Team Report - CAROLINA PANTHERS

The SportsXchange

INSIDE SLANT

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Tuesday the team is expected to exercise its fifth-year option on quarterback Cam Newton, keeping him in Carolina at least two more seasons.

"Yes," Gettleman said Tuesday at the NFL league meetings in Orlando, Fla. "Yes, that's a fair statement."

Carolina has until May 3 to inform Newton and his representation it will use the fifth-year option that was built into the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011.

Newton is recovering from ankle surgery but is expected to be ready for training camp. He is expected to miss four months of offseason work.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, Newton will be entitled to the average of the league's 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in 2015. Estimates for that are around $13.7 million, but it could change, according to ESPN.com.

The Panthers likely won't get to the fifth year of Newton's contract, as they seek to sign the first pick of the 2011 draft to a long-term deal.

Gettleman reaffirmed Tuesday that the surgery went well and there are no concerns with Newton physically.

The fifth-year option buys Carolina time to get a new deal done without risk of Newton becoming a free agent after next season.

"This is the first time this has all happened," Gettleman said of the fifth-year option. "As you plan, as you think about it, as you make decisions, the thing you have to remember is, I know that every decision I make, there's a message being sent to the locker room. And that's impactful."

Although ESPN.com reported the injury occurred in Week 16 last season, head coach Ron Rivera recently told the Charlotte Observer it's actually an injury that began while Newton was in college.

Rivera said, "They went through what they do normally. Every year it's been the same thing for the last couple years. This time when he started, after the rest and everything, it wasn't getting as well as fast as it had last time. "They went through the (process), looked at it and decided this was the best course of action for him."

The 24-year-old Newton completed his third year with the Panthers in 2013, passing for 3,379 yards and 24 touchdowns with 13 interceptions in 16 regular-season starts. He added 585 yards rushing and six touchdowns on the ground in leading Carolina to the playoffs.

--With wide receiver Steve Smith gone, not only does quarterback Cam Newton need some more firepower, but he also could use some more protection.

The Panthers have a Pro Bowler in center Ryan Kalil, but come Week 1, the four other offensive line positions could be filled by guys other than the ones who started the majority of games last season.

At guard, the Panthers are putting a lot of faith in Amini Silatolu returning from an ACL tear and Edmund Kugbila coming back from a lost rookie season. At tackle, Jordan Gross has been enjoying retirement for a couple months already and Byron Bell isn't necessarily an ideal starter.

Carolina not only needs to fill holes on the line, they have to fill those holes with better, bigger and faster talent.

Defensively, after franchising defensive end Greg Hardy, the Panthers front seven remains one of the scariest in the league. But the secondary may have to be completely rebuilt, and that unit was the team's most suspect position on the team last season.

A 12-4 record was great last winter, but this spring its put Carolina in the unfortunate position of having a late first-round pick. The 28th spot isn't all that ideal when you have so many holes to fill. And after committing more than $13 million to Hardy for his tag, the team is tight against the salary cap again.

So how will general manager Dave Gettleman fill out the roster the next few months?

Like he did last year - via draft picks and bargain-bin veterans.

The Panthers won't be big players in free agency. Gettleman will instead look for one-year Band-Aids like he did last offseason.

On the surface, it looks like the Carolina is a long shot to string together its first back-to-back winning season in franchise history. But Gettleman and company had less money and plenty of holes to fill last March, and they somehow put it all together to form an NFC South title.

The impending moving of Smith certainly signals a changing of the guard in the locker room, but it's just one part of what has been an inevitable makeover for the Panthers this offseason.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The NFL announced each team's preseason schedule without precise dates or times, except for national TV games and the final preseason week in which all games will be on Thurs. Aug. 28. Week 1 games are Aug. 7-10, Week 2 Aug. 14-18 and Week 3 Aug. 21-24.

The Panthers will play at home against Buffalo in Week 1 and Kansas City in Week 2, while going on the road to play New England in Week 3 and Pittsburgh in Week 4. The game against the Chiefs will be at 8 p.m. eastern time Sunday, Aug. 17 on FOX.

--Steve Smith has a lot of football left in him, according to his former head coach, it just won't be with the Panthers.

Gone, too, are Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon, who all bolted Carolina during free agency for greener pastures. That's a combined 156 receptions from last season - or 99.4 percent of the wideout production.

Richie Brockel contributed a catch, and at least he's still on the roster. But he's a fullback.

Thus far, general manager David Gettleman has plugged the holes with Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera insists it is all part of the plan, and he's not overly concerned with losing the team's top four wideouts from last season.

"Look at it this way - last year we rushed 15 out of 16 games for 100 yards," Rivera said at the NFL meetings in Orlando. "We were fourth in the league in total time of possession. Our receivers averaged - as a group, collectively - 10 catches a game.

"We have to replace those 10 catches a game. If we are going to continue to run the ball successfully, on the average, we have to make 10 catches a game. I want to say the average for that group was a little over 10 yards a catch."

Yes, the Panthers lack a No. 1 receiver on the current roster, and are likely to add multiple receivers during the May 8-10 draft. But reading between the lines, it sounds as though Rivera doesn't believe the Panthers lost any irreplaceable receivers.

He admitted Smith is still a playmaker, but one who has lost some of his vertical speed. LaFell? Rivera described the New England Patriots' new receiver as a "steady player, very smart, heady guy." Hardly sounds like Rivera is generating ulcers trying to figure out how to replace his starters from last season.

Ginn enjoyed a breakout 2013 season as a pass-catcher, and parlayed it into a deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Domenik Hixon is a steady veteran, but only produced seven catches last season.

The most controversial move by far was releasing Smith, the fiery veteran who was often accused in the media of being a distraction but was also an unquestioned leader of a relatively young offense.

