Carolina Panthers: Captain Munnerlyn

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 15-yard taunting penalty called against cornerback Josh Norman didn't warrant much attention after a first half in which the Carolina Panthers gave up two blocked punts for touchdowns.

It should have.

The Panthers had just kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to 21-6. They were building momentum, in position to possibly regain possession after an incomplete pass to wide receiver Charles Johnson on second down.

Then came the 15-yard penalty against Norman for taunting that gave the Vikings a first down at their own 41. It kept alive a drive that possibly would have ended and set up a 17-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings with 16 seconds in the half.

Instead of having a chance to cut into the lead before halftime, the Panthers trailed 28-6.

Norman said afterward he was sorry for the taunting, but not for being aggressive on the play. He wouldn't share exactly what was said to earn the penalty, other than it wasn't one of those words the NFL frowns upon.

"Nah," Norman said. "I didn't say nothing like that. We just had our little scuffle."

The scuffle didn't sit well with Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who appeared agitated with Norman afterward.

"It's the heat of the game," Norman said. "I'm not going to say anything bad about one guy or the next guy."

Coach Ron Rivera didn't see what happened because he was on the sideline planning timeouts and two-minute strategy. He didn't get an explanation from the official until a few plays later.

"By then it was too late," Rivera said. "But yes, that's the way TD (Davis) is. He really looks at the big picture and is a tremendous leader for us."

Norman brings a fiery attitude to the defense. He was fined $8,268 two weeks ago for a scuffle with Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas. He'll be fined for the taunting penalty as well.

His attitude has helped elevate Carolina's defense in recent weeks. In this case it hurt it.

Norman made it sound like he didn't say anything that he hasn't before.

"Hey, I started it and walked away and [the official] threw it," Norman said of the flag. "I turned around and was like, ‘Really?' Any other time it's not even a question.

"I've done it before. I just never thought they were going to come back with that. You just know next time, be smart about situations."

Norman began the week by taunting Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, saying his former teammate didn't do anything for him the past two seasons. Munnerlyn called it a slap in the face.

Munnerlyn said the two didn't talk during the game, but felt like he got in the last word with the victory.

"He's the guy that kept on grabbing the whole time, personal foul kind of things, so I'll let that be and I'll let Josh be Josh," Munnerlyn said. "And Josh is playing good football right now."

Norman said Munnerlyn said "a couple of things" to him from the sideline.

"I looked over at him and he kind of laughed and chuckled," he said. "Just being a competitor I guess. He felt some type of way about what I said. I kind of shrugged it off. That kind of conversation happened, but nothing serious."

Nothing like the taunting penalty that upon further review may have been bigger than it initially appeared.
While most of the Carolina Panthers are vacationing and before we get fully engaged into the upcoming season, let's take one last look at 2013.

Over the next 10 weekdays we'll look at what I consider the most memorable plays of Carolina's 12-4 season that included an eight-game winning streak and NFC South championship.

You may argue the order or significance of the plays. You may argue other plays were more memorable. If so, don't hesitate to share your thoughts.

With that, let's get to the countdown that will conclude on July 11 with my most memorable play:

No. 10
  • The play: (Oct. 20) Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn intercepts a Sam Bradford pass on the game's first offensive play and returns it 45 yards for a touchdown.
  • The final score: Panthers 30, Rams 15
  • Why it made the list: Several reasons. First, it set the tone for Carolina to win consecutive games and reach at least .500 six games into a season for the first time since 2008. That was significant for a team that started each of the previous three seasons with a 1-5 record. Second, it was a boost for a secondary that after a Week 2 loss to Buffalo was decimated with injuries and solidified as the weakest link to what ultimately would be the league's No. 2 defense. And it wasn't just a big play by Munnerlyn. Safety Quintin Mikell set up the interception when he hit Bradford's arm just as the Rams' quarterback released the pass, making it an easy target for Munnerlyn. “You go out there, you try to set the tone early as a defense when you get the opportunity to take it first and at least force a three-and-out. If you can come up with a touchdown, it’s a huge momentum shift,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. For a team desperately in need of momentum, this was huge all the way around.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Fourth on my list of five things surrounding the Carolina Panthers that have nothing to do with Xs and Os on the "Did You Know?" list is size.

Does it matter?

