NFL Nation: Dave Gettleman

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith who?

Getting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick of Thursday's NFL draft begins the healing process for a Carolina Panthers' fan base mourning the release of its all-time leading receiver.

It also is the beginning of redemption for general manager Dave Gettleman, chastised when he let Smith go in March and subsequently allowed the team's next three wide receivers to sign with other organizations as free agents.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin's size and final season at Florida State, capped with his title-winning touchdown catch against Auburn, were too much for the Panthers to resist.
"I'm sure Cam is not mad at me now," Gettleman said joking in reference to quarterback Cam Newton.

No, Newton wasn't upset with Gettleman for letting his entire wide receiving corps go. At least he didn't tell Gettleman that. But Newton has to be happy to have a big target like Benjamin.

"You can't coach 6-5, 240," Gettleman said repeatedly during his post-first-round news conference. "He has a lot of upside."

Benjamin has so much upside that he could become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for a team that doesn't have one, and according to head coach Ron Rivera doesn't really need one.

Gettleman knew this was a good year for wide receivers when he let Smith & Co. go. He didn't know how many of those receivers would grade out to be first-rounders, but he had no doubts about Benjamin after having him in for a workout.

Gettleman also had a gut feeling that Benjamin would be there at No. 28 even though many mock drafts didn't.

When he was, it didn't take Gettleman long to make the pick -- just as it didn't take him long a year ago to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei at No. 14.

"He was the highest-rated guy on our board," Gettleman said of Benjamin. "And again, like last year, value. We got fortunate."

Many of the so-called draft experts had Benjamin as a potential second-round pick, perhaps a project because he had only one productive season at FSU.

But that production (54 catches for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns) was enough to sell the Panthers. Gettleman in particularly was impressed with what Benjamin did in the final four games, catching 21 passes for an average of 21.3 yards per catch with eight touchdowns.

One of those touchdowns was the BCS title-winner over Auburn, the team Newton led to the national championship at the end of the 2010 season, which is sure to come up in conversation.

But it wasn't so much that Benjamin caught the game-winner. It's that he caught it when everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be the target.

The Panthers needed to replace a clutch player in Smith. In Benjamin, they got clutch.

"He said he didn't want to let that quarterback down," Rivera said. "I love that confidence."

Unlike the flamboyant Smith's, it is a quiet confidence. Benjamin isn't an in-your-face player. He is humble, so much so that he opted to stay in Florida with his parents for the draft instead of going to Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

That was something else that made him attractive to Carolina, which is trying to build an organization around teamwork and not egos. Smith, in case you never noticed, had a big ego.

"He's a different young man," Rivera said of Benjamin. "He's been very humble with us through this process. All the coaches said that."

Benjamin also is a big Newton fan.

"That's my favorite man," he said by phone. "I always dreamed of coming there and playing with Cam, coming and contributing to the organization."

Benjamin will give the Panthers more than a threat at receiver. He'll provide a big blocker who can open room for Newton and the Carolina backs down field.

He likes to block. He wants to block.

His presence also won't allow teams to stack eight in the box to stop the run, which will enable the Panthers to do more with its bread-and-butter game.

This was a win for a Carolina team that has done nothing but lose in the wide receiver department since it lost to San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs.

This was the true beginning of the post-Smith era.
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.

Free-agency review: Panthers

March, 18, 2014
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Harper
Most significant signing: TBA. So far the most significant thing the Carolina Panthers have done in free agency is cut their all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, who wasn't a free agent until he was released. Their only signing of any significance is former New Orleans safety Roman Harper, a replacement for free safety Mike Mitchell. But his signing is borderline in the significance column. Significant will come when Carolina finally signs a wide receiver, since at the moment quarterback Cam Newton has none with an NFL catch on the roster.

