NFC South: Captain Munnerlyn

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

Cornerback is one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He agreed not.

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

Feel better now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Panthers got him in the third round.

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

He was prepared to lose most of them.

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

The tortoise sometimes wins the race.

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

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

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

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

As mentioned at the beginning of free agency, patience.

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

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

Last time I looked, they don't play the Super Bowl in March.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
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 NFL's free-agent market is suddenly being flooded with former Pro Bowl cornerbacks -- which is a great thing for the New Orleans Saints.

I think the cornerback position should rank as New Orleans' No. 1 priority in free agency -- even more than the draft, because I think they could use an experienced veteran capable of stepping right into their starting lineup along with Keenan Lewis now that Jabari Greer has been released. I still like third-year pro Corey White's potential, but think he’d be an even better fit as a nickel back.

Whether the Saints have interest in guys such as Champ Bailey, Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Browner, they should still benefit from the fact that there are more options available in a free-agent class that was already pretty deep to begin with.

[+] EnlargeTarell Brown
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe 49ers' Tarell Brown is considered one of the top free-agent cornerbacks available this offseason.
The Saints won’t be huge spenders in free agency because they're pretty snug against the salary cap. But I think they'll still be aggressive with one or two acquisitions -- like when they signed Lewis to a five-year, $26.3 million contract last year (after first flirting with pricier outside linebacker Paul Kruger).

Here is a glimpse of who is available in free agency, with some insight from ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson:

TOP TIER: I don’t expect the Saints to be in the market for the New England Patriots' Aqib Talib or the Tennessee Titans’ Alterraun Verner. Those guys could be closer to the $8 million range, similar to what the Miami Dolphins just paid to re-sign Brent Grimes (four years, $32 million). The Indianapolis Colts’ Vontae Davis probably will be too pricey as well.

It's possible the Saints could flirt with the Green Bay Packers' Sam Shields or the Denver Broncos' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, especially if those players don’t find big offers quickly. But chances are, the Saints will be shopping in the next tier down.

SECOND TIER: This is the range I’d most expect the Saints in -- experienced starters who won’t necessarily break the bank. I like the possibility of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown (29 years old, 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, a starter for the past three years). ESPN analyst KC Joyner recently tabbed him as a good fit for the Saints Insider. And ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker Insider, which used input from former general manager Bill Polian and analysts Williamson, Gary Horton and Field Yates, ranks Brown among the top options overall.

"[Brown’s] a good one," Williamson said. "I think he starts for just about every team out there, though it didn’t hurt that he benefited from a great supporting cast."

Or maybe the Saints should consider stealing Captain Munnerlyn from the rival Carolina Panthers after the 25-year-old just had his best year to date in 2013. Munnerlyn is just 5-8, 195 pounds, but he plays physical. And he has an uncanny knack for turning interceptions into touchdowns (all four of his picks over the past two seasons and five out of seven in his career).

"I would think maybe that’s the position you would splurge on a little bit," Williamson said. "I really like Captain Munnerlyn, and you’d steal him from a rival. He’s a slot guy who could be a starter. ... He’s really feisty, a little undersized but a slot guy, tough. He played his best football this last year; he’s peaking at the right time."

Williamson said he also likes Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond (age 26, 5-11, 190) after his best year to date as a part-time starter in 2013. But Williamson wonders if Thurmond will get overpaid after being part of that Super Bowl-winning defense.

Bailey, Finnegan, Browner and Chicago Bears standout Charles Tillman probably all fit in this same class now, too, but they all come with some question marks.

Bailey, who is being released by the Denver Broncos, is a 12-time Pro Bowler and an all-time great who might have another strong year left in him. But he's 35 years old and missed most of last season with a foot injury.

Likewise, Tillman is 33 and missed most of last season with a torn triceps.

Finnegan, 30, also landed on injured reserve last season with a fractured orbital bone. And his two years with the St. Louis Rams were disappointing after he signed a blockbuster contract there in 2012. Still, the 5-10, 179-pounder is still young enough to have a bounce-back year.

Browner, 29, is facing a four-game suspension to start the season after repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. But the 6-4, 221-pounder who helped define the Seahawks' physical style of pass defense should still be coveted.

THIRD TIER: I don’t think the Saints are likely to bring back Tracy Porter, but I found it interesting that he earned one of the highest grades of any corner on ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker after a nice season with the Oakland Raiders. Health wasn't an issue for Porter last season after it was his biggest issue during his time with the Saints from 2008-2011.

Another wild-card possibility is Derek Cox (age 27, 6-1, 195). Cox was released by the San Diego Chargers after one very disappointing 2013 season (after he signed a four-year deal worth up to $19.8 million). The Saints had lined up a visit with Cox last year before signing Lewis. Maybe they’ll be glad they dodged a bullet -- or maybe they will consider taking a chance again now that he’ll come cheap.

