Carolina Panthers: Ted Ginn Jr.

Continuing my look at the most memorable plays during the Carolina Panthers' 2013 season is a play that legitimized Cam Newton as a quarterback that could lead his team to victory in the clutch against a quality team

No. 4
  • The play: (Nov. 18) Newton completes a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds remaining to cap the biggest victory of his career at the time.
  • The final score: Panthers 24, Patriots 20
  • Why it made the list: Because until that moment, Newton hadn't been taken seriously as a player that could lead his team to victory in the final minutes. And make no mistake, this 13-play, 83-yard drive was all about Newton. He had a 15-yard run on third-and-6. He gained three yards up the middle on third-and-2. Then on second-and-15 from the New England 25, he floated a perfect pass to Ginn near the 10-yard line that the speedster converted into the winning touchdown. It capped a game in which Newton led Carolina in rushing with 62 yards on seven carries and compiled a 125.4 passer rating. "I hear the statistics of all the other guys having game-winning drives; now Cam has his game-winning drive against a worthy opponent," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "Watching that young man grow, that 24-year-old Cam Newton just chipping away, and a little bit of his greatness is starting to shine through. And it was fun to be a part of." Said coach Ron Rivera: "Cam did the things he needed to do to put us in position to win the football game. It has a lot to do with his maturity that we have talked about." With that play, the rest of the nation watching on 'Monday Night Football' began talking about it as well.
The names may have changed, but the 2013 statistics aren't dramatically different when it comes to the new and old wide receiving corps of the Carolina Panthers.

Gone are Steve Smith (Baltimore), Brandon LaFell (New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona).

Replacing them are free agents Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay) -- and a draft pick or two to be named later.

When you compare what the replacements did this past season versus the old regime, it's not enough to lose sleep over.

In overall age (based on the start of next season), Carolina got slightly younger with the average of the newcomers 30.0 compared to 30.3 of those they replaced. Smith, who will be 35 before the season, is the primary reason.

In terms of 2013 receptions, the old regime held a 149 to 108 advantage. Last year's receivers held a 1,928 to 1,489 edge in receiving yards.

The new guys held a 16 to 14 advantage in touchdown catches.

It's not a wash, but it's not worth panicking over.

And overall price tag of the newcomers is considerably lower, which will help with the salary cap down the road.

Coach Ron Rivera recently said at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., that Carolina needed to replace about 10 catches a game based on last season's statistics. The Panthers aren't far from that, although Cotchery and Avant are only short-term solutions.

Underwood is a wild card. He had 24 catches this past season, which is 22 more than Ginn had at San Francisco the year before coming to Carolina.

Ginn saw a 94.4 percent increase in production in 2013. If Underwood can double his that's a win for the new regime.

The other wild card is the draft. Rivera said he's looking for a dynamic receiver. Although none are as dynamic as the top two -- Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M's Mike Evans -- who will be gone way before Carolina picks at No. 28, there's a deep and talented crop.

There are enough receivers that if Carolina takes one or two in the first three rounds, those players can be as much or more of a factor as last year's fourth wide receiver, Domenik Hixon.

Hixon, now with Chicago, had only seven catches for 55 yards and one touchdown last season. While that one touchdown was huge -- the game-winner against New Orleans in the 15th game -- it can be easily replace.

There's more long-term upside for a first- or second-round selection than Ginn, last season's No. 3 receiver.

Throw in Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, two young players management is high on, and the situation isn't nearly as bad as it appeared a few weeks ago.

Time will tell.

Here's a closer look at what the Panthers have lost versus what they have gained:

Who do you have in the Final Four? Had to ask since I'm in Dallas, only a few miles from where the NCAA Tournament will come to a conclusion on Monday night.

I kind of like Kentucky at this point. They beat my pick, Louisville, and the rest of my tournament bracket has more X marks than one of my college calculus tests.

I know, I know. Some of you still want to talk Carolina Panthers. Some of you still want to talk free agency and the draft. I've got time for that, too.

Let's get straight to the Saturday mailbag:
Cam NewtonAP Photo/Dave MartinDonovan McNabb says there is reason to be concerned about the lack of weapons around Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is a big fan of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. He's not a big fan of Carolina's free-agency strategy that left the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner without his top four wide receivers from last season.

"Oh, I would be worried," McNabb told on Wednesday before South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney began his pro day. "First of all, I didn't have a top wide receiver until pretty much T.O. [Terrell Owens] got there.