Former cornerback Captain Munnerlyn apparently had a hang-up about it. He was so tired of the ribbing he took for being the shortest player on the team late last season that he challenged fullback Mike Tolbert to stand back-to-back with him for a measure off.

It was close.

So who is the shortest player with the 5-foot-8 Munnerlyn now in Minnesota? You'd think that automatically went to the 5-9 Tolbert, but officially running backs DeAngelo Williams and Kenjon Barner are listed at the same height.

Tolbert insists reserve back Darrin Reaves should be on that list as well, but he's listed at 5-10. But in a world where you face 6-4, 290-pund defensive ends, Tolbert is short.

"I might be taller than DeAngelo," Tolbert insists. "The only way he might be taller than me is his hair."

Tolbert basically has a buzz cut. Williams has dreadlocks that drape over his shoulders.

As Tolbert makes his case, Williams approaches and says something about his teammate's girth. At 5-9 and 245 pounds, there is no doubt Tolbert is the heaviest short man on the team.

They do call him bowling ball.

"Everybody knows I'm fat," Tolbert says.

And he doesn't mind.

"Being the so-called fat, short guy, you have to prove to everybody that you are a beast no matter what," Tolbert says. "I'm not worried about it."

Coming off a Pro Bowl season, he shouldn't be.

As for Munnerlyn's accusation that Tolbert is the shortest member of the team?

"Man, Cap talks," Tolbert says. "That's all he does is talk. Ain't nobody worried about Captain Munnerlyn. I already handled that."
It's been quiet around the Carolina Panthers' Bank of America Stadium the past few days -- aside from the constant banging on steel beams as the facility goes through an $87 million facelift.

But the team isn't done in free agency, as general manager Dave Gettleman said at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando. The Panthers continue to look for depth at wide receiver, a nickel corner and possibly an offensive tackle.

There's also a lot of focus on college pro days and individual workouts as the draft nears.

With that, let's get right to my Saturday morning mailbag:

As badly as the Carolina Panthers need help at wide receiver, as much concern as there is over Wednesday's ankle surgery on quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have other needs that they continue to address.

Cornerback is one.

According to a media report out of New York, Giants free agent cornerback Terrell Thomas visited the Panthers on Tuesday.

Thomas became expendable in New York when the team signed Walter Thurmond of the Seattle Seahawks and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of Denver.

He primarily is a slot corner. The Panthers lost their starter there when Captain Munnerlyn signed with the Minnesota Vikings.

Beyond being familiar to Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman, who was with the Giants before last season, Thomas has a connection to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis.

Last season, Thomas returned to play for the first time after recovering from surgery to repair this third torn ACL. He missed the 2011 and 2012 season with ACL tears. He suffered the same injury in college at Southern Cal.

Two years ago, Davis became the first known player to tear his ACL three times and return to an NFL field. He had a career year this past season with 123 tackles and four sacks.

Thomas, 29, played in 16 games this past season, recording 67 tackles, an interception and a sack. He had 101 tackles and five interceptions in 2010 for the Giants.

The Panthers also have talked about bringing in San Diego free agent cornerback , according to a source. Cason played under Carolina coach Ron Rivera when Rivera was the defensive coordinator with the Chargers.

Also, the Panthers were scheduled to meet Wednesday with Arizona free-agent cornerback Antoine Cason, according to a source. Cason played under Carolina coach Ron Rivera when Rivera was the Chargers' defensive coordinator.

Meanwhile, the Panthers await word from Pittsburgh free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who concluded his visit on Tuesday. Cotchery is deciding between Carolina and a return to the Steelers. A decision is expected soon.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Johnny VyGM Dave Gettleman's methodical approach to free agency has some fans panicking that the Panthers are getting left behind.
Some of you in Carolina Pantherland are in a state of panic this morning. OK, a lot of you are.

You are freaking out that your team dumped all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and got nothing in return. Losing free safety Mike Mitchell (Steelers), wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals), wide receiver Domenik Hixon (Bears) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Vikings) to other teams makes it feel worse.

Then you see Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Collins pick Tampa Bay over Carolina at a big need position. You see New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks visiting Indianapolis and wonder if general manager Dave Gettleman & Co. will get a shot at him.

The re-signing of backup quarterback Derek Anderson to a two-year deal hasn't eased your pain.

Bye-bye, Super Bowl hopes. First to worst in the NFC South.

