NFC South: Brandon LaFell

Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.
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 ESPN.com 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."

ORLANDO, Fla. -- One by one reporters from around the NFL stopped by the table of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who under strict orders from his wife was eating a healthy plate of fruit at Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast.

One by one they asked about wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina's decision to cut its all-time leading receiver, which Rivera and management believe was healthy for the Panthers.

The rest of those at the NFL owners meeting apparently aren't so sure. I've had my doubts as well. So Rivera spent well over half of his 45-minute interview period talking about the newest addition to the Baltimore Ravens.

He finally had enough.

He finally became animated -- at least for him -- and defended general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to part ways with one of the most popular players in team history. He talked passionately about how Gettleman took a hit for the team.

He expressed his frustration over reports that it was personal and that Smith was a distraction to the locker room. He made it clear that it was neither.

Finally.

Had he done this two weeks ago, we might have moved on to another topic for the defending NFC South champions.

And it is time to move on.

The Panthers have. They believe they are headed in the right direction even though much of the league believes they are headed for a hard crash after a 12-4 season.

Smith
That is understandable. Even Rivera was a bit nervous when it became obvious the Panthers would not have their top four wide receivers from last season and quarterback Cam Newton needed ankle surgery.

But as I said early in the process, what did they really lose? Not that Rivera wanted to lose Brandon LaFell, or even Ted Ginn Jr. But when he explained that Carolina averaged more than 100 yards rushing in 15 of 16 games last season, and in doing so the wide receivers collectively averaged 10 catches a game, you knew what he meant.

Ten catches? That's not much to replace.

The likes of veteran Jerricho Cotchery, along with his kiddie corps of Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and whoever else you want to throw into the mix, surely can catch 10 passes cumulatively.

Now, many of those have to be the big catches. While Smith's numbers were down last season, he still made many of the big third- or fourth-down receptions that made 2013's turnaround possible.

None were bigger than the 19-yard catch into double coverage on fourth-and-10 from deep in Miami territory with 2:33 remaining. That led to a last-minute 20-16 victory that extended Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

But surely Cotchery, 31, can replace that. He had 10 touchdown catches last season for Pittsburgh. That is more than Smith (4) and No. 2 LaFell (5) combined for in 2013.

A funny aside. The Panthers never intended to go an entire week after releasing Smith without signing a wide receiver, which added to the anxiety of many. They wanted to bring Cotchery in early, but he was on vacation and couldn't.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera is confident the additions of veterans like safety Roman Harper will keep Carolina on track despite its losses in free agency.
"I really do wish people and hope people will understand there's a process," Rivera said of the team's plan. "If you do things the right way you have a chance going forward. That to me is what we've done."

And the Panthers aren't done. They plan to add other pieces in free agency and the draft. Some of them will be key.

But with the front seven of the league's No. 2 defense intact, and with Newton expected to be better than ever after surgery for a left ankle issue that has been lingering since college, Rivera has just as much or more to work with now than he had a year ago.

It's not like he has the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster.

There still are some key areas -- the secondary and offensive line at the top of the list -- that must be addressed. If the season started today, right tackle Byron Bell likely would start at left tackle, with Nate Chandler or Garry Williams on the right side.

But is that so bad? Rivera really likes Bell, who played left tackle in college, even though public sentiment is that this is a disaster. Sometimes you have to trust the coach's instinct.

The Panthers already have a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Kalil, and the guard situation is solid with Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila back from injuries that kept them from starting last season.

So the line could be as good or better than a year ago.

The biggest concern in the secondary is the nickel back. Rivera likes the competition he has for the two cornerback spots in Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

He believes Charles Godfrey, if he returns healthy from last season's Achilles injury, can play the nickel as well as free safety. He's thrilled to have New Orleans free agent Roman Harper at strong safety, and if Godfrey doesn't return, Rivera has Robert Lester and a few other young players who played well in spurts last season.

It's really no different than it was this past August when the big questions were the offensive line and secondary.

So Rivera is upbeat. He's ready to talk about something -- no offense -- other than Smith.

"We're headed in the direction of being a better team," he insisted.

Think of it like his breakfast. Sometimes you have to eat fresh fruit instead of bacon and eggs that taste good but aren't exactly good for you in the long run.
Brandon LaFell gave the answer you would expect almost any wide receiver to say when asked why he chose the New England Patriots over the Carolina Panthers in free agency.

LaFell
"The chance to get the ball more, to play for a winning organization," the former Carolina receiver said during a Wednesday conference call.

