In a little over three weeks training camp begins for the Carolina Panthers at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC and there are still a few major questions as the team enters the new season, their 20th in the National Football League.
After a solid draft this past May and a few free agent signings to help bolster roster depth the Carolina Panthers have been able to deal with some of the key losses experienced this off season, like the retirement of stalwart tackle Jordan Gross, the loss of defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell, and the unceremonious departure of three of the team’s four top wide receivers, including the team’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Steve Smith.
Despite the additions of players like Roman Harper and Jerricho Cotchery through free agency and Kelvin Benjamin and Trai Turner through the draft, all of which will contribute immediately to key positions in need, one said position remains questionable while two others still have starters yet to be determined.
The addition of 2014 top draft pick Benjamin and the signing of the veteran Cotchery certainly gave Carolina Panthers fans a sigh of relief after inexplicably letting three of their top four wide receivers from 2013 sign with other teams, especially considering the remaining wide receivers on the Panther’s roster had two receptions in their combined NFL careers.
While the addition of the two aforementioned receivers will certainly boost the team’s passing production over untested receivers, it could be argued that the Carolina Panthers lack the necessary depth at wide receiver to compliment their relatively good running game.
Turner, who some argued was a steal as a third round draft choice in May due to his potential, has impressed through rookie and mini camps, and has been penciled in as the starting right guard, freeing up Garry Williams, a guard-tackle hybrid who started several games at right guard last year. Williams has showed much promise in camp after returning from a knee injury last season, and will compete with Byron Bell for the job a left tackle.
Although the Carolina Panthers have addressed some of their offensive line issues by drafting Turner, and have had some luck with the return of key reserves from last season, including the resurgence of Williams, the offensive line isn’t exactly a strong point for the team, and many analysts still wonder about quarterback Cam Newton’s left side protection. Bell, who was projected earlier to start at left tackle and is the highest paid linemen on the team in terms of base salary doesn’t even have his position locked down.
The secondary also received a boost through the draft, but it would be hard to argue the secondary was upgraded. The Panthers drafted safety Tre Boston out of North Carolina and cornerback Bene Benwikere out of San Jose State, a player the Panthers not only worked out privately, but traded away their 7th round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings to move up and draft him.
Carolina also added free agent safeties Harper (New Orleans) and Thomas DeCoud (Atlanta) in addition to cornerback Antoine Cason (Arizona). After the departures of Munnerlyn and Mitchell the secondary was left relatively bare, and with former safety turned cornerback Charles Godfrey returning from a season-ending Achilles injury in 2013, the team needed to add significant depth to the secondary to protect the elite front seven.
Although the team added at least five defensive backs and have Godfrey returning from injury the Panthers are still relying on one returning starting cornerback from last season, second year player Melvin White. Besides the relatively untested White, the team will rely on Antoine Cason, the former first round draft pick who has never played in the Panther’s scheme, and Godfrey, who has never played cornerback exclusively in the NFL.
So entering training camp and the end of the off-season the Carolina Panthers still have questions at the three key positions that troubled them entering free agency, although the team has made significant progress. With a little over $5 million in remaining cap space available to the team, the Panthers might want to consider signing at least another player at one of the aforementioned positions to bolster the roster – or even to start.
After seeing the success the team had signing free agent players like Quintin Mikell, Mike Mitchell and Drayton Florence to one-year contracts in 2013 it stands to reason the team would make a similar move this off-season considering the team’s recent success using that angle in addition to the $5.4 million in available salary cap space.
Below is a list of the two available free agents at each position (offensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver) the Carolina Panthers could sign. The team could potentially sign two of these players as each player would command a $1-3 million/year contract with two or fewer years guaranteed based on their market value and relative contracts.
- Bruce Campbell (Carolina Panthers) – waived by the Panthers in 2013 due to injury, Campbell’s one-year deal with the Washington Redskins was also voided after failing his physical. However, the 6’ 6” Maryland product remains one of the highest rated free agent tackles. If Campbell gets healthy and can pass a physical, he could be a good, experienced fit for the Panthers, and would most likely command much less money than his previous contract with the Redskins ($710,000).
- David Stewart (Tennessee Titans) – released due to the famed “failed physical”, Stewart’s release was more a function of saving salary cap space; the Titans saved $6.5 million by doing so. The Pro-Bowl tackle out of Ole Miss played his entire career for the Titans and his experienced 6’ 7” frame could be just the protection Newton needs. Stewart might command upwards of $2 million per year for 1-2 years, well within the Panthers range for such a player.
- Terrell Thomas (New York Giants) – the Panthers recently met with Thomas about the 7th-year corner joining the team according to the Charlotte Observer. Thomas suffered multiple ACL injuries in 2011-2012, but bounced back nicely in 2013 playing all 16 games recording 67 tackles. The USC product has 12 career interceptions and would most likely command around the same salary he was paid with the Giants in 2013 ($750,000).
- Drayton Florence (Carolina Panthers) – Florence was a reserve cornerback for the Panthers in 2013 after signing to a one-year deal and played in 14 games, intercepting two passes and defending nine. Florence made nearly $1 million in 2013, but would command significantly less in 2014 while basically playing the same role as last season.
- Danario Alexander (San Diego Chargers) – Alexander hasn’t played in over a year after suffering a torn ACL in August of the preseason last year, but there’s four things that stand about Alexander: he’s huge (6’ 5” 217-pounds), he was very productive when he was on the field, he’s a Missouri guy, and he’ll be relatively cheap. Once an All-American at Missouri Alexander has never really lived up to his full potential, but injuries and opportunity are mostly to blame for that. Alexander even went undrafted due to an injury after being a mid-round projection, although it would be hard to label Alexander as “injury-prone”. One would have to believe that hunger and playing with a few fellow alum (e.g. Kony Ealy) could be just the spark Alexander needs – and if he were to sign with Carolina along with Marcus Lucas, another Missouri Tiger, then the Carolina Panthers would have three wide outs at 6’ 5” 215-pounds or more.
- Santonio Holmes (New York Jets) – I know, I wouldn’t really want him either, but considering his experience and the fact that he’s still only 30, he might warrant consideration. At the end of the day Holmes probably isn’t the guy you want mentoring Benjamin or taking his frustrations out on an already somewhat (emotionally) fragile, but maturing Newton. Additionally, like Campbell, and possibly Stewart, Holmes represents the only other player on this list with enough cache to cause contractual issues and it’s been stated many times the Panthers only have so much to work with, especially considering future contract and salary cap considerations. Holmes is certainly worth the mention, but may be a short Terrell Owens at this point.
The bottom line is the Carolina Panthers need to make another move or even two. Team needs were addressed to some degree in the draft and through free agency, but to content for the NFC versus the likes of Seattle and San Francisco, which is the level the Panthers are now at, they must make sure they have the secondary to compliment one of the league’s top front seven units, have enough weapons for a Cam Newton in his prime, and a solid line to protect him.
The Panthers might be on their way, but they’re far from finished. If the Panthers want to continue their rise, they have to make a move…or two.
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