I've read all the emails and complaints. I visited with some of you at a small rally protesting the release of Smith outside Bank of America Stadium. I know what you're thinking. You've lost complete faith in the organization. You're ready to tar and feather Gettleman.

Former Carolina lineman Frank Garcia, now the host of a local radio show, got into it with me on Twitter on Thursday night. He said this doesn't have the feel of a team trying to get better, trying to compete for a championship.

So I asked if this felt like a team trying to compete for a Super Bowl three days into free agency a year ago. I asked if the Panthers felt like a team trying to win a Super Bowl in March of 1996, when he was a player.

He agreed not.

The '96 team, if you've forgotten, reached the NFC Championship. And last year's team, which you shouldn't have forgotten yet, went 12-4.

Feel better now?

The question that needs to be asked is this: What have the Panthers lost beyond the faith of many of their fans?

Mitchell played a big role in the defense ranking No. 2 in 2013, but before then he'd done nothing to warrant any team getting upset over losing him. It's why Gettleman got him for a bargain.

Did you really want the team investing $25 million over five years for him?

Munnerlyn had a nice career at Carolina, but most agree the biggest weakness last season was the secondary -- specifically the corners. Was he worth $14.25 million over three years?

Ginn was coming off a season in which he caught two passes -- two -- for San Francisco when the Panthers signed him to a one-year deal. Was he worth a three-year investment?

And then there's Smith. While his release was a public relations disaster (though I don't agree he would have been a locker room distraction), he will be 35 in May and even he admitted he's not a No. 1 receiver anymore.

That means he's not worth $7 million on the cap this season.

While the team may have been better off adding another veteran receiver to let Smith move to the slot and then drafting yet another in the first or second round, the situation isn't that dire.

Remember, as a rookie in 2001 Smith caught 10 passes. Then-coach George Seifert thought he was nothing more than a great kick returner who could run the occasional end around.

Two years later, Smith caught 88 passes for 1,110 yards, and became a star. Then he became a local legend.

And the Panthers got him in the third round.

So for all the panic out there, remember it's just March. Consider, if Gettleman really wanted Smith and those that went elsewhere, he probably could have found a way to keep them.

He was prepared to lose most of them.

When you begin the offseason with 21 unrestricted free agents, you are going to lose a lot of them.

The tortoise sometimes wins the race.

What the Panthers are doing in free agency -- Smith's release aside -- is no different than a year ago. If they can get Nicks for a reasonable price they will, but they'll see what others are offering before mortgaging the farm.

And don't lose sight of the fact Nicks caught only 47 passes last season, or that he's never had a season with more than 79 catches.

Don't worry. Marvin McNutt won't be Cam Newton's No. 1 target this season. Gettleman is a football guy who knows talent. Based on what he did with the New York Giants and in one season at Carolina, he does a good job of finding the so-called diamonds in the rough.

He proved a year ago to be savvy in the draft, as well.

As mentioned at the beginning of free agency, patience.

The Panthers won't sign a lot of big names to big contracts like NFC South rival Tampa Bay has done, but the Buccaneers are coming off a 4-12 season and have a new coach. They needed to swing for the fences a few times.

So while the state of panic in Pantherland is understandable, it's a bit premature.

Last time I looked, they don't play the Super Bowl in March.
A few observations that could impact the Carolina Panthers as teams began talking to representatives of free agents from other NFL teams on Saturday:
  • Nicks
    New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is willing to consider a one-year deal to prove he's better than his statistics have shown the past two seasons, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. Nicks still probably will cost more than the Panthers are willing to pay with only about $7 million left under the cap. But what better place to start over than in the city where you were born.

    Nicks attended Charlotte's (N.C.) Independence High School. At 26, he still has a lot of good years ahead of him. And don't forget Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman has a history with him as the former director of pro personnel for the Giants.

    That Nicks is expected to have several options with Denver and Baltimore among teams that could be interested will only drive up the price.
  • Wide receiver Sidney Rice, recently released by the Seattle Seahawks, was back in the Carolinas judging from this Saturday tweet: "Back home for 15 hours and I've seen 1 thousand Gamecock fans. Lovin it! #gamecocknation."

    Rice is from Gaffney, S.C., about an hour from Charlotte. He played at the University of South Carolina, about 90 miles from Charlotte.