"For him, I'm just wondering what they are doing to build around him. You lose Brandon LaFell, you lose Steve Smith, Ted Ginn's gone. All you have at this point is Greg Olsen."

Olsen is Carolina's tight end, who led the team in receptions last season with 73.

I reminded McNabb, now an analyst for Fox Sports, that0 Carolina signed Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Jerricho Cotchery. He didn't seem impressed.

"Greg Olsen," he reiterated as Newton's only legitimate weapon.

McNabb wasn't suggesting the Panthers should have gone after former Philadelphia Eagles teammate DeSean Jackson, who signed with Washington after being cut last week.

He respects the opinions of Carolina coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who were with him during parts of his career in Philly.

"But you've still got to give him some help," he said of Newton. "The quarterback is only as good as the people around him. If you don't ever want him to throw to a player that can create big plays out of the passing game, it's not going to go well."

And to Rivera's argument that the Panthers don't have to have a bona fide No. 1 receiver to be successful, McNabb simply rolled his eyes.

"I hate when teams [say] that," McNabb said. "Who are they, Bill Belichick and the Patriots now?"

McNabb's best example is himself. Let's go back to his comment that he didn't have a true No. 1 until Owens arrived in Philadelphia in 2004.

In the two seasons before Owens, McNabb threw a combined 33 touchdown passes. With Owens, he completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes for a career-high 31 touchdowns and 3,875 yards.

He also ran less that season -- 41 times for 202 yards after averaging 69.8 carries and 447.8 yards rushing in his first five seasons.

To further the argument, McNabb had two of his better seasons late in his career with Jackson in 2008 and 2009.

"[A receiver] doesn't have to be considered a No. 1, but in their offense you need a top dog," McNabb said of Carolina. "We've seen what Steve Smith can do in that offense. We've seen how LaFell has been able to get catches off of Steve Smith.

"What are they going to get them off? Jerricho Cotchery? What was Jerricho Cotchery in Pittsburgh? A No. 4? A 3?"

To be fair, Cotchery caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season. He was also the third or fourth receiver.

Regardless, McNabb is concerned about the Carolina passing game. But he's not concerned with Newton, who is out approximately four months recovering from recent surgery to tighten tendons in his left ankle.

He recalled overcoming a broken right ankle in 2002 to be stronger than ever.

"The biggest thing is they're going to benefit from making the playoffs," McNabb said. A record of "12-4 is not easy. What did they do? Win eight straight? That says a lot, and the quarterback is responsible for that."

McNabb likes where Newton is mentally, and that Newton no longer feels the urgency to do it all on the field. But will that change due to the loss of weapons from last season?

"It's just a minor setback," McNabb said of the surgery. "He'll be ready for training camp, which is good. Obviously, it's going to take some time to recover. But Rivera understands how to slowly put him in that arena, that progression to be right.

"He's still a franchise quarterback."
Ron Rivera admitted last week at the NFL owners meetings that the Carolina Panthers may not have a bona fide No. 1 receiver in 2014. The fourth-year head coach also said the Panthers may not need a top receiver who does everything like Detroit's Calvin Johnson.

So I wondered. How many teams actually had a bona fide No. 1 last season? And how critical was that to success?

I deferred to Matt Williamson, a former scout for the Cleveland Browns who now serves as an NFL scout for He came up with 13 players on 12 teams -- Chicago had two -- that he considered legitimate No. 1s.

He came up with eight other receivers he considered borderline No. 1s. One of those played for a team with a surefire No. 1.

So if you count the borderline players, only 19 of 32 teams had a No. 1 receiver in 2013. If you don't count them, only 12 did.

Not among the 12 were Super Bowl champion Seattle, NFC South champion Carolina, AFC East champion New England, AFC South champion Indianapolis and NFC wild-card team New Orleans.

Those teams were a collective 59-21 during the regular season.

Of the 12 teams that had bona fide No. 1s, seven finished .500 or worse. Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, Atlanta and Tampa Bay were a collective 21-59. Of the four teams with true No. 1s that made the playoffs, two lost in the first round.

So when Rivera says he's not worried, he really isn't. Neither should those following Carolina, although many of you have been since the Panthers released Steve Smith.

Smith, by the way, didn't make Williamson's list of legit No. 1s. He hasn't been a No. 1 for several years.

