NFC South: Tiquan Underwood

Most significant move: Carolina thought so much of wide receiver Tiquan Underwood in free agency that it gave him a two-year deal that included a $300,000 signing bonus. The hope was he would replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver and possibly double as a return specialist. It never happened. Underwood continued to show the inconsistencies as a receiver that have plagued him throughout his career. For every good catch he made in practice, he had at least one drop, and he was cut for the ninth time in his career.

Wild card: Wide receiver Marvin McNutt was mentioned as a young player the Panthers wanted to get a good look at when they released Steve Smith in March. He never was a factor in being among the top six. Kealoha Pilares was listed as the No. 1 kickoff returner halfway through training camp in Spartanburg, but he never did anything as a receiver to justify wasting a spot on the roster.

What's next: You'd think the Panthers would scour the waiver wires looking for a return specialist who also can play wide receiver. Not so quick. Coach Ron Rivera says he likes undrafted rookie Philly Brown as a returner and sees potential in the former Ohio State star as a receiver. Brown has the speed the Panthers were looking for in Underwood, and he'll cost a lot less. That being said, I still wouldn't be surprised to see the Panthers take a shot at somebody when final cuts are made.

Panthers moves: Released -- WR Tiquan Underwood, WR Toney Clemons, P Jordan Gay, DT Linden Gaydosh, DE Alex Hall, T Oscar Johnson, WR Marvin McNutt, LB Anthony Morales, WR Kealoha Pilares, DE Craig Roh. PUP -- WR De'Andre Presley. IR -- QB Matt Blanchard, TE D.C. Jefferson, C Kevin Matthews.

 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Most of the focus was on the throw when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton overshot Kelvin Benjamin deep down the left sideline during Sunday's preseason win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Overlooked was how wide open the rookie wide receiver was.

So I asked: Are you faster than most people think?

"Oh, I know I'm faster than they think," Benjamin said with a smile. "They just don't know it."

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Chris KeanePanthers rookie Kelvin Benjamin isn't shy when it comes to bragging about his speed on the field.
One of the knocks on Benjamin in May's NFL draft was he lacked elite speed. His official time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine was 4.61, which was slower than the time of the top four outside linebackers in Indianapolis.

Because he's 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin doesn't look like he's moving fast. But when he makes a good move as he did against the Chiefs' cornerback, he's deceptively fast.

He's far from the fastest Carolina wide receiver, though. The one thing the top three -- Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant -- lack is elite speed.

And the Panthers have a need for speed.

That's why they are giving Philly Brown, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, a shot to make the team as a receiver/punt returner. When you talk about raw speed, this 5-11, 180-pound dynamo has it.

His official 40 time at the combine wasn't impressive. It was listed as 4.51 seconds, which he disputes. He believes he's closer to the unofficial time of 4.37, and insists he's in the record book at Ohio State with a 4.3.

That might unofficially make him the fastest Carolina receiver -- or player. Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood was clocked at 4.31 in the 40 coming out of Rutgers, but you have to believe he's lost a step or two since 2009.

To be fair, since I asked Benjamin about his speed, I asked Brown if he was Carolina's fastest player.

"Absolutely," he said.

He smiled, too. Players apparently smile a lot when talking about their speed.

You're probably more familiar with Benjamin since Carolina made him the 28th selection of the draft. You're probably not as familiar with Brown.

Here are a few things you should know. Only his mother calls him Corey. Everyone else calls him Philly, the name given to him as a freshman at Ohio State by then-coach Jim Tressel because he had two other Corey Browns on the roster. Since he was from Philadelphia, it stuck.

He led the Big Ten in punt-return average (12.3 yards) as a junior, a number Carolina coach Ron Rivera mentioned before giving Brown a chance to return punts against the Chiefs.

He's also versatile.

"I'm a guy that can punt return, kick return, play offense and do whatever else you want me to do," Brown said. "I can hold up the gunner and I can play the gunner. I think they like that I'm versatile, and I'm willing to do it. Wherever they put me, I'm just going."

But what Brown brings to the table more than anything is speed. The Panthers need speed, particularly at the wide receiver spot despite Benjamin being so sneaky fast.

"Those guys are great receivers, they do all the other things that I'm trying to learn how to do," Brown said. "They know how to control their speed, get in and out of breaks. But obviously, any team can use speed.