Most significant loss: Now this I can talk about, since that's what free agency has been all about for Carolina. The biggest loss among Carolina's free agents was Mitchell. The Panthers wanted to keep him, but Pittsburgh wanted him more (five years, $25 million). There have been two big losses among free agents from other teams that Carolina offered. The first was Cincinnati left tackle Anthony Collins, who went to NFC South rival Tampa Bay. The other was New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who went to Indianapolis. Of the two, I'll say Collins was the biggest loss because it will be tougher to replace the retired Jordan Gross than a receiver.

Smith
Biggest surprise: After the release of Smith, which I still believe was a mistake, nothing has been a huge surprise. It's not big, but not finding a way to re-sign No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots) or No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) to give Newton at least some sort of continuity from last season was at least mildly interesting. But maybe this was for the best. As I said repeatedly last season, LaFell was a disappointment as the No. 2. He was a No. 3 at best, although with Tom Brady now throwing to him, that could change. With no bona fide No. 1 available, maybe Carolina is thinking three bona fide No. 2s and a flashy draft pick will be better than a 1, 2 and 3.

What's next? General manager Dave Gettleman said all along he was looking for bargains in free agency, so letting the first wave pass with no fanfare doesn't come as a surprise. I suspected all along the Panthers would wait for the second and third wave to fill out their roster. They waited eight days before signing the majority of their free agents a year ago. Right now, they're targeting wide receivers. Pittsburgh's Jerricho Cotchery arrived for a visit Monday. They had interest in Green Bay's James Jones until he signed with Oakland late Monday afternoon. Carolina also is looking for a starting cornerback. A player like Arizona's Antoine Cason, who played for Carolina coach Ron Rivera at San Diego, could draw interest.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season.

ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Steve Smith's Friday afternoon conference call introducing himself as the newest member of the Baltimore Ravens was cut short because a local television station apparently had its phone line tied into its newscast.

Smith
But through the background noise that made it almost impossible to hear, one thing was clear -- Smith doesn't hold a grudge against the Carolina Panthers for releasing him after 13 seasons.

Carolina's all-time leading receiver even took back his "blood and guts" quote from a Charlotte radio interview Thursday in which he was asked what it would be like when he faced the Panthers for the first time.

Baltimore, by the way, hosts Carolina in 2014.

"It was more tongue and cheek," Smith said of his comment. "I can't be upset with the organization that gave me everything."

What also could be heard over the noise was the Ravens want Smith to be himself. That was said consistently to Smith throughout the recruitment process that began within minutes of Carolina releasing him Thursday.

The Ravens saw in Smith what the Panthers apparently couldn't anymore -- still one of the top competitors in the NFL, a player still capable of making an impact and one capable of being a leader.

What we haven't heard through the silence at Carolina's Bank of America Stadium is why the Panthers felt Smith, 35, couldn't be all these things.

The organization felt so strong that Smith couldn't that they're paying him $5 million to play for another team -- on top of the 3-year, $11.5 million deal Smith got from Baltimore.

General manager Dave Gettleman still hasn't come out and said why he didn't believe Smith could be a leader, why he possibly couldn't get along with others in an environment where he had been since Carolina selected him in the third round of the 2001 draft.

We also haven't heard from quarterback Cam Newton. I'm curious what he has to say now that he's left without his top four wide receivers from last season. No. 2 Brandon LaFell is testing the market, No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. signed with Arizona and No. 4 Domenik Hixon signed with Chicago.

My guess, because he hasn't spoke up, is Newton's OK with it because he doesn't have to answer to Smith anymore.

Yeah, Smith challenged the first pick of the 2011 draft at times, but that's what veterans are supposed to do -- help young players mature.

The Ravens weren't alone in believing Smith still can be an asset. San Diego had an offer on the table. New England had scheduled a visit. Washington and Seattle showed interest.

Yet the Panthers dumped him.

As Gettleman likes to say, we don't always know the reasons things happen until two or three years down the road -- if ever.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Johnny VyGM Dave Gettleman has taken emotion out of the equation when making personnel decisions.
It was an awkward but funny moment during Jordan Gross' recent retirement news conference, when most of the people in the room laughed. It also was an eye-opening moment that most in the room understood.

