Carolina Panthers: More work ahead as deadline approaches

The NFL New Year begins next Tuesday on March 11th, and with the New Year comes free agency. The retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, kicker Graham Gano’s contract extension, and defensive end Greg Hardy signing his franchise tender today has shifted the Carolina Panther’s focus towards resigning other key free agents from their successful 2013 campaign. League-wide increases to the salary cap, recently restructured contracts, and the retirement of Gross freed up nearly twice the anticipated $12M in cap space. The Panthers are off to a good start resigning Hardy and Gano, but they need to sign more of those players for continued success.

Key offensive linemen like unrestricted free agent left guard Travelle Wharton will be crucial to continued success of the run game, and restricted free agents right tackle Byron Bell and back up right guard Chris Scott could be counted on more than ever after the retirement of Gross. I would move starting right guard Nate Chandler (Gross’ back up) to left tackle, and move Chris Scott to starting right guard. Resigning Wharton, Bell, and Scott would keep the 2013 offensive line in tact with the exception of Gross, who would be replaced by Scott.

Carolina Panthers

Left guard Travelle Wharton was critical to the Panther’s run game last season.

Signing Gano to an extension earlier this week was crucial, but the Panther’s special teams unit would have suffered greatly without returner Ted Ginn Jr. last season, who ranked in the top-ten in both punt and kick return yards. An unrestricted free agent, Ginn Jr. was also first on the team in yards per catch (15.4), third in TDs (5), and fourth on the team in receptions and receiving yards.

Restricted free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell was even more important to the passing game last year, ranking in the top-three in team in receptions (49), targets (88), receiving yards (627), yards per catch (12.8), and TDs (5). Carolina needs to improve upon last season’s 18th-ranked offense (22.9 ppg), and signing these two skill players might be the most cost-effective, team- and fan-friendly move the front office could make.

Carolina Panthers

Brandon LaFell was the Panthers No. 2 wide receiver last season.

The free agency market for wide receivers remains strong despite recent free agent signings, and this is one of the stronger receiving draft classes in years. LaFell, Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon cost the Panthers $1.5M, $1.1M, and $1.2M against the cap in 2013, respectively, and it can be assumed LaFell and Ginn Jr. will be looking to improve on those numbers. Considering the in-house moves the Panthers can make to keep the offensive line in tact, the Panthers best course of action might be to draft a receiver in the first round, potentially saving them much needed money at the wide receiver/return positions.

The Panther’s defense was a different story last season, ranking second in the NFL in both scoring (15.1 ppg) and total yards (301.2 ypg). Four of the keys to that success, cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence, and safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell , are all set to become unrestricted free agents a week from today. This foursome only cost a collective $3.31M against the cap in 2013, which makes it hard to believe the team could retain all four going forward.

The team could potentially part ways with Captain Munnerlyn, who could command enough attention to pull him away from the Panthers, allowing them to sign cornerback Drayton Florence, who’ll be 34 in December, to a one-year cap-friendly deal. Munnerlyn is the seventh-ranked free agent cornerback according to NFLTradeRumors.com, and Miami’s Brent Grimes, ranked second, just resigned a four-year extension with the Dolphins for $32M, $16M of which is guaranteed. One could look at that one of two ways: there are other CBs on the market that will drive Munnerlyn’s value down or the value looks like it could be out of the Panther’s range regardless. It should be noted Florence ranks 10th on the list of free agent CBs.

Carolina Panthers

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn becomes a free agent next Tuesday.

Safeties  Mikell and Mitchell were critical to the success of the Panther’s defense last year, but Mikell will be 34 when the season begins and back up Robert Lester, a third year safety out of Alabama, will only be 26. Mitchell, who will only be 27 when the season begins, had an outstanding season and could command upwards of $3-4M per year; NFLTradeRumors.com ranks Mitchell as the eighth free agent safety in a position that commands a $7-8M franchise tag.

When Mitchell joked on Twitter about shoveling snow to make money, I replied “Something tells me you don’t need it…” to which he replied:

Carolina Panthers

Safety Mike Mitchell’s Twitter response to the contributor.

The man wants to get paid, and he deserves it.

Signing Mitchell is a similar situation to signing Munnerlyn: they could both require substantially more money than they cost in 2013, but the free agent market contains several outstanding players at both positions. The idea would be to keep the current unit together as much as possible, which may make signing younger players Munnerlyn and Mitchell priorities, while letting older players like Florence and Mikell become cap causalities.  Of course signing the latter two would save considerable cap space, but the Panthers would be right back in this position next season if they were to go that route.

Still other key free agents remain, including defensive tackle Chris Cole and back up quarterback Derek Anderson. Cole, 34 when the season begins, probably played his last games in Carolina in January as reserves Dwan Edwards and third-year player Kawann Short should fill in fine at right defensive tackle. Derek Anderson is a different story, as he’s familiar with the team, has experience running an NFL offense, and is the only option besides the draft or failed 2010 second round draft pick Jimmy Clausen, who only seems in Charlotte in the event they have trouble resigning Anderson.

Carolina Panthers

Chris Cole’s age could make him a cap casualty.

After signing Gano to a 4-year $12.4M contract extension earlier this week and Hardy’s $13.1M tender today we can assume the Panthers have ~$10-14M in available cap space remaining, which could be just enough to sign the necessary players hitting free agency next week. Based on their age, 2013 salary cap hits, the franchise tag amount applied to their position, and the player’s positional rank relative to other free agents of the same position (if applicable), I’ve determined that the Panthers could affords to sign (2014 cap numbers): Wharton ($4M), Bell ($1.1M), Scott ($1.1), Ginn Jr. ($3M), Mitchell ($3M), Florence ($1.1M), and Anderson ($<1M).

This total of ~$14.2M is about the assumed cap limit for the Panthers in 2014, and they’ll have draft picks to sign in addition to analyzing the current free agent market. The right personal works for the right numbers, but the players have to agree to the numbers. The Carolina Panthers still have a lot of work to do as the free agency deadline approaches, but they’re off to a great start.

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