So the Panthers moved on. They now have in Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Jerricho Cotchery a solid veteran who caught 10 touchdown passes last season. They have in Tampa Bay's Tiquan Underwood a potential up-and-comer whose previous year stats are far better than Ted Ginn Jr.'s were coming into last season, and many of you considered the loss of Ginn in free agency a setback.

Throw in a rookie from a talented and deep draft class, along with Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, who the Panthers are high on, and there's potential.

And consider this: New England quarterback Tom Brady began last season without his top five receiving targets from 2012 in wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, running back Danny Woodhead and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

The Patriots brought in injury-prone Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins. Doesn't sound much more impressive than what Carolina has now.

New England made it to the AFC Championship Game.

Successful offenses are more about successful schemes and balance. The teams that achieve balance typically don't need a true No. 1.

"The thing that we had to look at is we have a good group of young guys that we feel need to get opportunities," Rivera said. "We’ve got the draft, and there’s no secret that at some point if we’ve got a chance to draft a wide receiver we are going to do it.”

The bottom line: To be a top team, you don't have to have a top receiver.
Veteran wide receiver Donte' Stallworth made the following comment on Twitter after the Carolina Panthers cut Steve Smith and lost their next three wide receivers in free agency:

Many of you were asking the same question. So was I. Some wondered whether the quarterback's relationship with Smith had anything to do with Carolina's decision to cut their all-time leading receiver. So did I.

I haven't talked to Newton, but Carolina coach Ron Rivera filled in a few blanks this past week at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla.

First, Newton wasn't consulted on the decision to release Smith. He also wasn't consulted on whether the Panthers should try to re-sign Brandon LaFell (Patriots), Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) or Domenik Hixon (Bears).

Newton was in the Caribbean when everything transpired and had no idea any of the transactions had occurred until he returned to Charlotte to have an MRI on his left ankle, which led to surgery that will force him to miss the next four months.

His reaction?

"Surprised," Rivera said.

What quarterback wouldn't be after losing his top four targets? It's also no surprise that the Panthers didn't consult Newton. Players seldom are.

"Cam had nothing to do with what we did, whether it be Steve or any of our other guys that left or any of the guys that we saw," Rivera said. "Cam understands what we're doing, he knows what we're doing, but he didn't know what we did until he came into town to get his ankle looked at."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Alan DiazCam Newton had no idea about the Panthers' movements at wide receiver until he came in to have an MRI on his ankle.
As for speculation that Newton's relationship with Smith led to the release, Rivera made it clear it wasn't.

"It's all speculation," he said. "People are going to write, think and say what they think and don't know. But that had nothing to do with what we did. What we did was all about football."

After Stallworth's tweet, the Panthers signed Pittsburgh free-agent receiver Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood from Tampa Bay. Stallworth hasn't tweeted his thoughts on those moves.

Rivera's thoughts are that Carolina got two of the players they targeted, a veteran in Cotchery who can work with the young receivers and an up-and-comer in Underwood whom offensive coordinator Mike Shula is high on.

Rivera acknowledges the Panthers may not have a true No. 1 receiver. He also reminded that Carolina isn't the only team without a bona fide No. 1. Seattle won the Super Bowl with a relatively average group of wide receivers.

"I don't think you need a true No. 1 that needs to do everything," Rivera said. "I don't think you need to have a guy like Detroit's Calvin Johnson. You don't need to have that. You need to have a guy that is going to account for, if there are 10 catches in a game for your wide receiver, he gets six of them."

Maybe one day soon we'll hear directly from Newton on everything that has transpired, including his surgery.

Maybe Stallworth will tweet about that, too.
We take this break from the Carolina Panthers' search for wide receivers in free agency to look at a potential candidate in the NFL draft.

Meet Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro.

While Carolina entertained Pittsburgh Steelers free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery on Monday, other members of the staff were just up the interstate looking at the Demon Deacons' all-time leading receiver at NFL pro day.

Campanaro (5-foot-9, 192 pounds) isn't among the top tier receivers in the draft. He's likely a middle-round pick.

But after posting a time of 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash last month at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, he's starting to turn a few more heads. Carolina already was aware of him because of his connection with wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, a former Wake Forest star.

Campanaro told during the combine that he's a combination of Proehl, a great route-runner, and Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver who was cut last week.

Campanaro caught 67 passes for 803 yards and six touchdowns last season despite missing the final three games with a broken collarbone.