It happened when the left tackle got around to thanking general manager Dave Gettleman as one the people who played a role in his 11-year career with the Carolina Panthers.

"I didn't like you very much last offseason, but I got over that," Gross said with a smile.

He was referring to Gettleman asking him to restructure his contract a year ago, in essence making 2013 the last season of what Gross planned to be his final NFL contract.

Gross wasn't happy about it at the time, but he went along with the request because he's a team player and it allowed Gettleman salary-cap room to improve the team in other areas.

As he got to know Gettleman, Gross learned to like him.

He should. Gettleman is a likable guy.

But there remained doubts about the new GM, even late in the season when he hadn't approached Gross about a new deal. As Gross repeatedly said in response to questions about his future, the new regime has a different way of doing things.

Indeed.

Former general manager Marty Hurney was loyal to a fault. He rewarded key players with contracts that, looking back, were bad for the long-term health of the team. He was particularly loyal to players who had been with the team a long time.

Gettleman's primary allegiance is to winning.

He showed that when he asked Gross, one of the team's most respected players and leaders, to knock a year off his contract -- a year Gettleman probably would like to have back now that he realizes Gross' full value.

He showed that when he traded linebacker Jon Beason, one of the more popular Panthers, three games into this past season.

He's showing it big time by saying the team continues to evaluate Steve Smith and what role -- if any -- he will have in 2014 for the reigning NFC South champions.

That he said it about the team's all-time leading receiver without much provocation sent a message loud and clear that Hurney's way was a thing of the past.

It's like a story of good cop, bad cop.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Steve Smith
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceDave Gettleman made it clear there were no sacred cows on the team after questioning Steve Smith's role going forward.
Hurney was the good cop. Gettleman is the bad cop, even though he's not a bad person.

Gross finally got over his dislike for Gettleman by spending time with him. Gross told me on Sunday, during Smith's fundraiser to fight domestic violence, that his good friend needed to do the same.

That reportedly happened Tuesday when Smith, at his own request, met with Gettleman. What, if anything, will come of it remains to be seen.

As I wrote when Gettleman first raised questions about Smith's future, the 13-year veteran deserved better treatment. Gettleman should have talked to Smith before talking to reporters, which would have prevented this from becoming a soap opera and angering a player you don't want angry.

But this is Carolina's new way of doing things. Gettleman has taken emotion out of the equation. He has been entrusted with doing his job without interference from team owner Jerry Richardson, who in the past might have protected Smith.

"When I went there as a rookie, that's all everybody told me about, that it's a real family organization 'cause that's how Jerry Richardson runs it," defensive end Greg Hardy told me during a Wednesday trip to ESPN headquarters.

"Gettleman coming in with a money-first attitude ticked everybody off, man. So he kind of changed the face of the organization to: It is a business, and once business is settled we can be a family."

It's hard to argue with the formula. It's one that, as Gettleman learned in his time with the New York Giants, wins Super Bowls. It's a my-way-or-the-highway approach that might even be essential in tough salary-cap times.

Gettleman is looking at the cold, hard facts that say only 16 times in NFL history has a receiver gained 1,000 yards after turning 35, and not once since Derrick Mason in 2009. Smith turns 35 in May.

But the GM can't overlook that there are star receivers who had more receptions at the age of 35 than at 34. Drew Hill improved from 74 to 90. Tim Brown went from 76 to 91. Cris Carter went from 90 to 96.

This isn't like when San Francisco let Jerry Rice go after the 2000 season. The 49ers had Terrell Owens emerging as a superstar.

The Panthers have ... well, nobody after Smith.

Smith still can be a No. 1 receiver for another year, maybe two. He'd make a helluva No. 2 receiver if the Panthers could find a No. 1 in free agency or the draft.

Gettleman doesn't appear to deal in ifs or possibilities. He looks at what's best long term.

He treats it like a business, even though the Panthers come off as one big, happy family.

That's reality. If Smith wants to remain with the team and ride off into the sunset as Gross did with a news conference full of laughter and tears, he probably will have to agree to a lesser role -- if not a lesser contract. And even that might not be enough for Gettleman.

