The Carolina Panthers' return to the playoffs was a fun run for the franchise and its fans. But three months later, that success has the team in an unenviable spot heading into the draft.
Dave Gettleman could only watch during free agency while a number of his guys got poached by other teams. The second-year general manager, solidly committed to fixing the Panthers' salary-cap mess, essentially sat out the first wave, finally signing veterans like receiver Jerricho Cotchery and cornerback Antoine Cason when the bargain shopping period began.
And while the Panthers' receiver makeover has received the most notice this offseason, if quarterback Cam Newton does not have time to throw, it doesn't matter who his wideouts are. Left tackle Jordan Gross went from the Pro Bowl in January to retirement in February. The number of replacements Carolina signed to replace him: zero.
The Panthers have scared their fan base by claiming Byron Bell could fill Gross' spot. Bell has been a liability at right tackle, so a shift to an even more important role seems doomed from the start. Essentially, the Panthers could use a couple new tackles, and then there's potential problems at guard. Former starter Amini Silatolu is coming off a torn ACL and Carolina is putting a decent amount of faith in Edmund Kugbila, who couldn't get through a single training camp practice before getting hurt his rookie season.
As evidenced by using his top two picks in 2013 on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, Gettleman is a big believer in building from the inside-out. So while drafting a shiny new wideout may be more exciting, a first-round tackle would be smarter.
"I know a lot of teams are excited about the depth of the draft. I know we are," center Ryan Kalil said Tuesday. "But, still, I think it'd be nicer if we were a little bit closer to the front for some of those guys."
And here's where the issue of making the post-season last year causes problems now. The Panthers have the 28th pick, likely too late to pick up one of the elite tackles. Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan should be long gone by the time Carolina's on the clock. That leaves options like Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Virginia's Morgan Moses and Notre Dame's Zack Martin, who could all be solid, but who also bring many more question marks.
So the Panthers could try to fill the huge vacancy left by Gross at 28, but if they do that, there's still the matter of receiver and cornerback. Fortunately for Carolina, this year's draft is stacked at wideout, so they could find some potential gems in the second round and later. Cornerback is not as deep, but former scout Gettleman proved last year he has a keen eye for finding value.
Ultimately, the Panthers need to get Newton weapons and protection, but with such a late pick, it will be a challenge to do both.
"Of course I'm hoping for a receiver; I'm hoping for an offensive player, but at the end of the day, what's the use of grabbing a guy who can't really help your team? We just want the right guy," Newton said, when asked whom he hopes Carolina picks.
"There's a lot of talented receivers, a lot of talented tackles, a lot of talented players in this draft, but one thing that I have learned in the three years I've been in this league is, you can have all the talent in the world, if you're not willing to work and help the team, and humble yourself first, all that talent can go to waste."
For Newton's sake, the Panthers can't waste their first-round pick on a lemon. Gettleman and Co. have to nail that and at least a few other choices, even if they have to wait awhile to do it.
--After the Panthers released 13-year veteran Steve Smith and saw Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon leave through free agency, plenty of jokes have been made at Cam Newton's expense.
The quarterback lost his top four options at wideout, and the veterans Carolina brought in are unlikely to scare many defenses. For his part, Newton said all the right things about the makeover when he met with local media Tuesday.
He said, "I was happy more than anything to see Brandon LaFell get the contract that he did get, to see Ted get the contract that he did get, Dom and Steve and those guys. I can't be mad. We have a relationship outside of football and it's extremely healthy. So, as far as me being selfish enough to be surprised and to be mad, absolutely not."
--The Panthers brought in three guys to talk to the media Tuesday, and it was hard not to see a theme. Quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and center Ryan Kalil are not just the team's three most important players, they also represent a turned-over locker room.
Receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross, formerly the two longest-tenured Panthers who had accrued 24 combined seasons, are gone. Even though they were team captains last season, the path is clear for Newton, Kuechly and Kalil to make this their team.
They all have distinct personalities, but share a common trait: they know how to lead, even if they do so differently.
"The vocal thing is more Thomas (Davis), and he's good at that and he likes it. So that's something that I don't necessarily have to do quite as much and that's good for me," Kuechly said, when asked about his role as the defense's leader. "I think for me I would rather just talk to guys, ask what they're feeling, what they like to do and I like to just lead by example."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
OFFENSIVE TACKLE: The retirement of 11-year starting left tackle Jordan Gross has left a huge void at the most important position on the line. Byron Bell will get a shot to take over, but he struggled in his first three seasons at right tackle. Former defensive tackle-turned-offensive guard Nate Chandler is another in-house candidate, but the Panthers will surely grab at least one tackle in the draft.
WIDE RECEIVER: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon are out; Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant are in. The wideout changes have been talked about ad nauseam and with good reason. You could argue there is not a No. 2 receiver in the group, let alone a No. 1.
CORNERBACK: Captain Munnerlyn, one of the franchise's biggest overachievers, got the long-term contract he wanted in Minnesota. The Panthers signed Antoine Cason, who is trying to resurrect his career after a year spent coming off the bench in Arizona. Former undrafted rookie Melvin White is likely the other starter, so this is another trouble spot that needs to be addressed.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: DE Greg Hardy (tendered at $13.116M; signed tender March 4).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OT Bruce Campbell spent all of last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The Panthers need bodies on the line, and if they bring Campbell back, that's what he'll be.
--QB Jimmy Clausen spent all of last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The guy who started 10 games in 2010 will try to find a home elsewhere.
--LB Dan Connor played specials teams in five games last season after he was waived from injured reserve by the Giants. He was brought in for depth and likely won't be back.
--CB Drayton Florence was cut before last season began, but the Panthers brought him back in September. The 11-year veteran started five games, but if he plays next year, it will likely be elsewhere.
--TE Ben Hartsock is coming off his third season as the Panthers' blocking tight end. The team would like to bring him back, especially for his help in the run game.
--S Quintin Mikell started 12 games after the Panthers picked him up just before the start of the season. An 11-year veteran, Mikell could be brought back to a team in need of bodies in the secondary.
--G Travelle Wharton started the final 12 games of last season in place of an injured Amini Silatolu. If the soon-to-be 33 year old doesn't retire, he could very well be back in Carolina next season.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--T Byron Bell (tendered at $2.187M with second-round pick as compensation) has made 40 starts at right tackle over the last three seasons. The Panthers could give him a shot to start at left tackle, but Bell winning that role seems unlikely.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--G Chris Scott (tendered at $570,000) made eight starts at guard last season. The Panthers would rather have someone else start in 2014.
--QB Derek Anderson: UFA; terms unknown.
--TE/FB Richie Brockel: Potential RFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--DT Colin Cole: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB James Dockery: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.
--K Graham Gano: Potential UFA; $12.4M/4 yrs, $3M SB/$3.95M guaranteed.
--DE Greg Hardy: Franchise FA; $13.116M/1 yr.
--T/G Garry Williams: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Jason Williams: UFA; terms unknown.
--WR Jason Avant: FA Eagles; $1.05M/1 yr, $150,000 SB.
--CB Antoine Cason: UFA Cardinals; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Jerricho Cotchery: UFA Steelers; 2 yrs, $2.25M SB.
--S Thomas DeCoud: FA Falcons; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--TE Ed Dickson: UFA Ravens; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--S Roman Harper: FA Saints; $4.5M/2 yrs, $1.5M SB.
--TE Mike McNeill: Not tendered as RFA by Rams; $1.52M/2 yr, $100,000 SB.
--WR Tiquan Underwood: UFA Buccaneers; terms unknown.
--QB Joe Webb: UFA Panthers; terms unknown.
--C Jeff Byers (ERFA/retired).
--WR Ted Ginn: UFA Cardinals; $9.75M/3 yrs.
--T Jordan Gross (UFA/retired).
--G Geoff Hangartner (UFA/retired).
--WR Domenik Hixon: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Brandon LaFell: UFA Patriots; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Mike Mitchell: UFA Steelers; terms unknown.
--CB Captain Munnerlyn: UFA Vikings; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Senn: UFA Bears; $795,000/1 yr.
--WR Steve Smith (released).
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