He finished his college career with a school-record 229 catches for 2,506 yards and 14 touchdowns. Proehl had 188 catches for a school-record 2,949 yards and 25 touchdowns at Wake.

So as the Panthers attempt to rebuild their receiving corps from scratch after cutting Smith and losing Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon in free agency, keep an eye on Campanaro.

He could be a good complementary player if the Panthers can sign a couple of veterans and draft what coach Ron Rivera has called a dynamic receiver in the first two rounds.

The Panthers already are talking to Cotchery as mentioned above, and Green Bay free agent James Jones told ESPN's Josina Anderson on Sunday he would "love to play with'' quarterback Cam Newton.

Stay tuned.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season. Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Finally, some good news for the Carolina Panthers on the wide receiver front.

Green Bay Packers free agent James Jones told ESPN's Josina Anderson on Sunday that he would "love the opportunity to play for the Carolina Panthers'' and quarterback Cam Newton.

Also, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, 31, reportedly will visit Carolina on Monday.

The Panthers are looking to completely rebuild their receiving corps. They cut Steve Smith, their all-time leading receiver, on Thursday. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday. No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. signed with Arizona and No. 4 Domenik Hixon went to Chicago.

That leaves Carolina without a wide receiver with an NFL catch.

Jones has been relatively quiet during the first week of free agency, but he has been on the Panthers' radar -- particularly since Hakeem Nicks signed with Indianapolis on Friday.

He has 310 career receptions for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns during his seven-year career. He had a career-best 14 touchdown catches in 2012.

Cotchery is heading into his 11th season after being selected by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. Has spent the past three seasons at Pittsburgh, where he had 46 catches for 602 yards and a career-best 10 touchdowns this past season.

He has 437 career catches for 5,558 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Neither Jones nor Cotchery is considered a bona fide No. 1 receiver, but for a team with no experience at the position either or both would fill a huge need.

The Panthers also are expected to take a wide receiver in the first two rounds of the draft.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonGeneral manager Dave Gettleman has made some questionable decisions in the first week of free agency.

Let's go back to January, two days after the Carolina Panthers finished a 12-4 season, to when Dave Gettleman assessed his first year as an NFL general manager.

"The gaffes I made this year didn’t hurt us too much,'' he said.

A reporter: "Gaffes?''

Gettleman responded with a laugh and a Ric Flair-like "Wooo!," followed by a moment of awkward silence, followed by "let's say I didn't make any big ones.''

Back to the present. Gettleman appears to have made several gaffes a week into his second venture into free agency. Whether one or more turn into big ones remains to be seen. Whether they'll ultimately be called gafffes also remains to be seen because we're a long way from the final snapshot of this team.

But for the sake of evaluation, let's take a look at what could be called the gaffes of the past week:

Gaffe 1: Cutting wide receiver Steve Smith. This was a gaffe on several levels, although Gettleman may disagree. First, the way it was handled. Either Gettleman never should have said he was reviewing whether Smith would have a spot on the team or he should have consulted Smith in some way. Teams part with long-time contributors all the time. But it's the way they part that most remember. Second, that Smith signed with Baltimore a day later, and had strong interest from New England, Seattle and San Diego, tells me somebody thought he has something to offer at 34.

Gaffe 2: Losing No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots), No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and No. 3 Domenik Hixon (Bears) to free agency after cutting Smith left quarterback Cam Newton without a wide receiver with an NFL catch. I'm not suggesting all three or even two should have been re-signed, but you've got to find a way to keep one for some sort of continuity going into 2014.

Gaffe 3: Losing free agent wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to Indianapolis. Nicks said Gettleman made an offer. It apparently wasn't enough. Maybe Gettleman never really wanted Nicks that badly. Maybe he's targeted Green Bay wide receiver James Jones, who remains on the open market. Maybe he has somebody else in mind to be the veteran leader at this position. But for the moment, losing the hometown Nicks on top of gaffes 1 and 2 seems like a mistake.

Gaffe 4: Not re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell. To be fair, the Panthers probably couldn't compete with the five-year, $25 million deal Mitchell got from Pittsburgh. But to lose a 26-year-old on his way up and replace him with 31-year-old Roman Harper on his way down isn't a long-term solution.

Gaffe 5: Losing Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Collins to NFC South rival Tampa Bay. He would have been a nice replacement for recently-retired Jordan Gross protecting Newton's blindside. Unless something changes, that job will go to right tackle Byron Bell or a rookie from the draft. Stay tuned.