"Speed kills at any level."

Panthers Camp Report: Day 14

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
5:45
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • Twenty years ago, for Carolina's inaugural trip to Wofford College for camp, there were 10 consecutive days when the temperature topped 100 degrees. It was an issue. This year it's the lack of heat that concerns coach Ron Rivera. He would have liked a few more hot, humid days to prepare Carolina for what it will face in the opener at Tampa Bay. Many days have been in the 70s. One practice was so cool that Rivera had to wear a jacket. So when the humidity rose toward the end of Monday's practice, you could see players wear down and the intensity decline. Rivera spent longer than normal talking to the team afterwards, reminding "you've got to fight it because that's probably what we're going to face when we go to Tampa Bay.''
  • Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel demonstrated why he will make the final roster during one-on-one drills with the linebackers. First he handled outside linebacker Thomas Davis and then he held his own against linebacker Chase Blackburn. Rivera said Brockel demonstrates the kind of toughness he wants to see from all his players. "It transfers to the rest of the team,'' he said. Brockel jokingly said he volunteered to play defense.
  • Rivera says he hasn't settled on a starting offensive line, but it appears set with Byron Bell at left tackle, Amini Silatolu at left guard, Ryan Kalil at center, Trai Turner at right guard and Nate Chandler at right tackle. The position of most concern entering camp was left tackle. Bell started the preseason opener and was there again for Monday's practice in full pads. He left at one point with a minor issue with patella tendinitis, but Rivera insisted that won't keep him out of a game. Garry Williams finished at left tackle and likely will give relief to both tackles when the season begins.
  • Undrafted rookie running back Darrin Reaves left practice with a knee injury and likely will be held out the next few days. He's impressed with his toughness and hard-nosed running, in some ways more than Kenjon Barner. Also out were defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring), defensive end Mario Addison (flu), defensive end Kony Ealy (foot) and offensive lineman Derek Dennis (flu).
  • Wide receivers Tiquan Underwood, Brenton Bersin and Tavarres King began one segment of team drills so the coaches could get an idea of what they can do with quarterback Cam Newton. The staff is looking for a few receivers to consistently step up after the top three of Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Underwood, signed as a free agent, looked good with a catch on the first play. Then he dropped the second pass that hit him in the numbers. If you were setting the 53-man roster today, he'd be around 54 or 55.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the final session of camp in Spartanburg before returning to Charlotte, N.C., for the rest of the preseason.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 9

August, 3, 2014
Aug 3
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • When coach Ron Rivera said Sunday's practice was a "big-time tone down'' he wasn't joking. After six days in pads, players were given a break with shorts and shells. The tempo wasn't nearly as fast after one of the more physical practices of camp on Saturday. At one point offensive line assistant Ray Brown began cracking jokes when his group moved from the sun to the shade for a drill. "Modern day NFL! Y'all get water,'' he said sarcastically. The players will get another break with an off day Monday before reporting back to Wofford College on Monday night. It will give the coaches a chance to break down tape and evaluate.
  • General manager Dave Gettleman stopped in his tracks and shook his head when he saw 14 players working with trainers on stationary bicycles and other conditioning devices during practice. He wasn't really surprised after remembering Saturday's practice, which focused on short yardage and goal-line plays, was so physical, and many of the players were sidelined with soreness. Among those who didn't practice were defensive ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy (shoulder contusion). Both are expected to play in Friday night's exhibition opener against Buffalo.
  • Among those who missed practice was Charles Godfrey, who is making the transition from safety to corner. While Godfrey watched, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas continued to work their way back into the rotation after missing much of the first week of camp with injuries. Thomas sent wide receiver Toney Clemons over his shoulder with a sideline hit, and Norman made a nice aggressive play on a deep pass to Tiquan Underwood, who needs to make those plays to make the final roster. As I've said before, the toughest cuts on this team are going to come at corner, where a returning veteran or two might not make it. At this point, I wouldn't say Godfrey is a lock, although coaches want to give him every opportunity because of his leadership.
  • First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin not only is the favorite target of quarterback Cam Newton, he's a fan favorite. They cheer when he gets a drink of water. On Sunday, they cheered when he caught a pass three yards out of bounds. Granted, it once again showed his athletic ability the way he went high to get it, but in the eyes of those sitting on the grassy hill, the former Florida State wide receiver can do no wrong.
  • The Panthers return to practice at 3:10 p.m. on Tuesday, but don't be surprised if it's moved to the morning. Rivera did that when the Panthers returned from their first day off.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers don't have a LeBron James when it come to their wide receivers -- at least not yet -- but they may have a Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills.