    Like Nicks, he's looking for a fresh start. He missed most of last season with an ACL injury, but according to several reports he should be fully recovered to begin training with his new team in April.

    At 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds, the 27-year-old still can be dynamic when healthy. The Panthers need dynamic. The problem is he has trouble staying healthy, which could make him a bargain.
  • The Panthers remain interested in re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., two of their 18 remaining unrestricted free agents.

    Both are drawing interest from other teams, Mitchell in particular.

    Don't be surprised if Carolina takes the same approach with them that it did with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn a year ago in letting him test the market to set the price.

    Munnerlyn, who turned down a three-year deal worth $5 million to test the market, eventually settled on a one-year deal to return to Carolina.

    Gettleman appears willing to play that game again. Keeping Mitchell, judging from early interest, could be difficult.
The odds that the Carolina Panthers can afford to keep defensive end Greg Hardy continue to improve.

The latest sign came when linebacker Thomas Davis restructured his contract for the fourth time in the last three years. The new deal will save Carolina $2.25 million under the salary cap.

According to the Charlotte Observer, the Panthers also restructured the deals of center Ryan Kalil and running back Jonathan Stewart.

That puts the Panthers more than $28 million under the projected cap, which reported last week could be as high as $132 million.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Greg Hardy
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsWith the Panthers now $28 million under the projected cap, Greg Hardy looks more likely to stay in Carolina.
That's good news for a Carolina team with 21 unrestricted free agents, including Hardy.

Hardy's chances of returning increase with every increase in cap space. After leading the team in sacks with 15, he's set to become one of the most sought after free agents this year.

The Panthers also still have the option of using the franchise tag on him, which would eat up about $12 million in cap room. They have until March 3 to decide that.

Head coach Ron Rivera continues to be hopeful that general manager Dave Gettleman will find a way to keep Hardy. Asked at the NFL combine last week if he thought the team's sixth-round pick in 2010 would return, Rivera said, "I'd like to believe so."

"He's important," Rivera continued. "As I've talked to Dave about all the different things we're trying to do, one thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong. Our defensive line was very strong for us. So I'm very optimistic about what we can become as a football team."

While it may appear Gettleman is moving slow in negotiating deals to keep key players from last season's 12-4 team, in reality he is moving at a good pace to free up money while waiting on the official cap total.

He met with the agents of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, safety Mike Mitchell and others at the combine in Indianapolis. Both are expected to draw strong interest from other teams if not re-signed before free agency begins on March 11.

When Gettleman was hired last February, the Panthers were more than $16 million over the cap. He cleared much of the now available space by restructuring deals such as the one to defensive end Charles Johnson, who converted much of his 2013 salary into a pro-rated bonus to clear up $4.26 million.

Don't be surprised if Johnson's 2014 deal is restructured, too. His $16.4 million cap number is the highest on the team.

And don't be surprised if that also helps make it possible for Hardy to return.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The roar of cars practicing at Daytona International Speedway is deafening outside, but inside the motorcoach of Daytona 500 pole winner Austin Dillon the only sound that can be heard is the voice of Denver Broncos coach John Fox.

Dillon is watching the NFL Network as Fox and others in Indianapolis for the scouting combine talk about the country's top college prospects.

The 23-year-old Sprint Cup Series rookie has been under the microscope since winning the pole in the iconic No. 3 that until now hasn't been on the track in NASCAR's top series since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

No offense, he's about No. 3'd out.

[+] EnlargeAustin Dillon
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtSprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon, a Panthers season-ticket holder, wears Luke Kuechly's No. 59 jersey to every game.
So football is a way for Dillon to escape. He watches the NFL on television more than any other sport when away from the track -- and sometimes at it. One of his toughest moments last season came when he was crowned the Nationwide Series champion on the same night the Carolina Panthers faced the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football."

Dillon is a Carolina season-ticket holder. He spent time with defensive tackle Greg Hardy and other Panthers at the recent Super Bowl. He knows the roster almost as well as general manager Dave Gettleman.

So when asked to take a break from the No. 3 hoopla to talk football, he didn't hesitate to make room in his hectic schedule that included an interview with a Swedish television station.

You can feel the passion in Dillon's voice as the subject turns to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, the need for quarterback Cam Newton to get a long-term extension and fantasy football.

