Carolina Panthers: Hot free agency starts to go cold

After making headlines two weeks ago by using the franchise tag on All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy and by signing Pro-Bowl kicker Graham Gano to a contract extension, the news since the free agency deadline Tuesday has been anything but good.

The Minnesota Vikings signed former Panthers free agent cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to a three-year deal Friday, reportedly worth $15M ( story). Munnerlyn was the second Panthers free agent defensive back to sign with another team this week; safety Mike Mitchell signed a five-year $25M contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers Wednesday, $5.25M of which is guaranteed ( story).

Munnerlyn started all 16 games last season for the Carolina Panthers and had a career-high 74 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks. Munnerlyn also had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. Although the young cornerback understood his former team’s position, he seemed to imply the Vikings wanted him more.

“I think they were kind of cash-strapped so they couldn’t afford to give me the money that Minnesota gave me,” Munnerlyn said in a conference call. “I understand. They’ve got some issues down there with the cap. It was just time for me to move, go to another team. This team, they valued me a little more than Carolina did.”

Carolina Panthers

Former Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn, now with Minnesota, intercepted two passes for TDs in 2013.

Mitchell started 14 games and intercepted four passes and forced two fumbles last season for the Carolina Panthers, his only with the team; Mitchell also recorded 3 ½ sacks and led all Panther’s defensive backs with 50 total tackles. The young safety seemed less diplomatic about his departure from Carolina, and while he didn’t take a shot at his former team, he did inexplicably take a shot at safety Ryan Clark, the man he’ll be replacing in Pittsburgh.

“I play with a very big chip on my shoulder, and just because you went to LSU and I went to Ohio (University) you’re no better than me, and I look forward to proving that every single Sunday,” Mitchell said in a press conference. Mitchell will need to prove that on Thursdays and Mondays as well, as the Steelers defense needs serious help, especially after parting ways with Clark.

Carolina Panthers

Quintin Mikell (27) and Mike Mitchell (21) combine to tackle Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez last season. Mitchell signed with Pittsburgh Wednesday.

The moves certainly leave a large void in the Panther’s secondary, a unit that ranked fifth in the NFL with 20 INTs and second with four defensive TDs last season. Overall the team ranked second in the league defensively in 2013 behind the Seattle Seahawks, both in points allowed (15.1) and total yards allowed (301.2).

Despite the increased salary cap, the retirement of Jordan Gross, and the restructuring of several exorbitant contracts the Panthers were clearly still feeling the cap space heat after tagging Hardy, with quarterback Cam Newton’s free agency looming in 2015. In addition to losing Munnerlyn and Mitchell, the Panthers also released wide receiver Steve Smith (signed with the Baltimore Ravens) and let receivers Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Chicago Bears) sign with other teams.

The situation at defensive back is bleak for the Panthers. With only six defensive backs on the roster heading into next season the Panthers will almost certainly keep safety Charles Godfrey; Godfrey is coming off a season-ending injuring in 2013 and his $7.1M 2014 cap hit carries $5M in dead money. The moves to let Munnerlyn and Mitchell go also guarantees Carolina either resigns veteran defensive backs Drayton Florence and/or Quintin Mikell, both 34 when the season begins, or draft the secondary help they need. The team did sign reserve cornerback James Dockery this week, most likely for insurance.

The Carolina Panthers were off to a great start this off-season signing Gano and Hardy, but things have gone down hill quickly. In addition to upsetting many fans and sending mixed messages with the handling of the Smith departure, the front office has now let two of the team’s top-four receivers and the team’s top cornerback and top safety go in the course of a week. It’s a good thing this is one of the deepest wide out and defensive back draft classes in years; perhaps therein lies the answer.

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  • Sean Faulkner

    It is unfortunate. They must have scouts reassuring them of the draft, or they simply have too much money invested in their defensive line, Newton’s future, and the running backs/Olsen (despite their restructuring). The cap increased this year, and is projected to increase up to $150M over the next two seasons; with their offensive line and RBs/TEs locked in for the most part, and the projected cap increases, you’d expect the Panthers to at least secure familiar weapons like Ginn Jr. for Newton going forward. Running and defense might be the team’s identity, but what’s the point of all of this restructuring for Newton’s impending free agency if the situation on offense is so bleak that he walks? I’m very surprised they let both Munnerlyn AND Mitchell go…again, they must have faith in this very deep draft.

  • Voyager829

    The Panthers are going to crash and burn because of the idiots in management letting so many stars walk. Fastest Panther ted ginn going to the cardinals ? Mitchell a steeler ? munnerlyn a Viking ? The panthers are disintegrating and they wont be above 500 for at least 2 years.