Maybe even a Kawhi Leonard.

"The one thing I love about football is it's a team game," veteran wide receiver Jason Avant said on Tuesday, the first of a three-day mandatory minicamp. "I know a lot of people worry about big names, but ask the Spurs about that."

Avant isn't predicting the Panthers will win the Super Bowl like the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title by beating James and the superstar-laden Miami Heat four games to one.

But he is suggesting Carolina shouldn't be overlooked because it lost its top four wide receivers from last season and didn't replace them with big names.

"You look at Seattle last year," Avant said of the reigning Super Bowl champions. "They didn't have a whole bunch of receivers that everybody knew. They had [Percy] Harvin, who played basically one game [the Super Bowl]. It doesn't matter.

"You look at all of the Patriots teams. Can you remember all the receivers? They had David Givens out there, so it doesn't matter."

Givens, for the record, had 59 catches in 2005, 56 in 2004 and 34 in 2003. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2003 against the Panthers and in 2004 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Avant, who joined the Eagles in 2006, never had a season with more than 53 catches.

So Avant wasn't taking a shot at Givens.

"No, he's not a bad player," the 31-year-old said. "They just had guys out there that you don't remember their names, you know?"

The Panthers have a lot of no-names themselves. Outside of free-agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery and Avant, and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, the next most recognizable name might be Tiquan Underwood.

And more people know him for his high-top fade hairstyle than anything he's done on the field.

The rest of this group, the same group that quarterback Cam Newton said the rest of the NFL world refers to as the "sorriest receivers," includes Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, De'Andre Presley and Brenton Bersin.

No Carolina receivers has the reputation of 35-year-old Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was released during the offseason and picked up by Baltimore, but as a group they may be more talented.

Just don't ask Avant to evaluate them.

"I'm not in evaluation mode, but I think the guys are doing a great job," he said. "They're doing what they're asked. That's the only thing you can do. So we're looking forward to it. We're trying to be the best we can for our team."

That's not always a bad thing. Just ask the Spurs.
The St. Louis Rams had one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history from 1999 to 2001. Wide receivers Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl, along with the running back Marshall Faulk and triggerman Kurt Warner, were so dynamic that they became known as "The Greatest Show On Turf.''

Proehl, now the wide receivers coach of the Carolina Panthers, is planning a reunion.

Sort of.

Proehl, according to his Twitter account, wants to bring Holt, Bruce and Hakim to training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., to help develop his new receiving corps. Here's what he wrote:
"The Greatest Show on Turf'' was awesome, setting all kinds of league records with Mike Martz attack-oriented offense that scored 500-plus points in three consecutive seasons.

Proehl isn't trying to reincarnate that. The Panthers still plan to run a more conservative, ball-control offense.

But he wants to pull on the experience the Rams receivers had when they all came together in 1999 as he replaces the top four receivers from last season.

Perhaps he even sees the similarities the 1999 Rams receivers have with what the Panthers are building.

In Holt, St. Louis had a 22-year-old rookie that burst onto the scene with 53 catches for 788 yards and six touchdowns. That could be Kelvin Benjamin, the 28th pick of the recent NFL draft, for Carolina.

In Bruce, the Rams had a 26-year-old veteran that already had been selected to one Pro Bowl. The Panthers don't have a Pro Bowler, but they do have a couple of proven veterans in Jason Avant, 31, and Jerricho Cotchery, 31.

In Hakim, the Rams had a second-year player who had shown glimpses of potential but done little. That could be Tiquan Underwood, Brenton Bersin, Marvin McNutt or Tavarres King for the Panthers.

In Proehl, the Rams had a 31-year-old journeyman known for his precise route running and ability to make clutch catches. Avant and Cotchery probably would fall more into that category for Carolina.

The Rams went from 4-12 in 1998 to 13-3 and Super Bowl champions in 1999.

The latter is what Proehl ultimately would like to duplicate.