Williamson also suggested Will Blackmon (age 29), Drayton Florence (33), and Rashean Mathis (33) as guys who have had up-and-down careers but played well last year and might be good "under-the-radar" signings on short-term deals.
The odds that the Carolina Panthers can afford to keep defensive end Greg Hardy continue to improve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And don't be surprised if that also helps make it possible for Hardy to return.

Combine preview: Carolina Panthers

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
12:00
PM ET
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needed less than 90 seconds to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the 2013 draft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will get his money.

No need to panic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolina roster analysis: Secondary

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
8:00
AM ET
Part 2 of my position-by-position analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster focuses on what New York Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes referred to this past season as "the weakest link on their defense."

The Panthers took offense.

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

Next up: Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the over-the-top stuff.

Cornerbacks like Sherman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others have to be nervous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn't have to get outspoken like Sherman.

It just has to get better.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As I said this week, not all head-butts are created equal.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was penalized for a first-quarter head-butt against San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree in Sunday's 23-10 loss to the 49ers, but was not fined by the NFL.

San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin was not penalized for his second-quarter head-butt of Carolina safety Mike Mitchell, but was fined $7,875 by the NFL.

The penalty against Munnerlyn led to a San Francisco field goal. The lack of a penalty against Boldin after a first-down catch to the Carolina 9-yard line led to a 49ers' touchdown with five seconds left in the first half.

In other words, instead of first-and-goal from the 24, the 49ers had first-and-goal from the 9.

That had a dramatic impact in the game, as San Francisco went into halftime ahead 13-10. Had the 49ers settled for a field goal, the Panthers would have led 10-9.

Also fined, Carolina cornerback Josh Thomas was docked $7,875 for throwing a punch at San Francisco receiver Quinton Patton, and San Francisco running back Frank Gore was fined the same amount for grabbing the facemask of linebacker Thomas Davis while blocking in the second quarter.

Mitchell was not fined for hitting a defenseless defender in the first quarter, but the Panthers were penalized 15 yards for the hit. That led to San Francisco's first field goal.

Maybe all this is why Mitchell said afterwards, "I can't wait to play them [again] with a new set of refs in a new game."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I keep reading as NFL teams fill head coaching positions that this coach will be better than the previous one because he's willing to yell at his players and take a stand. Or this coach is going to be better because he won't yell at his players -- or fans as reportedly was the case with The Detroit Lions' Jim Schwartz.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera has the right temperament.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/G. Newman LowrancePlayers respect Ron Rivera because he listens to input from his team.
He's stern with his players, but he's also willing to listen to what they have to say -- and more importantly act on it. It's a big reason he was able to keep the respect of his players when the Panthers were 1-3 after consecutive losing seasons, and a big reason they were able to rebound to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South.

Rivera is a player's coach through and through. He showed it again this week when he had dinner with left tackle Jordan Gross and a few other players in Charlotte to discuss ways he and the team could improve.

Yes, he asked players for input. He did the same thing a year ago after Carolina finished 7-9.

"I think last year it was written I had a difference with a couple of guys,'' Rivera said. "One of the things I learned from evaluating myself is you don’t see everything and hear everything and people don’t tell you what you need to hear sometimes. Last year, I asked them to open up and they did. It was very enlightening and it helped me.''

Rivera is reaping the benefits of improvement through self-evaluation. He already has been named the NFC Coach of the Year by NFL 101 Awards and the Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association.

He is a candidate for the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award that will be announced during the NFL Honors ceremony the night before the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in New York City.

"He's a player's coach," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn told me late this season. "That's key to it, man. He respects everybody and he will go to battle for all of us. If somebody is talking bad about us, he's always taking the blame.

"Like a couple of years ago, certain [losses] weren't his fault, but he was always taking the blame for it. He put that on his shoulders. I just respect that as a person and a man.''

Rivera does it in a soft-spoken manner for the most part. Ironically, he learned from one of the most well-known sideline yellers in NFL history in former Chicago coach Mike Ditka.

"Not everybody is built the same,'' said Rivera, who played and coached under Ditka. "My approach is to treat everybody the same and treat them the way I want to be treated. I don't like to say it out loud. I like to come up to the guy and say it, man to man, eye to eye, as opposed to just out and screaming.''

In the end, whether you yell or don't, it's about respect.

Rivera has that.
Jordan GrossAP Photo/Mike McCarnThe Panthers' No. 1 job this offseason should be convincing Jordan Gross to re-sign, not retire.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross went to the Super Bowl in his first NFL season and to the NFC Championship Game in his third. Since then, he has been a part of only two teams that had winning records and made the playoffs.