Gettleman just has a different way of looking at things. While Smith is chasing numbers, attempting to finish his career ranked in the NFL's top 10 in receptions and yards, Gettleman is crunching them.

That doesn't always make for a harmonious relationship.

Gross got past that and, in the end, found an appreciation for Gettleman.

Smith must get to that point, too.

Gettleman isn't going anywhere.
As left tackle Jordan Gross held his retirement news conference in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium last week, the Carolina Panthers scouting department already was upstairs making its list of college prospects to bring in for an official pre-draft visit.

North Dakota State tackle Billy Turner apparently was one of those.

NFL.com's Gil Brandt tweeted that Turner will visit the Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saying it's one of the earliest scheduled visits he could remember.

At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Turner turned some heads at the Senior Bowl. He's not rated among the top tackles. Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Notre Dame's Zack Martin, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson consistently rank among the top six.

But Turner is in that second-tier mix with Virginia's Morgan Moses, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort, Clemson's Brandon Thomas and North Carolina's James Hurst.

He's likely a second-round pick at best, so don't look for the Panthers to use the No. 28 pick on him.

But with an upgrade needed on the offensive line, and knowing general manager Dave Gettleman likes building from the inside out, don't be shocked if Carolina takes a couple of tackles in the first three or four rounds.

They did draft defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks a year ago, and that turned out pretty good.

Turner's visit doesn't tell you much about what the Panthers are doing in the first round, only that they are preparing to address their weaknesses -- and tackle is a big one, along with wide receiver and secondary -- throughout the draft.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonGeneral manager Dave Gettleman has pointed the Panthers in the right direction.
Dave Gettleman was passed over for the general manager's job in Kansas City in 2009. Then the director of pro personnel for the New York Giants, he was passed over for another GM position that year by the Cleveland Browns, who bypassed him twice overall.

Mistakes?

You be the judge.

The people who did get those jobs aren't with their clubs today. Kansas City fired Scott Pioli after an NFL-worst 2-14 season in 2012. Cleveland is on its fourth general manager since 2009.

Gettleman? He landed on his feet. After a year of stepping back in the Giants' organization out of frustration of being overlooked, he was hired as general manager of the Carolina Panthers in February 2013.

He hasn't gotten as much credit as head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton for Carolina's 12-4 record and first trip to the playoffs since 2008, but Gettleman's imprint is all over the team.

From the selection of what he affectionately calls "hog mollies" (defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short) with Carolina's first two picks of the 2013 draft, to taking the team from $16 million over the salary cap to more than $15 million under it, Gettleman has had as much or more to do with Carolina's resurgence as anybody.

Now he's at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, busy scouting college talent and talking to agents of the team's 21 unrestricted free agents to make sure the Panthers are in position to take the next step forward.

"When I saw the wave of general managers that got hired [in 2012], and a lot of them were in their 30s and early 40s, I started to get concerned that he would never get a chance at the age of 61," said former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who recommended Gettleman to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

"Thankfully, he ended up with a great job, a better job than any of the others that he was considered for."

Gettleman, now 62, doesn't like talking about himself, which is why you won't see comments about himself here. He'd like to keep it that way after spending more than 30 years behind the scenes, but the demands of a general manager require him to be out front.

He's what he likes to call a "grinder," with the work ethic he learned as a kid in Boston, helping his father install boilers in apartment buildings.

He's also one of the best in the NFL at evaluating talent, from college players to experienced veterans. That he has been a part of six teams that reached the Super Bowl -- including three that won it -- between Buffalo, Denver and the Giants is no coincidence. He helped each get there.

Now he's proving he can be just as valuable as the man in charge.

"He learned from good people," Accorsi said. "But you have to have something inside of you that sooner or later, when you have to make the call, you have to feel it. Eventually, it has to come out of your stomach.

"Sometimes other people in the organization don't agree with you and you have to hold your ground, and he's always been able to do that."