He hopes reuniting "The Greatest Show On Turf''' can help jumpstart that process.
The Carolina Panthers lost their starting left tackle to retirement, their top four wide receivers as a result of being cut or signed by other teams in free agency, three-fourths of their secondary in free agency and their franchise quarterback for four months to recover from ankle surgery.

So it is no surprise that the reigning NFC South champions lost a lot of spots in ESPN.com's post-draft Power Rankings.

They lost more spots than any other team in the league. Eight to be exact, all the way to No. 11.

I'm actually surprised it wasn't more judging by the national reaction of the decision to cut Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and quarterback Cam Newton's surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.

But I actually believe the receiving corps will be better with first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin and free agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood.

I also believe Newton will be better now that he has repaired an injury that has hampered him since college.

Questions on the offensive line aside, the Panthers are in better shape now than they were at the beginning of last season when they had a power ranking of 21.

Improving on last season's 12-4 record will be difficult, though, primarily because the rest of the NFC South should be better. New Orleans ranks No. 5 in the power rankings. Atlanta made the biggest jump, improving 12 spots to No. 14.

Tampa Bay, which had arguably the best free agency of the division teams, moved up four spots to 23rd.

And in case you're wondering, Seattle and Denver remained Nos. 1-2 just as they were at the Super Bowl.

As Carolina showed last season, there will be surprises. Will the Panthers surprise and record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history? Or will they continue to suffer losses?

Stay tuned.
Many of you have asked if the Carolina Panthers have interest in free agent wide receiver Sidney Rice now that he's been medically cleared to begin football drills.

One of you emailed to say Rice, cut by the Seattle Seahawks in February to save $7.3 million under the salary cap, was at an expensive Charlotte hotel on Saturday night.

Rice
Here is what I know. According to a source, Rice was not in town for an official visit with the Panthers. As of Tuesday morning, no official visit was scheduled.

That doesn't mean it couldn't happen at some point, although I would consider him signing here a long shot.

On Monday, Rice announced on Twitter that he had been cleared medically five months and one week after having surgery to repair a torn ACL.

According to reports, the Panthers, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Seahawks are interested.

Carolina is a natural landing place because Rice grew up an hour from Charlotte in Gaffney, S.C., and played at the University of South Carolina, 90 minutes from Carolina's Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers also are rebuilding their receiving corps.

But financially, Carolina has the least money to spend among the four teams interested. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Panthers have $2,747,629 left under the salary cap. Seattle has the most room at $15,816,262, followed by the Giants ($4,079,849) and Saints ($3,732,116).

The Panthers already have signed three free agent receivers in Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood who account for $3,675,000 in cap space. They also added tight end Ed Dickson, who will count $635,000 under the 2014 cap.

Rice, despite the injuries, still likely would demand more than any of those, with Cotchery ($1.7 million) counting the most against the cap.

Rice was a Pro Bowl receiver at Minnesota in 2009 when he had a career-best 83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns. Since then he's been plagued by injuries that have limited him to 32 or fewer receptions in three of the past four seasons.

He has played only one full season since '09, catching 50 passes for 748 yards and seven touchdowns for Seattle in 2012.

But when healthy, he can be a weapon.

The Seahawks still seem the most likely landing spot for the seven-year veteran, because they have a need at receiver after free-agent losses and the most money to spend.

Carolina still seems like a long shot.

Maybe this will help you better understand why Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was willing to part with his top wide receivers from 2013.

Smith
Avant
There is almost a $3 million difference between the 2014 salary-cap total for the three receivers the Panthers signed compared to the cap total other teams are counting for the three Carolina lost.

For a team looking to get out of salary-cap jail, that is a plus.

We'll start with the most recent signee, former Philadelphia receiver Jason Avant. The one-year deal the Panthers gave him on Monday doesn't qualify as a minimum-salary benefit contract because of a $150,000 signing bonus.

Avant also is eligible for a $45,000 workout bonus, which would bring the total of his deal and 2014 cap number to $1,050,000.

That brings the 2014 cap total of the three receivers the Panthers signed -- Jerricho Cotchery ($1.7 million), Tiquan Underwood ($925,000) and Avant -- to $3,675,000.

That is $2,741,666 less than the combined cap value of Steve Smith ($2,166,666, Baltimore) , Brandon LaFell ($2 milion, New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. ($2.25 million, Arizona), Carolina's top three receivers in 2013.