Reminded he left a winning organization in Carolina, which was 12-4 this past season with a Monday night victory over the Patriots, LaFell stuck to his guns.

"Because I had a chance to play with a Hall of Fame quarterback," he said of New England's Tom Brady. "One day Cam [Newton of Carolina] will be there, probably. I feel like it was a better chance to come up here and get more balls than there was with Carolina.

"Nothing against those guys. Those guys are going to win. [But] it's proven up here."

Many fans on Twitter took LaFell's comments as a slam on Newton, which it really wasn't. It reached a point where LaFell wrote he was taking a month off from the social media site.

You can't blame LaFell for picking the Patriots, particularly since Carolina let him go into free agency. Brady has won 148 games and thrown for 359 touchdowns. Newton has won 25 games and thrown for 64 touchdowns.

The Patriots also are more committed to the passing game than Carolina, which in 2014 won't have any of its top four wide receivers from last season with the release of Steve Smith and the loss of LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Bears) in free agency.

The Patriots also are consistent winners with 11 straight years with 10 or more victories and 13 straight with nine or more -- not to mention three Super Bowl wins and five Super Bowl appearances during that span.

Carolina hasn't had consecutive winning seasons since it began playing in 1995. Last season was the organization's first winning record since 2008.

Plus, LaFell seemed to have peaked at Carolina. He caught a career-best 49 passes last season, and he still wasn't deemed as a solid No. 2 receiver.

So when you look at it that way, this was LaFell's big chance to prove worthy of the hype he had coming out of LSU.

"I feel there is a better chance to get more balls," he said.

Understood.
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 Panthers.com 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.

ESPN.com 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.

Jones
Jones
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.

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.
Free agency begins on Tuesday, and the Carolina Panthers have a lot of holes to fill.

That means you have a lot of questions.

So let’s get right to my Saturday mailbag:
 
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.

Smith
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."

The next big thing: Panthers

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
12:00
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What's next for the Carolina Panthers in free agency and the NFL draft:

Free agency: Carolina has 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, led by defensive end Greg Hardy (second in the league in sacks with 15) and left tackle Jordan Gross. Three-fourths of the starting secondary also is on this list, as well as the team's No. 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.

The team remains somewhat strapped under the salary cap to go after a high-priced defensive back or receiver. The franchise tag may be the best solution for Hardy, who likely would break the bank with a long-term deal if allowed to test the market.

Draft: With the No. 28 pick, the Panthers are likely to go with a wide receiver or tackle. Wide receiver is the No. 1 need to give quarterback Cam Newton a weapon to work with opposite 13-year veteran Steve Smith. But general manager Dave Gettleman's theory of building from the inside out in last season's draft worked well. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, taken with the team's first two picks, were key to Carolina ranking No. 2 in the league in run defense.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I have ranked the 21 Carolina Panthers who are scheduled to become free agents in March.

As you can imagine, left tackle Jordan Gross and defensive end Greg Hardy are at or near the top of the list. But that will be revealed in time.

Starting today, beginning at the bottom of the ranking, I will list the players and whether they likely will fit into Carolina's future. If you agree or disagree, feel free to let me know.

It's not an exact science, and much will depend on the market, whether the team can find upgrades with free agents from other teams or how much their free agents are demanding.

As we get to the top 11, I'll reveal one at a time. For now we'll go in twos:

LaFell
20. WR Brandon LaFell: It may surprise you that I have the team's No. 2 receiver so low. Here's why: I don't think he offers enough to be the No. 2 receiver even though he has proven to be a solid blocker and he had a career-best 49 catches last season. I like what Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon offer more as a third or fourth receiver, and both of them are free agents as well. The Panthers likely will address the No. 2 receiver in the draft or free agency, so it's time to part with LaFell. The team needs a more explosive weapon opposite Steve Smith. They also need a future replacement for Smith, who will be entering his 14th season. LaFell hasn't proven worthy of that.

Clausen
21. QB Jimmy Clausen: He only made this list because he technically is scheduled to become a UFA. He was cut during training camp last season, then reverted back to the team's injured reserve list because he was cut injured. I don't see any interest here unless the team has trouble re-signing backup Derek Anderson or officials simply want bodies for competition in camp. Having said that, they likely will look for new bodies. The team's second-round pick in 2010 hasn't been in a game since his rookie season when he threw nine interceptions to three touchdowns.

SPONSORED HEADLINES