More importantly, Gettleman has done that without causing a rift in communication.

"A lot of people, if they get into a disagreement with a scout or their boss, it becomes somehow antagonistic," Accorsi said. "Never with Dave."

Gettleman will tell you that life is too short to get mad and hold grudges over differences of opinions. It's also a waste of time.

Gettleman doesn't have time to waste. Decisions he makes over the next few months will have a huge impact on Carolina as it moves forward.

Does he sign Newton, a player he acknowledges as the organization's franchise quarterback, to a long-term extension? Does he re-sign defensive end Greg Hardy, give him the franchise tag that will eat up about $12 million of the team's cap space, or let him move on?

Does Gettleman re-sign other key free agents such as safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn? Does the GM draft a wide receiver with the No. 28 pick of the draft to give Newton another much-needed weapon, or go with an offensive tackle to give the quarterback more protection?

With all this on his plate, Gettleman doesn't have 10 hours to spend evaluating players on film as he did in his former job. He can't tell you everything about the fifth cornerback for the Denver Broncos as he once could without looking at his computer.

Now he has a staff he depends on for that.

And speaking of his staff, Gettleman didn't clean house as many general managers do when taking over a losing club. He kept everyone, believing they had as much of a right to prove themselves to him as he had a responsibility to prove himself to them.

"I know whatever mistakes I made early in my career, I made because I knee-jerked too quick," Accorsi said. "You can't be patient to a fault, but you have to at least give everybody a chance."

Patience is one of Gettleman's great strengths. It's why he stuck with Rivera after a 1-3 start following consecutive losing seasons when many were wondering if the coach deserved to last through the season.

When an NFL Network report surfaced early in the season that Carolina already had begun looking at coaching candidates, Gettleman became incensed and said, "Unequivocally false."

That's significant because Gettleman doesn't do interviews during the season, but he made an exception for this brief comment. It's also one of the few times you could see the fiery side that exists in his otherwise laid-back demeanor.

Gettleman's support has meant a lot to Rivera. When the new general manager was hired, it would have been natural to wonder if this was the first step toward an overhaul in the coaching staff.

"Dave’s been very instrumental, obviously,” Rivera said late in the season. “A lot of the things that we’ve gone through this season, some things that he’s helped direct and put it into play for us, has been very beneficial and worked out very well.

"And quite honestly, the relationship that he and I have developed, the ones that he’s developed with our coaches and our players, have been tremendous.”

Gettleman just did what he does best, which is work hard to figure out how to put the best team on the field.

"He doesn't want attention," Accorsi said. "He just wants to work. ... He's just a worker and that's what is endearing about him."

Gettleman worked to convince stars such as running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, defensive end Charles Johnson, center Ryan Kalil, left tackle Jordan Gross and tight end Greg Olsen to play for less money to ease the salary-cap restraints.

He released veterans Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards to free up more cap room.

He went bargain shopping in free agency and found Mitchell, safety Quintin Mikell, linebacker Chase Blackburn, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and defensive tackle Colin Cole -- and all played vital roles in the team's success.

He made hard decisions such as the one to trade popular linebacker Jon Beason to the Giants three games into the season.

He made brilliant draft decisions (Lotulelei, Short and linebacker A.J. Klein), which helped elevate Carolina to No. 2 in the league in defense.

He did many of the same things he did behind the scenes for the Giants but got little credit for.

"His record of being right was incredible," Accorsi said. "If you look at our free-agent signings, he didn't blow any."

Despite his new role, Gettleman hasn't changed. He's unpretentious, choosing to credit the coaches and players for success instead of himself.

"He is just doing his job," Accorsi said. "I knew how good he was. I knew what I had. I don't know why he didn't get a chance before this.

"He's just a down-to-earth person. One of the reasons he gets along with people is because he's a good person. People can see that. That's why they trust him."

The Panthers trusted Gettleman to turn around their struggling organization. They gave him the chance other teams passed on.

Mistake?

