walk: Kickers usually don’t demand huge contracts in free agency. Gano is grateful for getting another chance in the NFL after the Washington Redskins dumped him for wait for it… inconsistency. Carolina would be crazy to let him walk.
Ted Ginn- Wide Receiver
Why the Panthers should keep him: Ginn was labeled a first round bust early in his career and bounced around teams until he finally found a home in Carolina. He had a career year where he caught a career high five touchdowns including the game winner against New England and provided the Panthers with another speedy downfield threat opposite Steve Smith. Given Smith’s age and fellow receiver Brandon LaFell heading towards free agency, Carolina has to make Ginn a priority.
Why he could walk: The Panthers signed Ginn to a one year deal because they wanted to see if he had the skill set to be an every down receiver instead of a glorified kick returner. He definitely proved his worth. Wide Receiver is an area the Cats need help in and resigning Ginn would help ease some of the concerns in that area.
Final Thoughts: This is General Manager Dave Gettleman’s first full offseason calling the shots and he has kept his intentions between him and his office. Gettleman stated at his January press conference that the team was “cap challenged” and said if all goes well the team will have resolved those challenges in two years. In the mean time, Dave has some tough choices to make. He’s shown he’s not afraid to shake ties to longtime Panthers and even fan favorites (Jon Beason and Armanti Edwards). Don’t hold out hope for the team to make a blockbuster signing. If anything the Panthers will look for this years Ted Ginn or Chase Blackburn. A player that isn’t flashy, but can provide help in a key area for the team and also provide another veteran presence in the locker room. Expect things to heat up next week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis where the team is scheduled to meet with some of their free agents. The madness begins on March 11 at 4 PM when free agency officially opens.