- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- You’ve heard plenty about the lockout over the past few months, but it actually was in effect in Charlotte since 2008.
The moment owners opted out of the previous labor agreement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson realized there were tough financial times ahead. He immediately decided he wasn’t going to spend big money on long-term deals for players or coaches (the Panthers didn’t add a single unrestricted free agent in 2009 or 2010) because Richardson wanted to protect everyone else who worked for his franchise during these tough times.
That’s why defensive end Julius Peppers was allowed to walk in free agency last year. That’s why John Fox was allowed to be a lame-duck coach entering a 2010 season that turned into a nightmare. Despite having a roster filled with a reasonable amount of individual talent, the Panthers went 2-14 and fan apathy reached an all-time high.
But Richardson’s entire philosophy changed the moment the labor situation was resolved. He took the lock off his checkbook and began paying huge money to keep players such as defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams and linebackers Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis. He added free agents such as kicker Olindo Mare and traded for tight end Greg Olsen. Including rookies, Richardson already has written checks for more than $100 million in signing bonuses.
Throw in the fact that Ron Rivera has replaced Fox and the Panthers chose quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the draft, and there suddenly is optimism the Panthers can quickly escape the label of being one of the league’s worst teams.
“That’s the one thing I’ve learned from being a Carolina Panther for going on nine years is that you never know what kind of a team we’re going to field from year to year,’’ veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Things can change dramatically, and I think they are going to here. I love Coach Rivera’s philosophy and the staff he’s put together. They’re committed to winning, and the organization has shown that as well with what it has done with getting new guys and re-signing our own guys. I think we can be as good as we want to be.’’
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will Newton be the savior of this franchise? It’s way too early to even have a clue if the guy who played only one full season at Auburn will succeed in the NFL. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Panthers aren’t asking Newton to be their savior -- at least not right away.
The hope in Carolina is that Newton will get a reasonable grasp of the offense in training camp and show it in preseason games. If he does, he’ll be the opening-day starter. The Panthers don’t want to prolong the inevitable and start the season with Jimmy Clausen because Newton clearly is their future.
The playbook can expand as time goes on, but the organization believes that Newton can step right in behind an offensive line that should be good and can take advantage of a strong running game, very good tight ends and wide receiver Steve Smith.
2. What will the new offense look like? The popular thing to do in Carolina is assume that the departure of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson means the Panthers are suddenly going to start throwing the ball all over the field.
They will throw more, but the Panthers won't pass as often as people think. That would be foolish with a rookie quarterback and it would border on insanity to keep the ball out of the hands of running backs Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, there will be significant differences from the Fox/Davidson era.
Chudzinski came from San Diego and plans to use an offensive scheme that’s based on what the Chargers do. You’ll see more passes to the tight ends, a big reason the Panthers brought in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. You’ll see plays designed to get Smith away from double coverage. But don’t expect Newton to step right in and immediately be Philip Rivers.
3. What will the defense look like? Rivera has a defensive background. His coordinator is Sean McDermott, who spent time in Philadelphia. Some personnel changes in the middle of the defensive line will allow Beason, Anderson and Davis to again become play-making linebackers. That’s going to make this defense look a little like Fox’s defense of a few years back. But the real change will be a new philosophy that involves taking risks and being aggressive. The Panthers didn’t blitz much last year and didn’t have much success when they did. That’s going to change. McDermott’s going to use those athletic linebackers as blitzers, and with Johnson and Greg Hardy already up front, Carolina suddenly could have a dynamic and disruptive pass rush. The secondary is not loaded with big-time talent, but it could look a lot better if quarterbacks are forced into mistakes.
Granted, it’s early, but the Panthers are hopeful receiver/return man Armanti Edwards will make an impact. A second-round pick last year, Edwards was a nonfactor as a rookie. That was largely because Fox believed the former college quarterback did not belong in the NFL. He barely let Edwards on the field as he made a statement to an owner and front office that wanted the lame-duck coach to embrace a youth movement. But Fox is gone and there’s sudden optimism about Edwards. The team didn’t know it until after the lockout ended, but it was delighted to find out that Edwards reached out to veteran punter Jason Baker during the offseason. The two worked out together frequently and Edwards made dramatic improvement in his ability to catch punts. There’s a good chance he could be the main punt and kickoff returner this season. He also could be involved in certain packages as a wide receiver.
The perception is the Panthers have done just about everything they’ve wanted to in free agency. But that’s not quite reality. According to a league source, the team made a strong play for free-agent receiver Santana Moss, offering him a three-year deal worth $15 million. Moss took the deal back to the Redskins, who matched it, so he elected to stay in Washington. That one shook the Panthers a bit. Although they have high hopes for young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, they want to pair a proven veteran with Smith to start the season. Look for them to bring in another veteran at some point before the start of the regular season.
Keep your eye on the cornerbacks who remain on the market or come available over the next few weeks. The Panthers let Richard Marshall leave via free agency. They still have Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn, but a team that has been so aggressive this offseason isn’t going to sit still at this position. The Panthers will sign a cornerback with starting experience at some point. They’re just waiting for the right guy at the right price.
The Panthers pushed veteran kicker John Kasay out the door and handed Mare a $4 million signing bonus. Kasay, 41, remained accurate on field goals, but the feeling was that he no longer had the leg strength to make long kicks. Mare’s 38 and still can make long field goals. But the biggest reason the change was made wasn’t about field goals. It was about kickoffs. The Panthers carried a kickoff specialist the past few years and didn’t want to waste a roster spot by doing that again. With the league moving kickoffs up 5 yards this year, the team believes Mare can produce a lot of touchbacks.
Don’t overlook running back Mike Goodson. As long as Williams and Stewart are healthy, he’s not going to get a bunch of carries. But Goodson was one of the few bright spots from last season and the new coaching staff noticed him on film. He can do a lot out of different things out of the backfield, and the coaching staff believes there's a role for Goodson. Think of a scaled-down version of what New Orleans did with Reggie Bush and plans to do with Darren Sproles.
Perhaps the most unsung move the Panthers made all offseason was hiring Mike Shula, the son of legendary coach Don Shula, as quarterbacks coach. He's had ups and downs as an NFL coordinator and college head coach at Alabama. But Shula has grown from it all and is a very good quarterbacks coach and teacher. If Shula can develop Newton or Clausen into a big-time quarterback, the world finally might give this guy his due.
The return of right tackle Jeff Otah is more significant than many realize. Otah missed all of last season with a knee injury but is fully healthy now. That’s going to have a huge impact on the running game.
Ryan Kalil signed his $10 million franchise tender and the team hasn’t talked to him about a long-term deal. But that’s simply because the front office has been so tied up making other moves. This team realizes Kalil is still young and already considered one of the best centers in the game. As soon as things settle down a bit, expect Kalil to be offered a big long-term deal.