We’ve reached the offseason and I will be spending the next few weeks answering the biggest questions facing the Carolina Panthers
Arguably the biggest storyline of the 2013 season for the Carolina Panthers was the growth of quarterback Cam Newton. Newton showed a level of poise and accuracy that hadn’t manifested itself in his first two seasons.
So why did Carolina finish 29th in the NFL in passing yard?
Some of that can be attributed to the battered offensive line underperforming in pass protection, but it’s mostly on the receiving corps. Steve Smith played well, but it was apparent that Father Time gave opposing corners some help covering him. He’ll be 35 next season and he’s closer to being an elite no. 2 receiver than a true no. 1 option. Ted Ginn Jr. proved to be a nice addition in the slot but he has some obvious limitations. Greg Olsen is a decent receiving tight end, but he won’t confuse anybody for Rob Gronkowski.
Former second-round pick Brandon LaFell and former third-round pick Armanti Edwards have been severe disappointments, which has really hamstrung Carolina. Edwards has just one career catch for 10 yards and now plays with the Browns. The physically gifted LaFell had his best season statistically in 2013, but even that amounted to just 49 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. Did I mention 2013 was a contract year for LaFell? At age 27 and after four seasons, if he were going to truly emerge, he probably would have already.
The bad news for Carolina is there won’t be a whole lot of cap room to work with so while there are some appealing options, it’s not likely that Carolina will sign any big names in free agency. Because of this, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Dave Gettleman re-sign LaFell and Ginn Jr., who also is a free agent and has expressed interest in returning, to cap friendly deals. This is a more viable option for the Panthers thanks to the clout they built up in going 12-4 last year. Go ask the Ravens how much winning helps with convincing players to take cheaper deals.
Expect the Panthers to take at least one wide receiver in the draft this year, but don’t be shocked if they take two or even three. It’s a very deep group of receivers to the point that Colorado’s Paul Richarson, who had 83 catches for 1343 yards and 10 touchdowns on a team that went 1-8 in the Pac-12, is considered just the 10th best in the class. Drafting receivers has the dual benefit of adding young talent as well as not adding much salary.
The Panthers will probably not make many, if any changes at tight end, at least in 2014. Greg Olsen’s $7.8 million cap hit in 2014 isn’t ideal, but with $5.8 million in dead money left on the deal, it isn’t worth cutting one of the league’s better receiving tight ends. Given Dave Gettleman’s history with the New York Giants, who won Super Bowls with young, cheap tight ends (Kevin Boss in 2007 and Jake Ballard in 2011), it’s hard to see Olsen getting a long-term extension though. Olsen will likely be cut after next season as his cap hit stays at $7.8 million, but the penalty for cutting him goes down to just $2.7 million. Gettleman will eat that and take the extra $5 million of cap flexibility.
Ben Hartsock is a free agent, but can likely be re-signed for very cheap. Hartsock isn’t exactly a dynamic receiver but is the best run-blocking tight end in the NFL by a wide margin per Pro Football Focus. Brandon Williams is a young, athletic guy that the coaching staff really likes so keep an eye on him in the coming years. He isn’t Julius Thomas but could emerge in similar fashion.