Here's how the conversation went:

What's your favorite number in the NFL?

Dillon: Well, it's not used a lot, but the 3 obviously. [Seattle quarterback] Russell Wilson has a really good number. That was pretty cool for him to win the Super Bowl this year and then us going into Daytona with the 3. There's a lot of connections with that.

I'm assuming you're not a huge fan of backup quarterback Derek Anderson who wears 3 for Carolina, so what's your favorite number on the Panthers?

Dillon: Fifty-nine. Luke Kuechly is my favorite player, so I'll go with 59. When we drafted him I took out a lot of information on him from when he was at Boston College, all his tackle records. The cool thing about him is he's like the silent assassin. He's quiet and he goes in and puts in a lot of work and he's in on almost every tackle. I wear his jersey to all the games. But I've made friends with quite a few other players.

Such as?

Dillon: [Wide receiver] Steve Smith is probably my biggest hero because he's been doing it for so long. He always is able to step up. Since I became a season-ticket owner, Kuechly's been my guy, but I got to talk a little on Twitter to Steve Smith. He said he was in the mountains when we won the pole with the No. 3. He said to go out there and do me. A lot of big shoes to fill, but 'do you' he said. ... He's a Dale Earnhardt fan, too, I think.

I saw you were with Hardy at the Super Bowl. What do you think of him?

Dillon: The sky is the limit. He's got so much potential moving forward, and he had his best year this past year, obviously. He can only get stronger and faster and better. And also learning from Charles Johnson, and having [Star] Lotulelei, Kawann [Edwards] in the middle opens the whole field for him, really.'

What do you think of his alter persona, "The Kraken?"

Dillon: I love his nickname. It's cool. The names of all the 'MonStrz Inc.' are pretty sweet. That front is probably the best front in the NFL. I'd put them up against any front. Seattle's is pretty good, but their secondary is what was special about that defense.

(Read full post)

Combine preview: Carolina Panthers

February, 19, 2014
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needed less than 90 seconds to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the 2013 draft.

Probably half of that time was spent in stunned amazement that the 6-foot-2, 315-pound giant he had rated near the top of his draft board still was available at a position the team considered a top priority.

Don't expect it to be that easy this year.

The Panthers head to the NFL scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis with three huge needs -- wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback. It's more unlikely that a star such as Lotulelei will fall to them this year since their first pick isn't until No. 28 after a 12-4 season.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers need to add a playmaker like Brandin Cooks who has the potential to eventually replace Steve Smith.
They'll have to be even more thorough with their homework at the combine and individual workouts to find players to fill major gaps.

And they were pretty thorough last season, making sure the heart condition that forced Lotulelei to pull out of last year's combine was not serious.

They may need to find the next Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who developed into the team's sack leader (15) and a Pro Bowl selection this past season -- and into a player who could be lost to free agency if Carolina can't reach a new deal or use the franchise tag on him.

The good news is Gettleman & Co. appear pretty good at evaluating talent. Three of their first four picks -- Lotulelei, defensive tackle Kawann Short (second) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (fifth) -- were huge successes as rookies.

Sixth-rounder Kenjon Barner never got to show what he could do because of a logjam at running back and fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila spent the year on injured reserve.

"Of the three guys we got on the field, we're real pleased with,'' Gettleman said in his season review.

Which brings us to the combine, where the Panthers will be looking for players who can make similar contributions. Here's a closer look at their top three needs and why:

Wide receiver: This is where many of the draft analysts have the Panthers focused, and with good reason. No. 1 receiver Steve Smith is heading into his 14th season and wideouts Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are unsigned in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. In all likelihood, the Panthers will re-sign one or two of their free agents. Ginn makes the most sense because he's a proven threat as a return specialist as well as a deep threat. But the Panthers need a solid No. 2 receiver who could develop into a No. 1 when Smith retires. LaFell hasn't done that. This is one of the deepest receiver classes in years, so this an attractive spot regardless of whether it's the first or second round.

Possible at No. 28: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, LSU's Jarvis Landry, UCLA's Shaq Evans.