The team's lack of consistency has been the biggest disappointment of his 11-year career.

"So it's great to know the team's in a healthy position now," Gross said on Monday, the day after Carolina's season ended with a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game. "Every offseason has challenges, re-signing guys, building the team, keeping the consistency going. But I think this team has as good of a chance as any of being successful for a long time."

Gross was one of the few Carolina players with a smile as they cleaned out their lockers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was so emotional, he had to fight back tears. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell didn't want to leave because he knew it might be his last time in the Panthers' locker room if the team doesn't re-sign him.

But Gross was cracking jokes about how Carolina just offered him a 10-year deal and how he turned down a chance to go to the Pro Bowl as the guest of center Ryan Kalil because he couldn't justify going on a "romantic getaway and leave my family at home."

"We've had a lot of these end-of-the-year meetings where we're trying to spin a 6-10 year into how it was a positive thing," said Gross, a pending free agent who will either re-sign or retire this offseason. "So it feels good when you have the division-champs hats in our locker. I wish it had Super Bowl and NFC champion, but it doesn't and I'm not going to say what we did this year was a disappointment at all."

Gross believes this season is just the beginning for a franchise that hasn't put together consecutive winning seasons since its inception in 1995.

He reminded that the Panthers have a young franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, as well as a young franchise quarterback of the defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He reminded they have depth and talent at a lot of positions.

"There's obviously an issue with [free-agent defensive end Greg] Hardy about what they're going to do there," Gross said. "But there's not a million holes to fill, and that's very exciting."

Hardy, who was second in the NFL in sacks with 15, will be a priority when it comes to keeping together the nucleus of the league's No. 2 defense.

But the first hole that should be filled is left tackle.

As in re-signing Gross.

This isn't to suggest the team shouldn't strongly consider taking a tackle with its first or second pick in the draft. If you remember, Gross spent his first season at right tackle as veteran Todd Steussie anchored the line at left for the 2003 team that reached the Super Bowl.

But Gross, 33, remains arguably Carolina's biggest asset. Not only does he still play well in a crucial position, he's in many ways the heart of this team when it comes to leadership. It was his "Highlanders" speech before the Oct. 13 game at Minnesota that many credit with sparking Carolina's eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start.

Gross won't admit that. He will tell you no player is irreplaceable.

"There's this thing I've heard for the NFL: Everybody is useful and nobody is necessary," he said. "And that's really the truth of it."

But if you're a young team building for the future, you need veterans such as Gross.

After Gross, Carolina should sign Hardy to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him. In many ways, he was more valuable to the defense than Kuechly, who led the team in tackles for the second straight season. Hardy, 25, played end, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback pressures.

After that, the premium should be on free safety Mike Mitchell. He brought a much-needed attitude to a secondary that was maligned before the season.

For the remainder of the 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents, do what's necessary. If the Panthers can get Munnerlyn or LaFell or receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a good price, do it.

Continuity is important. But the Panthers also need talent upgrades at those positions if they are to upgrade the team to a level where it can beat the 49ers in the playoffs. Several San Francisco players said the difference on Sunday was better overall talent, and they were right.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has done a nice job of taking a team that was more than $16 million over the cap to more than $17 million under it by cutting players and restructuring deals since February.

But he still has obstacles, none more than the horrendous amount of cap money tied up in running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The dead money tied to Stewart is the most damaging despite his restructuring last year. It's almost prohibitive for the Panthers to cut the player who barely has been on the field the past year-and-a-half.

Some of the room Gettleman cleared likely will be used to sign Newton to a new long-term deal if the team doesn't opt for the fifth-year option.

If the Panthers exercise the option, which would be similar to a franchise tag, Newton would be entitled to the average salary of the top 10 quarterbacks during the 2013 season. That would be in the neighborhood of $17.3 million.

Newton just completed the third year of a four-year, $22 million deal.

The good news for Carolina is Newton isn't going anywhere. The good news is the nucleus of a team that won 11 of its last 12 regular-season games to claim the NFC South title remains.

"I think we're on the verge of something special," Tolbert said.

That's why most of Carolina's free agents are hoping to return.

"So badly, so badly," Mitchell said. "I'm going to do everything I can. I told Greg ... we were real emotional hugging. I want to do everything I can to play with him again. We want to try to keep this team together.

"I want to come back and finish what we started. I want to finish this the right way with this group of men."

That's why Gross was able to smile and crack jokes on a Monday when most were sad. He sees the potential, whether he's a part of it or not.