"What I will say is there has been change and change is all part of it," Rivera said about addressing Smith's departure with the team. "This has been very hard because of what Steve has meant to me personally. In dealing with Steve, I was grateful for that opportunity. He's meant a lot to this franchise and a lot to me. It'll be tough but I won't address it specifically about just him, because Mike Mitchell was a big part of what we did. Teddy Ginn really helped a lot. Jordan Senn was part of my first team. Brandon LaFell is one of my favorites. We've lost some guys that we had to let go just because that's the business of football."

Not only is Carolina revamping its wide receiver corps, but the new group won't have an opportunity to work with Cam Newton during the offseason program as the quarterback recovers from ankle surgery.

Whoever the Panthers add during free agency and the draft will have to develop quick chemistry with Newton during training camp.

"He's going to have to find other ways to engage with those guys," Rivera said. "I think it'll be an opportunity for him to take a step back, look at the way things are being done and learn that way. It's all part of his maturing process. I think it will be a good way for him to develop another way. We signed Joe Webb to find out exactly what he can do for us in our system. He's very similar in style of play to Cam so we can continue to develop that part of our offense."

Rivera is convinced the Panthers are headed in the right direction in terms of the roster, and it's still March. There is free agency, the draft and post-June 1 cuts to continue to bolster the wide receiver unit.

"There are some things that we have to do," said Rivera. "In talking with Dave, we still have time in free agency, time in the draft coming up. And we have some guys on the roster that we are hoping will take the next step and develop.

"The thing a lot of people don't understand is we are not done."

--The Panthers are going to need one big retirement home. Two weeks after former left tackle Jordan Gross retired, two of his teammates have also decided to hang it up.

Guard/center Geoff Hangartner and guard/center Jeff Byers announced their plans to retire on Tuesday.

Hangartner had three stints with the Panthers during his nine-year career. He finishes with 85 starts in 118 games played.

Byers' four-year career essentially ended when he broke his foot in Week 9. He finishes with seven starts in 22 games played.

--On the day before free agency began, the Panthers re-signed tight end/fullback Richie Brockel and guard/tackle Garry Williams. Brockel, who could have been a restricted free agent, picked up a two-year deal, while Williams inked a one-year offer.

Brockel is a typical "glue guy" who has played in 43 games in two seasons with the Panthers. Williams started 2013 at right guard until he tore his ACL in Week 1.

--The Panthers lost one of their key special teams guys shortly after the start of free agency. Linebacker Jordan Senn, who was the team's special teams captain in 2012, signed with the Bears.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--The Panthers added two more unrestricted free agents.

The Panthers signed safety Thomas DeCoud to a two-year contract and tight end Ed Dickson to a one-year deal. Dickson will make the veteran minimum base salary of $730,000 along with a $65,000 signing bonus, according to ESPN.com.

DeCoud was released by the Atlanta Falcons after six seasons. He was a Pro Bowl selection in 2012 who started 78 of his last 79 games with the Falcons.

Last season in 15 starts, he logged 83 tackles and had a fumble return for a touchdown for Atlanta, which picked DeCoud in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

"Thomas provides a veteran in the secondary who is familiar with the NFC South and has been a very solid player," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "We are pleased to add him to a safety group that has good experience and production."

Dickson played the first four seasons (2010-13) of his career with the Baltimore Ravens after being selected by the team in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Oregon.

"Ed is a young player who has shown he is a capable blocker as well as receiver in the league," head coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. "He provides experienced depth at the tight end position and we look forward to having him in the mix."

In 2013, Dickson started 14 of 16 games, making 25 catches for 273 yards and one touchdown. His best season came in 2011 when he posted career highs in starts (16), receptions (54), receiving yards (528) and touchdowns (five).

For his career, Dickson has played in 60 games with 44 starts and recorded 111 receptions for 1,178 yards and seven touchdowns. He has played in eight postseason contests with five starts, winning a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens after the 2012 season.

--The Panthers reached a two-year agreement with free-agent wide receiver Tiquan Underwood and agreed to one-year deals with cornerback Antoine Cason and quarterback Joe Webb.

Underwood will likely compete as the third receiver and a spot on special teams as a kick returner. He caught a career-high 24 passes for 440 yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009.

Webb will be a quarterback for the Panthers. He completed 88 of 152 pass attempts for 853 yards for the Minnesota Vikings, who switched him to wide receiver last season.

"Joe had a strong workout for us today. He is a young player who intrigues us and has a similar skill set to Cam," said Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. "With Cam sidelined for the spring, it is an opportunity to get a good evaluation of Joe as well as Matt Blanchard, who was on our practice squad last year."

Cason reunites with Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks. They were with the San Diego Chargers when the team drafted Cason in the first round in 2008. He started 45 games for the Chargers from 2010 to '12. He has 14 NFL interceptions.

TEAM NEEDS

--WIDE RECEIVER: With Steve Smith out the door and Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon having left in free agency, that originally left guys like Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Keoloha Pilares as Cam Newton's receivers next season. The question is what more will be done after the additions of Jerrico Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood.

--TACKLE: Eleven-year starter Jordan Gross is enjoying retirement, so the Panthers have to work on bringing in a guy to protect Cam Newton's blind side. Byron Bell could slide over from right tackle, but he's struggled often during his three seasons, so Carolina could use two new starting tackles.

--CORNERBACK: The Panthers let Captain Munnerlyn test free agency waters and he left for Minnesota. That leaves Carolina with guys like former undrafted rookie Melvin White and the disappointing Josh Norman.

PERSONNEL TRACKER

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.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--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.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--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.

PLAYERS LOST

--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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