Offensive tackle: Gettleman loves to talk about the "hog mollies," his term for the men in the trenches. He also loves drafting them, as we saw last season when the Panthers went one-two with defensive tackles. He believes in building a team from the inside out, which is why I believe this is where the Panthers will go in the first round if the right player is there. Left tackle Jordan Gross is either going to return for his 12th season or retire. Either way, he's not getting younger and the Panthers need to find a future replacement for him. Ideally, they could find a starter at left tackle in the draft and move Gross to right tackle. Or groom a draft pick at right tackle as they did Gross for a year in 2003. The chances of finding a starter here is much greater in the first round.

Possible at No. 28: Virginia's Morgan Moses, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort.

Cornerback: As I noted after the Super Bowl, the biggest difference between Carolina and Seattle was the secondary. The Seahawks simply were bigger and better. Carolina must upgrade this position even if it re-signs starter Captain Munnerlyn. While I believe this is third among priorities for a first-round pick, if one of the top three corners (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Lamarcus Joyner, according to Scouts Inc.) were to fall to 28 he would have to get serious consideration. It's definitely a position that should get attention in the top three rounds -- and at the combine.

Possible at No. 28: Florida's Marcus Roberson, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Other needs: Don't be surprised to see Carolina go after a tight end to give quarterback Cam Newton another option there after Greg Olsen, a linebacker and a backup quarterback in the late rounds. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could be an intriguing pick if he falls to the fifth round as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has projected. He has many of the same qualities Newton has as a running quarterback and could learn a lot from Newton as he makes the transition into the NFL. Tight end actually was under consideration last year when Lotulelei became available.

No worries, Newton will get his money

February, 18, 2014

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will get his money.

No need to panic.

No reason to think that it's a red-flag warning because the Panthers haven't initiated talks in the weeks since the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft became eligible to renegotiate.

The Panthers, sources said, haven't really begun negotiations on any contracts.

They are in the same boat as other teams financially strapped under the salary cap. There's not much they can do until the league officially sets the cap for 2014 in the next week or two.

Until then, it's hard to promise Newton or any of the team's 21 unrestricted free agents anything.

One of general manager Dave Gettleman's strengths is patience. He showed it last February when he didn't clean house with the coaching or scouting staff after replacing Marty Hurney. Gettleman showed it when he didn't replace head coach Ron Rivera when the Panthers were 0-2 or 1-3.

He showed it when he methodically restructured contracts to take the Panthers from more than $16 million over the salary cap to more than $15 million under it -- or more, depending on what the final cap number is, likely between $126 million and $128 million.

According to ESPN's Roster Management System, with a $6 million carryover, the Panthers could have as much as $28 million to play with based on a $128 million cap.

Regardless, when Gettleman said after the season he was going to take time to evaluate every player for the course of a 17-week season, he meant it. That he hasn't contacted free agents such as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn doesn't mean he's not interested.

It means the evaluation isn't over and -- again -- until there's a hard cap number there's no need to make empty promises.

[+] EnlargeNewton
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton still has a year remaining on his rookie contract, plus the team holds a fifth-year option.
Newton's situation is different. He has a year left on his original deal and the team still has the choice of picking up a fifth-year option that would extend it to two years.

Newton also doesn't need much evaluation. He proved his worth the past three seasons, particularly this past season in guiding Carolina to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.

Gettleman and Rivera acknowledged that by saying the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was their franchise quarterback. They understand their quarterback is now on a path to becoming one of the league's elite players.

So Newton will get paid, whether that's with an extension this year or next.

Despite how well Munnerlyn played in 2013, the Panthers are looking to upgrade the secondary. They aren't looking to upgrade at quarterback, except maybe at the backup position with a draft pick or free agent.

So it's understandable if Munnerlyn is a little on edge that the Panthers haven't opened talks with his agent, although sources said that is expected to happen for him and others at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that begins Wednesday.

But when you look around the league, not a lot of teams have re-signed their own free agents at this point.

Defensive end Greg Hardy's situation is different, too. He proved his worth with a team-best 15 sacks and a trip to the Pro Bowl. For him, it's a question of whether the Panthers can afford a new deal or the franchise tag that would cost them about $12 million -- or a huge hunk of their cap room.

This all figures into what the Panthers will do with Newton. Ideally, they'd like to get a new deal this year.

But if that hurts improving the team's chances of getting back to the playoffs, it's doubtful Newton would want that. The one thing he learned this past season is that the perception of a player's capabilities is much better when he's on a winning team.