Again, to be fair, Gettleman didn't have the money to make 3, 4 and 5 happen. The Panthers, after saving about $2 million in cap room by cutting Smith, had only about $8 million before Saturday's signing of Harper to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million.

But had one or two of those happened the others wouldn't seem as significant.

Let's go back to Gettleman two days after the season. Perhaps the following comments he made will help put some of this in perspective that we don't all understand at the moment.

"The truth of the matter is, everybody is on the outside looking in,'' he said. "The fact of the matter is, there's stuff going on behind closed doors that we don't know about. I don't care what team it is. I don't care what sport it is. You don't know all the facts. Unless you know all the facts all you're doing is speculating.''

Fortunately for Gettleman, he won't have to evaluate his second year as a general manager for another 10 months.

That's when we'll know if the above gaffes are big or small, or gaffes at all.
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.

So this is how Steve Smith's career with the Carolina Panthers is going to end. Not with an emotional, animated outburst that defined him much of the past 13 seasons, but with a inspirational quote surrounded by clouds on Twitter.

"Some people are going to leave, but that's not the end of the End of your Story. That's the End of their Part in your Story," said the quote Smith put on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.

Above the quote Smith wrote: "God has a plan... sometimes it just hurts [to] find out what it is."

Carolina's all-time leading receiver is taking the high road. He declined to comment on his agent, Derrick Fox, saying he is "not going to play for the Panthers next year."

That doesn't sound like the player the Panthers feel could threaten the leadership of quarterback Cam Newton, which before this past season wasn't considered a leader at all by many of his teammates.

Fox told me on Tuesday he hasn't heard from the Panthers, just as he has said practically every day since general manager Dave Gettleman said his client's future with the team was under evaluation, just as he has said since reports surfaced that the team was trying to trade Smith.

But Fox "knows" the end is coming, whether it's in a trade that won't happen because of Smith's contract or an outright release that will cost Carolina $3 million in guaranteed money and another $2 million in deferred bonus.

Exactly when that day will come -- only Gettleman knows. And Gettleman hasn't commented on Smith since he told reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that "Steve's had a great career. None of us are here forever."

Since then, Smith has gotten public sentiment.

Gettleman? Not so much.

I'm sure Gettleman has a plan for the wide receiver position even though Smith apparently won't be there and none of the team's next three wide receivers from 2013 are under contract. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell is visiting New England and is getting interest from Denver and the Jets.

No. 3 receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is visiting Tampa Bay. No. 4 receiver Domenik Hixon is getting interest from Chicago.

That leaves ... Marvin McNutt.

Remember that one pass he caught from Newton? Yeah, the one that was out of bounds.

Imagine telling that to Hakeem Nicks or any other free-agent receiver you're trying to build a new receiving corps around.

In other words, as much good as Gettleman did building up his reputation a year ago, he's tearing it down the way he's handling this.

According to Fox, the 34-year-old Smith hasn't been asked to restructure his contract or asked to take on a lesser role and play as the slot receiver. He said Smith actually wants to play in the slot.

Now even if Carolina wanted that, which apparently it doesn't, that won't happen.

The damage is done.

Or as Fox said, "irreparable."

The Panthers have backed themselves into a corner where, according to Fox, Smith won't be able to play for them next season.

In the past, when Smith has been backed into a corner, he's come out swinging.

Now he's taking the high road that he hasn't always taken in his career, and that is making Gettleman look bad -- particularly if the Panthers have to pay Smith $3 million to play for another team in 2014.

There already are reports that Baltimore or Tampa Bay might be interested in his services.

So this is how it will end, with Smith sending out flowery tweets that tug on the heartstrings of his long-time fans while those same fans pound away at Carolina management.

Smith also tweeted Wednesday:

OK, so the #iceupson wasn't so flowery.
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 free-agent pieces began falling into place for the Carolina Panthers last week with the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and the franchising of defensive end Greg Hardy.

So what's next with eight days before players hit the open market?

Management is talking with representatives for free safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., so that appears to be the direction the team is heading. Both make sense.

Mitchell gave the league's No. 2 defense an invaluable attitude with his aggressive style. He led all safeties in yards allowed per reception (8.1) and tied for third in interceptions with four.

If the Panthers can't come up with the money to re-sign him, there are many teams interested. Look for a deal to get done before free agency begins March 11.

