The off-season that started so well for the Carolina Panthers fizzled out nearly as quickly as it got going at the start of free agency nearly one month ago, leaving many fans wondering about the direction of the team. General manager David Gettleman has worked wonders with the salary cap over the past two years, but there’s a delicate balance between keeping the team within the cap and surrounding players like quarterback Cam Newton, set for free agency in 2015, with special players.
After giving All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy the franchise tag and then signing kicker Graham Gano to a four-year contract extension, the Panthers released five-time Pro-Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, the Panther’s all-time team leader in all-purpose yards, receiving yards, receptions, and receiving touchdowns, and then let free agent wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. sign with other teams.
The Baltimore Ravens immediately signed Smith to a three-year contract worth $11.5 million with a $3.5 million bonus. LaFell signed with the New England Patriots; Ted Ginn Jr. signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
After losing their top three wide receivers, Greg Olsen remains the only non-running back on the team with more than three targets (3), let alone receptions (2). In fact, the wide receiver trio, along with free agent Domenik Hixon, who also signed elsewhere (Chicago Bears), caught 55% of the team’s receptions (156) and received 58% of the team’s targets (274).
Also troubling were the losses of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell, both two of the better young players at their respective positions. Munnerlyn signed a three-year $11.25 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings; Mitchell signed a five-year $25 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Reserve defensive back Drayton Florence, Munnerlyn’s high quality back up at right cornerback, remains a free agent and will be 34 when the season begins.
The issues in the secondary have been partially resolved within by the return of safety Charles Godfrey, lost last year to a season-ending Achilles injury, and through free agency via the signing of former New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper. Speculation about Godfrey’s return have surfaced in recent days, however, as the Panthers will host former Atlanta Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud Monday (David Newton ESPN story). Godfrey’s contract will cost Carolina $7.1 million against the salary cap, a large number for someone who hasn’t played in over a year.
Both general manager David Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera have expressed their draft intentions numerous times, and plan to focus on wide receivers, the offensive line, and the secondary, unless someone more appropriate falls to their position in the first round (28th).
“Don’t write that in the draft the Panthers are taking this and this and this,” Gettleman said in a press conference. “Philosophically, we’re going to take the best player on the board.” That could be a number of players, as many scouts and analysts have billed this one of the deepest drafts in years, specifically at the Panther’s three positional needs.
“Before you run around and panic, you have to look at your roster and trust your evaluation process, and a lot of times the answer is right there,” Gettleman said. That could be the case for the Panther’s safeties, as the team has several options within their own roster. In addition to Godfrey, Harper, and the potential of adding DeCoud, the Panthers also have second-year safety Robert Lester out of Alabama under contract.
The Carolina Panthers are in far worse shape at cornerback. Assuming they don’t resign Florence, the Panthers have six cornerbacks on their roster, four of which played limited or no time in 2013. As for the remaining two, Melvin White started most of the season at left cornerback, playing well, and the team signed former Arizona Cardinal’s cornerback Antoine Cason last week to a one-year $795,000 contract. Fortunately for the Panthers, the 2014 draft class is loaded at cornerback.
Here’s a breakdown of the cornerbacks that could be available in the first two rounds of the 2014 draft (rank according to NFLDraftScout.com), where Carolina will have the 28th and 60th picks:
1 (#10). Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State) 6’0” 202 lbs: 4.37 (40 yard dash); 20 (225 lb. bench press reps); 35.5 (vertical jump)
2 (#16): Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) 5’11” 199 lbs: 4.51; 15; N/A
3 (#27): Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) 6’0” 190 lbs: 4.49; 12; 38.5.
4 (#31): Jason Verrett (TCU) 5’10” 189 lbs: 4.38; N/A; 39.
5 (#33): Bradley Roby (Ohio State) 5’11” 194 lbs: 4.39; 17; 38.5.
6 (#49): Marcus Roberson (Florida) 6’0” 194 lbs: 4.61; 8; 37.5.
7 (#55): Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State) 5’8” 184 lbs: 4.55; 14; 37.5.
8 (#67): Jaylen Watkins (Florida) 6’0” 194 lbs: 4.41; 22; N/A.
9 (#74): Pierre Desir (Lindenwood) 6’1” 198 lbs: 4.59; 11; 35
In addition to the top nine cornerbacks, in which the Carolina Panthers have a legitimate shot at drafting anyone on that list besides Dennard, the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, or Gilbert, the player many scouts think is better than Dennard and the best overall athlete in the draft, there are another nine cornerbacks ranked in the top-120, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
The cornerback class is a deep one in 2014, and the timing couldn’t be better. With only two cornerbacks of note on the Panthers roster, a game-changing cornerback fresh out of the draft could be just the replacement for the young Captain Munnerlyn. A player like Big 12 Co-defensive Player of the Year Jason Verrett, a speedy ball hawk who plays much more physical than his size would suggest, would be the perfect fit in the first round playing behind the Panther’s solid front seven.
Carolina could go the same route they went in 2013 and wait for the free agency process to play out, taking advantage of the free agents that fit the Panther’s system other teams may have overlooked; that strategy worked beautifully for the team last season, allowing the team to sign players like Mitchell.
Considering the salary cap issues the Carolina Panthers already have, and the impending free agency of team golden goose Newton in 2015, the Panthers may want to go the cheaper, younger route. Waiting out the free agency period may have worked last year; however, the smarter move this time around may be to take advantage of one of the deepest cornerback draft classes in years.
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