Newton's contract probably wouldn't be a topic now if he wasn't asked Monday on the "Dan Patrick Show" if he planned to pressure Carolina into an extension with a holdout.

Not that he'd ever suggested a holdout was possible.

Newton, to his credit, handled the question with the poise that allowed him to generate last-minute, fourth-quarter comebacks against Miami, New England and New Orleans.

He said his priority was on taking his performance to the "marquee" level Carolina needs to avoid a letdown and take the next step in the playoffs.

He talked about being a leader, and how a holdout would send the wrong message to the rest of the team.

"I'm not worried about contract discussions right now," Newton said on the show. "My main focus is just becoming the better player I can become."

Newton shouldn't be worried. He's going to get his money.

Carolina roster analysis: Secondary

February, 12, 2014
Part 2 of my position-by-position analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster focuses on what New York Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes referred to this past season as "the weakest link on their defense."

The Panthers took offense.

What should be noted is that this position was the weakest link to a defense ranked second in the NFL.

Next up: Secondary

2013 grade: B-minus. This group had 14 of the team's 20 interceptions. It also had the most breakdowns when opponents made big plays, earning the wrath that really wasn't wrath from Holmes.

Under contract (2014 salary cap number): FS Charles Godfrey ($7,100,000), SS Robert Lester ($495,000), FS Colin Jones ($645,000), CB Melvin White ($497,500), CB Josh Norman ($619,750), CB Josh Thomas ($660,000). Total: ($10,017,250).

Key free agents: FS Mike Mitchell, SS Quintin Mikell, CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Drayton Florence.

Good news: Not a lot with undrafted rookie cornerback Melvin White the only starter under contract. That's not counting free safety Charles Godfrey, who was the starter before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the second game against Buffalo. But Godfrey's replacement, Mike Mitchell, had a stellar season and he's a free agent. More on that in the bad news.

Bad news: Three of the four players who finished the season as starters -- FS Mike Mitchell, SS Quintin Mikell and CB Captain Munnerlyn -- are free agents. Godfrey has a large salary cap figure of $7.1 million. To make this a good situation the Panthers will need to either restructure Godfrey's contract or possibly cut him. To do it now would save only $2.1 million. To wait until June could save $5.1 million. One solution could be to keep a restructured Godfrey at free safety and move Mitchell back to strong where he was before Godfrey was injured. That might make Mikell expendable. Regardless, the salary-cap strapped Panthers have some work to do here. It might be time to let one or both of the Joshes go despite their low cap figure.

The draft: The biggest difference between Carolina's No. 2 defense and the world champion Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense was the secondary, specifically cornerback. The draft is deep enough at corner that the Panthers could find a starter in the first two rounds. A player such as Florida's Marcus Roberson (6-0, 186) has been mentioned as a possible first-round selection. What Carolina does with Munnerlyn and in free agency will decide the strategy here.

Carolina free agent rankings: No. 9

January, 29, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No. 9 in my ranking and evaluation of the 21 Carolina Panthers scheduled to become unrestricted free agents is a player coming off a career season.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

I struggled with where to put Munnerlyn. On one hand, he played well enough for the most part to be among the top five free agents, a no-brainer to return. On the other, the Panthers are looking to improve, and the area that needs the most improvement is the secondary.

To review where we've been so far:
  • No. 21 quarterback Jimmy Clausen, No. 20 wide receiver Brandon LaFell, No. 19 cornerback Drayton Florence, No. 18 guard Geoff Hangartner, No. 17 linebacker Dan Connor, No. 16 linebacker Jason Williams, No. 15 tackle Bruce Campbell, No. 14 cornerback James Dockery, No. 13 defensive tackle Colin Cole, No. 12 guard Travelle Wharton, No. 11 linebacker Jordan Senn and No. 10 quarterback Derek Anderson.To No. 9:

    Captain Munnerlyn: He had a career-best 78 tackles and three sacks. He had two interceptions, and returned both for touchdowns. He proved he could be an every-down cornerback, and can move into the slot in nickel situations. In many ways, he epitomized the toughness that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott preached. At the same time, you can't help but see visions of Miami receiver Mike Wallace beating Munnerlyn deep -- twice for long catches, another on an overthrown pass. You can't help but wonder if the 5-foot-9 Munnerlyn could have made the play that 6-3 Richard Sherman made to put Seattle in the Super Bowl. If the price is right, Munnerlyn should be back. But he said after the season he wanted a long-term deal, and to be compensated for everything he proved this season. That might put a team with limited cap space in position to look in another direction.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Welcome to another edition of the Carolina Panthers' Mailbag.