Smith alone was going to count $7 million against the cap this season before the Panthers released him. Carolina still had to pay Smith $5 million in salary and deferred bonuses, but long-term the moves have been a big savings.

Now it comes down to whether the new receivers can replace those lost in production.
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:


Before anybody gets too far into the dream of DeSean Jackson wearing a Carolina Panthers No. 10 jersey this season, wake up.

It's not happening.

Yes, coach Ron Rivera told USA Today the Panthers would be interested in Jackson after the Philadelphia Eagles cut the Pro Bowl wide receiver Friday. But there are several things you need to understand about that.

First, I'm told Rivera hadn't read the story documenting Jackson's questionable off-the-field behavior, not to mention his alleged association with reputed Los Angeles gang members who have been connected to two homicides since 2010, according to a NJ.com report. Jackson, in a statement, claimed he has no gang associations.

Second, Jackson attended California, the same college as Rivera. You don't expect him to trash a fellow Golden Bear, do you?

Third, multiple sources told me the Panthers made the decision before Jackson was cut not to pursue him. That hasn't changed even though Jackson is free of his big contract.

There's no denying the Panthers could use a player of Jackson's talent. But so could the Eagles, and they released him anyway.

What the Panthers don't need is the headache of a player with a known attitude and now with alleged connections to a gang. They released Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith a few weeks ago amid speculation he could be a distraction, something Rivera denied was a factor.

They are happy with the addition of free agents Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood. Neither are a No. 1 receiver as Jackson would be, but Rivera admitted Wednesday at the NFL owners meeting that the team may not need a No. 1 to be successful.

So before you get your hopes up that Jackson may come to Carolina, forget it.

It's not happening.

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.
Dave Gettleman Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsGM Dave Gettleman has positioned the Panthers to be able to re-sign its star players to long-term extensions.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was getting a hard time on Tuesday in one of the hallways of the Ritz Carlton during a break in the NFL owners meetings.

Not about any of his decisions in free agency. About his weight.

The pressure was coming from former Panthers coach John Fox, who became friends with Gettleman when both were with the New York Giants. Down more than 40 pounds since being hospitalized with a heart condition last season, Fox seemed genuinely concerned.

Gettleman, holding a cookie as thick as a laptop in his right hand, laughed and shrugged off the advice.

He's handled criticism about his moves during free agency, from the release of wide receiver Steve Smith to the signing of little-known Tiquan Underwood, in similar fashion.

When asked how he felt about the heat he's been taking nationally -- and nobody has taken more during this offseason -- Gettleman began laughing before the question was complete.

"What was I thinking?'' he said. "I was thinking we're doing the right thing. We had a plan. We had a philosophy. We made a decision. We're going to stick with it.

"I felt fine.''

Whether you agree or disagree with the decisions Gettleman has made, you have to admire the way he sticks to the plan.

Overall, it's a good plan. He wants by this time next year -- or at worst the year after that -- to be in position to say the team is not in cap hell. He wants to be in position to tell agents that he has the money to pay his client, but "I don't think that's his value.''

What we forget when caught up in the emotion of decisions such as the one to release Smith is the Panthers were more than $16 million over the cap when Gettleman was hired last year. He got them to more than $15 million under the cap through restructured deals and cuts before last season.

That number got even better for 2014 after the league upped the salary cap to $133 million -- $5 million more than Gettleman expected.

His decisions put the team in position to place a $13.1 franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy, a key cog in the league's No. 2 defense. They are putting the team in position to sign quarterback Cam Newton to a long-term deal, probably before the end of next season.

They are putting Carolina in position to eventually sign middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and other players who were key to last season's 12-4 team to long-term deals.

So when Gettleman reads or hears that he's cheap or stupid or any of the other more colorful adjectives used to describe his free-agency moves, he can sleep at night knowing what he's doing is in the best long-term interest of Carolina.

"The best analogy I can use is the credit card,'' Gettleman said. "You've maxed out your cards, you paid part of it down, then all of a sudden you get a bonus. What's the smart thing to do? The smart thing is to pay the credit card off, not max it out again.

"That's what we're trying to do.''

Gettleman did that last year in a way that allowed the Panthers to become a playoff team for the first time since 2008. He's trying to do it this year in a way that will allow them to take the next step forward.

Some of his decisions may not look great on paper. They may look like a step backward. Not retaining any of your top four wide receivers from a season ago is at the top of the list.

But Gettleman is quick to point out that when he was with the Giants in 2011 nobody expected Victor Cruz to do anything after failing to catch a pass as a rookie.

Cruz caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns.

So who might be the Cruz out of Carolina's young group that includes Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and recently signed Underwood, known more for his hair than his play?

"I don't know,'' Gettleman said. "It's going to be fun to figure it out.''

You get the feeling Gettleman will figure it out. He has an eye for talent, so when he says right tackle Byron Bell may be a natural fit to replace the retired Jordan Gross at left tackle you tend to believe him.

When he says he's happy with the way free agency has gone, despite adding names few know without using a search engine, his smile is convincing.

So go ahead, give him a hard time.

He'll just laugh and move on with the confidence that he's doing the right thing.

He may even have an oversized cookie while doing it.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Cornerback Leonard Johnson, tight end Tim Wright, quarterback Mike Glennon, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Lavonte David were the big winners for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL’s performance-based pool for 2013.

The pool is designed to compensate players who had relatively low salaries compared to their 2013 playing time. Dozens of Bucs received bonuses, but we’ll stick with the top ones here. The bonuses do not count toward the salary cap.

Johnson led the way with a $208,864 bonus. Wright ($200,592), Glennon ($183,209), Spence $181,593) and David ($180,190) rounded out the top five. The rest of the top 10 was made up of safety Keith Tandy ($152,646), cornerback Johnthan Banks ($145,655), linebacker Mason Foster ($133,268), receiver Tiquan Underwood ($127,927) and linebacker Dekoda Watson ($105,647).
SEARCH: NFL free agent wide receivers and cornerbacks that will play for pennies on the million dollars. Funky hairdos, inexperience and unimpressive statistics not a factor.

Google has become my best friend as the Carolina Panthers continue their Dollar General trip through free agency.

Sometimes you wonder if general manager Dave Gettleman needs a search engine to get the lowdown on some of his prospects. It reminds me of the line from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance" kid as they try to avoid a mystery posse.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Cason
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriCornerback Antoine Cason is among the latest free agents to visit Carolina.
"Who are those guys?" Butch, otherwise known as Paul Newman, repeatedly asked.

Today's shopping list of "those guys" includes Tampa Bay free agent wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason and Texans wide receiver Lestar Jean.

All three, which you would have to say fall into the bargain-basement category, began their visits on Thursday.

And bargain-basement isn't meant as an insult. Free safety Mike Mitchell had done little to nothing before the Panthers signed him from Oakland last season, and he had arguably a Pro Bowl season. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. caught two passes in 2012 at San Francisco and he had five touchdown catches for Carolina in 2013.

Both went on to sign lucrative deals with other teams in free agency this season.

Underwood, Cason or Jean could be next.

Underwood is known more for his stacked hairdo than catching passes. In five seasons with three teams (Jacksonville, New England and Tampa Bay) he has 63 catches, or one less than former Carolina receiver Steve Smith had during a down year in 2013.

Last season was somewhat of a breakout year as he caught 24 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns.

At 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds out of Rutgers, he's probably no better than a third or fourth receiver, perhaps a special teams player. But the Panthers, who don't have their top four wide receivers from last season, need those type of players.

Cason's name you might recognize. He was a first-round pick in 2008 by the San Diego Chargers. He worked with Carolina coach Ron Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks when both were with the Chargers.

He started 45 games for the Chargers between 2010 and 2012. He has 14 career interceptions. He just got lost in the shuffle last season at Arizona, making him expendable after a 14-tackle season.

The Panthers began talking to his former agent at the NFL combine. Cason recently fired that agent and hired the more high-profile Drew Rosenhaus, which is why his visit to Charlotte was delayed by a day or so.

At 6-1 and 195 pounds, Cason could be the bigger cornerback the Panthers have been looking for to replace Captain Munneryln, who signed with Minnesota.

Jean you definitely need a search engine for. In two seasons with the Texans he has 10 catches, which on paper makes him a perfect fit for the Carolina receiving corps outside of Thursday free-agent signee Jerricho Cotchery.

He's a big target at 6-3 and 202 pounds.

And like the others, he won't cost a lot.

If the "Price is Right," I can see two or maybe all three becoming Panthers.

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