You be the judge.
Ron Rivera and Dave GettlemanJeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesPanthers coach Ron Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman met the press on Tuesday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is funny and endearing. You can envision spending hours on a bar stool, chatting with him about anything and everything -- although his thick Boston accent takes some getting used to for those of us with thick Southern accents.

On Tuesday, he entertained Charlotte-based media for 36 minutes.

OK, coach Ron Rivera was there, too. But it was in more of a silent, supportive role, spending most of this time smiling as Gettleman addressed contracts and the future of a team that on Sunday completed a 12-5 season with a loss to San Francisco in the NFC playoffs.

You tend to become secondary when your general manager hasn't spoken publicly to the media since training camp.

Gettleman, as he is so adept at doing, didn't say a lot in regard to specifics. We still don't know if defensive end Greg Hardy will be back with a new contract or a franchise tag, or if he will move on to another team. We still don't know if the team wants left tackle Jordan Gross to return for a 12th season.

We still don't know if quarterback Cam Newton will get a long-term deal or if the team will use the fifth-year option as it's entitled.

But in not saying a lot, Gettleman said a great deal. His message was one of patience, of making sure proper time is taken to make full evaluations before making decisions that will impact the franchise for years.

"We've got to evaluate the whole thing," Gettleman said. "We're cap-challenged. You guys are probably going to walk out of here [going], 'Dave doesn't want to answer any questions.' The fact of the matter, it's the truth -- it's not going to change this year. So we've got to sit down and talk over the next month and figure out what we're going to do.

Gettleman I came in and no one went out the door and that made it easy. They accepted me and my Yankee craziness.

-- Panthers GM Dave Gettleman,
on his first year in Carolina
"I like the position we're in. I feel strongly in our evaluation process, and we'll make the best decisions for the Carolina Panthers moving forward."

Let me read between the lines for you:

• The Panthers were more than $16 million over the salary cap before Gettleman arrived from the New York Giants in February. They are more than $17 million under the cap now, but that still makes money tight with 21 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and Newton available to renegotiate.

• While the team would love to keep everyone who made this season possible, it's probably not going to happen, nor should it happen. There will be areas such as wide receiver and the secondary to improve through free agency and the draft, which might make current players expendable.

• Key players such as Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei are in place to make what happened this season sustainable.

This past season is proof that if you have a strong core, you can build around it with role players. Look at the offensive line and secondary, where multiple players were moved in and out of the lineup because of injuries or lack of performance.

Nate Chandler, who finished the season as the starting right guard, was on the defensive line a year ago.

"We've got a good group of guys," Rivera said in one of his brief comments. "But again, we've got to evaluate. That's probably the key word right now. We've got to evaluate."

Gettleman has proven to be a great evaluator, which he was known for with the Giants. He made Lotulelei and fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short his first two picks of the 2013 draft. They played huge roles in making the defense the second-best in the NFL.

Gettleman targeted linebacker A.J. Klein in the fifth round, and he proved to be a valuable asset when starter Chase Blackburn was sidelined against San Francisco. He also targeted Blackburn, bringing him from the Giants.

He made the call to trade Jon Beason to the Giants after three games. And although he received only a seventh-round pick for him, the defense came together after the move.

What Gettleman has done with the salary cap has been nothing short of miraculous. He convinced players with big deals to take cuts. He convinced Gross to cut the final year off his contract, which is why his future is up in the air.

"The gaffes I made this year didn't hurt us too much," Gettleman said with a laugh.

Asked what gaffes, he laughed again and let out a "Woooo" that would have made Ric Flair proud (if we're still allowed to use that name here).

Then there was a long silence. When I suggested he wasn't going to answer the question about mistakes, Gettleman smiled and said, "Let's say I didn't make any big ones."

He doesn't want to make one now, which is why he is playing his cards so close to the vest. He is also smart enough to know this wasn't all his doing.

After repeatedly saying how strapped the team was under the cap, he praised the former general manager that put him in a good situation through at least 2015.

"Let me say this right here and right now, Marty Hurney has a lot to be proud of," Gettleman said of his predecessor. "He left us with a helluva core. Hired this guy [Rivera], drafted Cam. He's got a lot to be proud of.

"When I got the job, of all the GM jobs I felt this was the best job. And you know what? I guessed right."

So did the Panthers when they took a chance on the man who had been bypassed for general manager jobs so many times he was ready to step back in his role with the Giants.

"I came in and no one went out the door and that made it easy," Gettleman said of his first year in Carolina. "They accepted me and my Yankee craziness. ... The vision has to keep going."

Can't blame Carolina GM for being quiet

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Under normal times, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman would love to talk about his years with the New York Giants, who are coming to Charlotte on Sunday.

But these aren't normal times for Gettleman, who left the Giants in January after 13 years as the director of pro personnel.

The Panthers are 0-2 and Gettleman has been busy reshuffling the roster that was hit hard by injuries in the secondary during Sunday's 24-23 loss at Buffalo. If they lose to the 0-2 Giants he may be faced with a decision on whether to keep head coach Ron Rivera during the bye week.

It's not the circumstances Gettleman envisioned when Carolina owner Jerry Richardson offered him a position he'd almost given up on ever getting. So you can't blame him for not wanting to talk about anything leading up to this game.

But you know this is a big game for Gettleman. He wants to show an organization that he helped win two Super Bowls that he can succeed as the chief architect.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin already likes what Gettleman has done with the roster.

"That’s a good roster he’s put together," Coughlin said. "Dave is very thorough, he’s very knowledgeable. He’s been evaluating talent for a long time, he’s very good at it and I think it shows in his roster."

It shows the most on the defensive front. Gettleman's first two draft picks were tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. It's part of his wide-body approach he got from the Giants, specifically from Coughlin.

"Big men allow you to compete," Gettleman said before the opener, crediting Coughlin with teaching him that.

Said Coughlin, "You’ve got to have them, you have to have those guys up front or else you can't do a lot of things that you may want to do .... They do allow you to compete."

You can only imagine how much Gettleman wants to compete and beat the Giants. He was so discouraged after being bypassed for general manager jobs prior to the call from Richardson that he'd asked the Giants to let him take a step back.

"After the last go-around last year where there were four general manager positions open and frankly, I couldn't get a sniff, I just thought it was time to think about things," Gettleman said when introduced as Carolina's GM. "I just needed to change my focus. I needed to get a broader vision."

He's getting a broad vision now, maybe broader than he ever imagined or wanted.

And you can't blame him for not wanting to talk about it.

Double Coverage: Panthers at Bills

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
12:00
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Manuel-NewtonGetty ImagesRookie QB EJ Manuel guides rebuilding Buffalo; Cam Newton's under pressure to win now in Carolina.

Following tough home losses Sunday, the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers look to get back on track in Week 2.

This game offers an intriguing quarterback battle between Bills rookie EJ Manuel, selected 16th overall this year, and the Panthers' Cam Newton, the top overall pick in 2011.

We'll hit on that matchup and more in our weekly "Double Coverage" conversation, so let's get it started:

Mike Rodak: David, it seemed like the Bills and the Panthers opened their seasons in similar ways. Both teams faced superior opponents: The Patriots and Seahawks are near the top of the AFC and NFC, respectively, while the Bills and Panthers are bottom-dwellers in their conferences. Yet, both teams kept it close. The Bills lost by two points on a late field goal, while the Panthers kept it within five points. There is a cautious sense of optimism around the Bills locker room right now. Is that also true down in Charlotte?

David Newton: Definitely optimism, which wasn't necessarily the case a year ago. The team feels it has more of an identity, an awareness of where it can go from here. Much of that identity is based around the defense, which established itself as one of the more solid units in the league by holding the potent Seattle offense to 12 points. Wide receiver Steve Smith, whether he was trying to inspire the rest of the team or because he actually believes it, set the tone by predicting that the Panthers will face Seattle again deep in January. I still don't see Carolina as a playoff team based on what its offense showed, but there is potential.