There were a lot of questions about the future of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. I apologize up front if yours wasn't among those that were chosen.

Carolina's free agents in general remain a hot topic.

Once the Super Bowl is over and general manager Dave Gettleman has completed his evaluation of the roster, you'll start to see some movement on a lot of fronts. For now everything is pretty much in a wait-and-see mode.

To the mailbag:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We get it. Seattle's Richard Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL. He told us so time and time again after Sunday's 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

And despite his over-the-top postgame comments and classless choke sign, Sherman's tipped pass that turned into a game-clinching interception is the reason Seattle is headed to New York.

Pay attention, Carolina. That's what you need to get there next season.

Not the over-the-top stuff.

Cornerbacks like Sherman.

Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman said last week that Seattle and San Francisco were the models for what the Panthers (12-5) had to get to in order to win the NFC.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRon Rivera knows his secondary is one area that needs improvement heading into next season.
They didn't get into specifics, but as you watched the conference championship it became glaring the area Carolina most has to improve to reach the next level is the secondary.

The Panthers match up well with both teams in the front seven. Their run defense ranked No. 2 in the league, better than the Seahawks (seventh) and 49ers (fourth). They had more regular-season sacks (60) than Seattle (44) and San Francisco (38).

But where Seattle in particular holds an edge is the secondary. The Seahawks led the league in pass defense and interceptions. As Sherman showed with his clutch play at the end, the "Legion of Boom" is the best in the league.

Not that Carolina's secondary was bad. The Panthers finished sixth against the pass and fifth in interceptions, which considering injuries and the money spent there was solid.

But as we saw in the second half of a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoff game, when Anquan Boldin broke free for a 45-yard catch that led to a touchdown and 20-10 lead, there were breakdowns.

This one happened in part because starting strong safety Quintin Mikell was injured and there was a communication issue with rookie Robert Lester.

But that wasn't an isolated case. In Carolina's final seven regular-season games, it gave up 25 pass plays of 20-plus yards. To put that in perspective, the offense had 14.

The Panthers don't have what you would call a shutdown corner as Seattle does with Sherman. As well as Captain Munnerlyn played this season, he was beaten twice by Miami's Mike Wallace for passes of 50-plus yards and would have been beaten a third time had it not been for an overthrow.

As well as undrafted rookie corner Melvin White played, much of that had to do with keeping the plays in front of him and taking advantage of help with Carolina's zone coverage. There never was a game in which the coaching staff felt it could relax and say he's got it handled.

So the secondary has to improve, and has to be addressed because three-fourths of a starting group that was nicknamed the "Legion of Whom" -- Munnerlyn, Mikell and free safety Mike Mitchell -- is scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.

Mitchell seems to be a no-brainer to bring back. He brought a level of physicality and attitude to the secondary that Sherman brings to Seattle's.

The others have to be nervous.

"We've got to evaluate those guys and see how they fit," Rivera said diplomatically when evaluating the secondary this past season. "I'm very pleased with the way our guys played. We finished ranked very well in pass defense. I know people say, 'Well, you also led the league in sacks.' Yes we did. We also led the league in turnover margin as well.

"So we did some good things defensively. Some of our guys that played really well were our defensive backs at times. But again we've got to get consistent. We've got a good group of guys. But again we've got to evaluate. That's probably the key word right now, we've got to evaluate."

In trying to close the gap on Seattle, the Panthers may have to get bigger and more physical in the secondary. The Seahawks average 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds at the corners. The Panthers average 5-10 1/2 and 200.

It's hard to imagine the 6-3 Sherman getting his hand on the pass to Michael Crabtree in the end zone had he been 5-8 like Munnerlyn.

Overall, Seattle's secondary averages 6-1 1/2 and 209 pounds. Carolina's averages 5-10 3/4 and 203 pounds.

And Seattle is without its other shutdown corner, Brandon Browner (6-4, 221), who is suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

So as Carolina moves forward into the offseason while the Seahawks move on to the Super Bowl, the secondary must be addressed.

It doesn't have to get outspoken like Sherman.

It just has to get better.