Carolina Panthers: Free agency exposes draft needs

The frenzied portion of the NFL free agency period seems to be over, and while many more free agency moves will certainly occur over the coming weeks to months, many teams have made their free agency moves and have begun looking toward the draft to fill positions or secure depth.

Many teams made headlines during the first few weeks of the free agency period, perhaps none more than the Carolina Panthers, who made headlines for their lack of involvement in the process. The opportunity to land marquee players usually sparks major interest in a team during the long offseason, especially for a team coming off one of their best years in team history.

Such was not the case during this free agency period, as the Panthers actually lost key players to free agency rather than signing or retaining them. The Panthers came within a few acts of raw emotion of going to their second Super Bowl last season, and with the roster the Panthers were planning on rolling out next year, a second Super Bowl trip seemed to be the goal. That hasn’t necessarily been the case so far based on this offseason.

Stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross retired, but the Panthers made no moves to fill his spot despite the availability of several key tackles via free agency. They did resign Byron Bell and Chris Scott, and the case has been made several times, including here at (Carolina Panthers news), that the offensive line could be constructed using the current roster without missing a beat. That’s probably true considering the Panthers also have guards Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila coming back from season-ending injuries, two respectable linemen that will slide right into their respective positions.

Carolina Panthers

Left tackle Jordan Gross announced his retirement before free agency.

In my opinion the Panthers’ offensive line was the most stable part of the team besides the defensive front seven heading into free agency. Even without left tackle Gross and Travelle Wharton also hinting at retirement, I felt the Panthers’ offensive line was solid. Perhaps therein lies the reason Carolina never tested free agency for a tackle and why the team let other key skill players go to free agency: Carolina’s implying they won’t be drafting an offensive lineman high in the draft because they don’t need one.

What the Panthers do clearly need are skill positions players. One can say whatever they want about the moves on the offensive line, especially on the heels of quarterback Cam Newton’s major offseason ankle surgery, but when you consider the Panthers have now lost wide receivers Steve Smith (released, signed with Baltimore Ravens), Brandon LaFell (free agent, signed with New England Patriots), and Domenik Hixon (free agent, signed with Chicago Bears), the situation seems dire.

The Panthers have made some moves to replace their wide receivers, although some of those moves have been ridiculed after the signings of Tiquan Underwood and Jerricho Cotchery were offered as immediate replacements for the likes of Steve Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. However, before people laugh, they should recall that the Panthers are a run-first team, averaging 100+ yards in 15 of 16 games in 2013; their wide receivers only averaged 10 receptions per game during those 15 games.

Carolina Panthers

Former Steelers WR Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Panthers last week.

Cotchery, 31, caught 10 TD passes for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, more than Smith (4) and LaFell (5) combined; Underwood, who scored 4 TDs himself last season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also averaged 18.3 yards per reception, third in the NFL for receivers with at least 20 receptions. So the wide receiver position may not be as bad as advertised for the Panthers, but it’s pretty clear that a 31-year-old veteran and a player with 63 career receptions will not be counted on to anchor the receiving corps for the Panthers.

Also on the Panthers’ radar will be defensive backs after the losses of Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell to free agency, two key players on Carolina’s second-ranked defense last season. It was widely speculated the Panthers would have trouble retaining all of their key free agents, but few saw the team departing with most of them, especially two young key secondary players as Munnerlyn and Mitchell. Such is the business of the NFL and now Carolina is forced to replace them, too.

The loss of Mitchell is relieved by the return of Charles Godfrey, who was lost last year to a season-ending Achilles injury, and the signing of free agent safety Roman Harper. Harper, the face of the New Orleans Saints secondary for years, will play strong safety along with sophomore back-up Robert Lester; Godfrey will play free safety and nickel cornerback. The Panthers are in better shape at safety than people think.

Carolina Panthers

Safety Roman Harper signed with the Carolina Panthers last week.

Cornerback is another story. The left side of the field is in good shape with a young Melvin White manning the position, and very reliable back ups Josh Thomas and Josh Norman in his wake. The right side of the field on the other hand is not only in bad shape, it’s empty. The Panthers have made moves, but none necessarily in the context of a roster replacement.

The team signed free agent cornerback Antoine Cason from the Arizona Cardinals, and although Cason has 322 tackles, 58 defended passes, and 14 interceptions in 96 career games, he had career lows in all three of those categories in 2013 after taking over for Tyrann Mathieu, who was lost to a season-ending injury. In other words, with all due respect to Cason, he isn’t exactly replacing Munnerlyn. Drayton Florence, Munnerlyn’s highly serviceable back up in 2013, has not been resigned and remains a free agent; Florence will be 34 when the season begins.

Although the Panthers have made off-season moves, some of them perhaps considered significant, there are still glaring deficiencies that require addressing. Those deficiencies are at wide receiver and cornerback and the Carolina Panthers will almost certainly secure those with their first two draft picks, at 28th and 60th in the first two rounds. What do you know; this is the deepest wide receiver/cornerback draft class in years. After losing key skill players who were not only game-changers but also fan favorites, the Carolina Panthers are going to need all the talent they can get.

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