"It's definitely set up for long-term success," Gross said of the team. "This was just the beginning."
Greg HardySam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsLoquacious defensive end Greg Hardy had nothing to say after the Panthers' loss.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Long after most of his teammates had showered and left, Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn sat in front of his locker in full uniform. His head was bowed and the expression on his face was one of sadness and disappointment.

On the other end of the locker room, quarterback Cam Newton was equally distraught as managers cleaned the floor around him. He took so long to get to his postgame interview in another part of the stadium that he apologized.

In a season when the Panthers learned how to become winners for the first time in five seasons, coming to grips with Sunday's 23-10 NFC divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers was hard to accept.

"It's hard as a person, it's hard as a man, it's hard as an individual, it's hard as whatever you want to call yourself when you put so much into it and you don't get the production that you want out of it," Newton said. "I had a coach tell me right after the game, 'It's a bad ending to a great season,' and he was right."

The Panthers did have a great season. They overcame a 1-3 start to finish the regular season 12-4 with an NFC South title that earned them a first-round bye.

They had a stretch of eight straight wins. They beat these same 49ers 10-9 on Nov. 10 at Candlestick Park and AFC contender New England 24-20 a week later at home. They lost only one of their final 12 regular-season games.

They weren't ready for the season to end.

But in the end, the Panthers weren't able to make some of the plays that got them here. They couldn't turn a fourth-and-1 "Riverboat Ron" Rivera special into a touchdown when Newton came up short on the first play of the second quarter.

They couldn't gain a foot for a touchdown two series later leading 7-6, settling for a field goal that ultimately would come back to haunt them.

They made too many mistakes, from pass interference to unsportsmanlike conduct to interceptions to sacks, to give themselves a realistic chance against a team that is a year removed from the Super Bowl.

In the end, they simply were beaten by the better team.

But they had nothing to be ashamed of. The season was a success on many levels, beyond what most people could have expected after the 1-3 start.

"We learned a lot about who we are as a football team, about our football players," Rivera said. "We learned a lot about our organization. I'm pretty fired up about that. Going forward, it means a lot of good things.

"If we don't learn from what happened today, if we don't learn from the games we played this year, then we wasted this season. We are not going to do that. We are going to get better and we are going to come back."

The foundation is there, despite 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents. The Panthers have a franchise quarterback in Newton, who grew up as much as anyone this season. They have a franchise player on the league's second-ranked defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

They're in much better shape than they were after the 2008 team lost big to Arizona in the playoffs to start a string of four straight non-winning seasons.

"The difference this time around is I don't think this was just one shot for this team to win in the playoffs," said left tackle Jordan Gross, unsure if this was the last game of his 11-year NFL career. "There is a bright future."

Wide receiver Steve Smith, who fought back from a knee injury suffered in Week 16 to catch four passes for 74 yards and a touchdown, agreed.

"I take out of this a team that has fought through adversity, that did not listen to the naysayers, that proved a lot of people wrong," said Smith, who was held without a catch in the second half. "And it showed we have a foundation, a strong foundation."

Smith set the tone. He predicted after a Week 1 loss to Seattle, which will host San Francisco next weekend in the NFC title game, that the Panthers would face the Seahawks again deep in the playoffs.

Asked if he was disappointed that won't happen, Smith said, "Heartbroken. Not disappointed. Heartbroken."

That was the feeling throughout the locker room. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who was held without a sack after collecting seven in his previous two games, was so upset that he left without talking to reporters.

Safety Mike Mitchell was teary-eyed as he talked about wanting to return next season.

"I haven't played on a team with this type of coaches, these type of teammates, probably since I was a 17-year-old boy," said Mitchell, who signed a one-year deal before this season. "I had a great group of guys and I want to finish this."

Mitchell also felt the 49ers were lucky to escape with the win, pointing to calls that went against the Panthers. He mentioned the unsportsmanlike penalty on him and a pass interference call that set up San Francisco's first touchdown with five seconds left in the first half.

He reminded of calls that weren't made. He mentioned San Francisco having 12 players on the field the play before the 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis, and a head-butt by Anquan Boldin that Mitchell felt was no different than an infraction Munnerlyn was penalized for earlier.

"I can't wait to play them [again] with a new set of refs in a new game," Mitchell said of the 49ers. "We can beat that team. We can beat any team in this league. It just didn't happen for us today."

It didn't happen because the Panthers sacked quarterback Colin Kaepernick only once after getting to him six times in the first meeting. It didn't happen because Newton was sacked five times and intercepted twice.

It didn't happen because the team that has made seizing the moment its mantra couldn't seize opportunities in the red zone.

"Absolutely," Newton said. "It goes back to this is a terrible ending to a great season."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider