Panthers GM on replacing Greg Hardy, free agency, Cam Newton


PHOENIX – Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman tucked a dip of snuff inside his lower lip on Tuesday and began something that takes place only a few times a year.

An interview.

It’s not that Gettleman doesn’t like talking to reporters. He just doesn’t like sharing his trade secrets. But when he talks he’s about as engaging and entertaining as there is.

Here are highlights from that interview during a lunch break at the NFL owners meeting:

Greg Hardy: Gettleman wouldn’t discuss why the Panthers didn’t try to re-sign defensive end Greg Hardy, who last week became a member of the Dallas Cowboys. But he did talk about 2014 second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, who could make Carolina fans forget Hardy. “Kony came a long way,’’ Gettleman said. “At the end of the year he was making big plays. He put his big boy pants on. He made three plays at the end of the Seattle [playoff loss) that were really big time.’’ I asked Gettleman if he drafted Ealy with the anticipation he could replace Hardy in 2015 regardless of Hardy’s legal issues, understanding Hardy would be a free agent this year. He didn’t answer, but reminded the Panthers had a first-round grade on Ealy.

Free agency: The Panthers aren’t done. Gettleman said Carolina remains in the running for wide receiver Greg Jennings and cornerback Alan Ball. Both were in Charlotte last weekend but left without signing contracts because they’re exploring options. Jennings is drawing interest from Miami and Jacksonville, and Green Bay hasn’t ruled out bringing back the player that spent his first seven seasons with the Packers. Ball has drawn interest from at least one other team. Gettleman said both not only are the types of players you want on the field, but in the locker room. My guess is the Panthers will sign at least one of them as they remain $9.2 million under the salary cap.

The locker room: Gettleman is big on filling his roster with character players. Had the locker room not been solid last season when the Panthers were 3-8-1 he said the Panthers probably would have “finished 3-12-1.” Instead, they won their final four regular-season games and a playoff game.

Left tackle: Gettleman left no doubt that Michael Oher was signed to play left tackle. He believes reuniting Oher with offensive line coach John Matsko will resurrect Oher’s career. Oher worked with Matsko at Baltimore when he anchored the left side of the Ravens’ 2012 Super Bowl team. Gettleman said Oher has a trust in Matsko like few other position coaches. He said the reason Oher was given a two-year deal was to make sure the subject of the 2009 movie “The Blind Side’’ was on the roster at a manageable price in 2016 in case he “hit it out of the park’’ in 2015.

Thomas Davis: Gettleman wouldn’t say if outside linebacker Davis, 32, would be next to get a contract extension. But he made it clear the NFL’s 2015 Man of the Year Award winner is a special player and a core player. He also made it clear he believes age isn’t a factor for the first NFL player to successfully return ACL surgery on the same knee (right) three times. I’d look for something to get done here. Davis is set to count $9.9 million against the salary cap and extension could lower that number.

More contracts: Gettleman noted that by re-signing key players to two-year deals and signing free agents to deals of the same length the Panthers are in better shape to sign linebacker Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton to long-term deals. There is more of a sense of urgency to get something done with Newton. Gettleman said the team will exercise the fifth-year option on Kuechly, tying him up through 2016. Newton is in the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. Gettleman used the term “cost certainty’’ when talking about whether a long-term deal with Newton would get done before the end of this season. The only way the Panthers can be completely sure of long-term cost certainty with Newton is to get a deal done.

The roster: Gettleman didn’t hesitate to say the roster is better now than it was at the end of the 2015 season. I concur. The addition of Oher has to be an improvement over Byron Bell, and Ted Ginn Jr. gives the team a speed wide receiver and reliable kick returner. Other upgrades on special teams figure into this as well.

Quotable: Gettleman was at his best when talking about Kuechly. “Some guys are myths. He ain’t.’’