The question is whether Mitchell will remain at free safety or return to strong safety with Charles Godfrey expected back after a season-ending Achilles injury. Mitchell moved to free safety after Godfrey was injured in the second game, and the defense only got better from there.

The other part of that question is whether the Panthers will keep Godfrey. He has a big salary cap number ($7.1 million), but the team could clear $5.1 million in cap space if it cuts him after June 1.

That could be an option if the deal can't be renegotiated for a lower number.

Of Carolina's three free-agent receivers -- Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon -- Ginn makes the most sense because he is the team's leading kick returner and a deep threat for quarterback Cam Newton.

It's hard to imagine LaFell, who has been average at best as the team's No. 2 receiver, coming back unless it's at a bargain price. Look for him to hit the open market.

The Panthers also seem content with letting starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn test the market to determine his value. They did this last season and got him for a bargain.

Look for Carolina to turn its focus to free-agent upgrades from other teams once it signs Mitchell and Ginn. The picture on Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, should become clearer this week as well.

General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera have said Smith's role is under evaluation. Look for them to meet with him, his management or both in the next few days to see where things go.

Should the Panthers look into the market for an upgrade at receiver, an intriguing prospect became available Friday when Seattle released Sidney Rice to clear salary-cap room.

Rice played high school football in Gaffney, S.C., about an hour from Charlotte, and was a star at the University of South Carolina 90 minutes away.

His numbers haven't lived up to his contract in recent years, but injuries have played a role. His 2011 season was cut short by a concussion, and an ACL injury kept him from finishing last season.

He is still young at 27 and at 6-foot-4 would give quarterback Cam Newton a tall target.

But Carolina's first priority will be re-signing Mitchell and Ginn.
Wide receiver Steve Smith spent the week before the Carolina Panthers played the San Francisco 49ers in a January NFC playoff game making up random percentages on whether his knee injury would allow him to play.

It did.

Now there's a mystery as to whether the team's all-time leading receiver will play again.

On consecutive days at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera were vague on whether Smith would be back for his 14th season.

It apparently has nothing to do with the injury, which was minor. It apparently has everything to do with either money or whether Smith wants to play another two or three seasons to finish in the top 10 in the league in all-time receptions and receiving yards.

"Steve's had a great career. None of us are here forever," Gettleman told reporters in Indianapolis on Thursday. "He's part of the evaluation."

Asked about Smith's future on Friday, Rivera said, "I'm not quite sure."

"We're going through the process," he added. "We've got to see. He's a veteran guy that has played a lot of games for us. We'll see. I'm at the point where we're sitting here talking about something we don't know anything about."

Asked if he foresaw a scenario in which Smith wouldn't return, Rivera was equally vague, saying the organization would sit down next week after the combine and evaluate where it is headed.

Smith was emphatic during Carolina's playoff run that his goal was to play until he had 1,000 receptions and "close to" 14,000 receiving yards, which would put him in the top 10 all-time in both categories.

Smith had 64 catches for 745 yards this past season to run his career totals to 836 and 12,197.

A third-round pick out of Utah in 2001, Smith will turn 35 in May. He has three years left on his contract, carrying a cap number of $7 million for 2014.

The team has between June 1 and June 30 to exercise a 2016 option that carries a $1.5 million bonus. Also to be considered, Carolina will have to execute a $3 million non-exercise fee if Smith is on the roster on July 1 and does not pick up the option year.

Regardless of what happens with Smith, Rivera acknowledged the Panthers will be looking for a "dynamic" receiver in either the draft or free agency.

The draft is at least two rounds deep of quality receivers, which means Carolina could get a potential replacement or future replacement for Smith with the 28th pick or in the second round.

The Panthers also potentially could target free agents such as Hakeem Nicks or Nate Burleson should Smith retire. If that happened, they may also draft a quality second receiver.

Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers from 2013, all are free agents. Of the three, Ginn is the most valuable because he is a deep threat and one of the league's top kick returners.

LaFell has yet to step up as a consistent No. 2 receiver.

Asked what he would be looking for receiver-wise in the draft, Rivera said, "We're going to look for a guy that is very dynamic that can come in and contribute right away."

The Panthers will need that regardless of whether Smith returns or not. If it makes sense financially for Smith to return, his experience in teaching a young receiver would be invaluable.

As for now, it appears that's all up in the air.

"Steve's part of who we are," Rivera said. "We'll go from there."