So both teams played top opponents close and lost. Now what? Is this a must-win for both if they have any hopes of being playoff contenders?

Rodak: I think it’s more of a must-win for Carolina. You look at the NFC South, and it’s stacked. If the Panthers want a shot at a wild-card spot, they might need to finish ahead of either Atlanta or New Orleans, and that’s a tall task. The Bills are in a weaker division, where an 0-2 start could have less of an impact. But still, not a good sign for Buffalo if it drops its first two, both at home.

The Bills spent a first-round pick this season on a quarterback in Manuel. The Panthers selected a quarterback, Newton, first overall in 2011. He’s now entering his third season. How does the team (and fans) feel about Newton’s development?

Newton: Agreed, it's much more of a must-win game for Carolina. An 0-2 start after getting out of the gate 1-6 a year ago will have the vultures swarming for coach Ron Rivera. It will have the critics pounding on Newton. As new general manager Dave Gettleman said before the season, it's time for Newton to win. Buffalo can write this off as a rebuilding season with a rookie quarterback; Carolina can't do that with Newton. I said before the season the Panthers had to start no worse than 2-1 to have a chance to be successful. The Seattle loss, as close as they came to pulling it out, wasn't unexpected. Sunday's is one of those winnable road games they can't afford to lose. There aren't many out there.

So what do you see this game coming down to?

Rodak: I think the Bills will need a better game out of C.J. Spiller. If he can get it going -- the Patriots shut him down Sunday, holding him to less than 3 yards per carry and per catch -- it opens up the Bills offense and gives Manuel a chance to take more shots downfield. The Panthers held the Seahawks to just 70 yards rushing and have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, so it won’t be easy. If Spiller has another quiet day, not only will it upset his fantasy owners, but it will also be tough for the Bills to win.

What about for the Panthers?

Newton: It's going to come down to the Carolina offensive line and whether it can establish the run as well as New England did in Week 1 against the Bills. Right guard Garry Williams is gone for the year with an ACL/MCL tear. His replacement, Chris Scott, played well against Seattle. But Scott started on the left side, where Amini Silatolu was out with a hamstring injury. Silatolu is expected back this week, so if he holds up, the Panthers should be OK. But Carolina has to run effectively to make the offense under new coordinator Mike Shula click.

Thomas Dimitroff and Ted ThompsonUSA TODAY SportsThomas Dimitroff's Falcons and Ted Thompson's Packers have emphasized building through the draft.
These days, it's difficult to go more than a few minutes without hearing an NFL general manager utter a version of the newly relevant NFL maxim: Build through the draft.

When Dave Gettleman agreed to be the Carolina Panthers' general manager, he said: "You have to raise your own." Upon his arrival in San Diego, new Chargers general manger Tom Telesco pledged: "We're going to be a draft-driven team. Our main focus will be the draft." More recently, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told reporters he wanted "to build this team universally through the draft."

What they really mean, of course, is that they want their players to be homegrown. The draft is the most visible device for that goal, but ultimately it doesn't matter whether their key players were drafted, signed as rookie free agents or acquired from another team's practice squad. More than ever, NFL teams want their personnel process to routinely bring them promising if unproven players who can become good enough to make their final roster.

Tight salary-cap space, the new scale for rookie contracts and the risks associated with free agency have worked to elevate this focus. So when reader @basilwillis3 forwarded me a revealing measure of the Green Bay Packers' work toward this goal, I thought it would be worth fleshing it out for the entire league.

The chart to your right reveals the number of players each NFL team had on its roster, as of Monday night, who had never appeared in a regular-season game for another team. The Packers were at 51 over the weekend, but by Monday the number was at 50 -- still tops in the NFL -- after the swap of quarterback B.J. Coleman for veteran Seneca Wallace. The point: While a few of their players have been on practice squads or in offseason camp with other teams, the Packers' roster is almost entirely homegrown.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters that he couldn't remember anyone bringing that kind of analysis in one of his personnel meetings, but I'm quite sure that plenty of teams measure their success in related ways. Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery, in fact, recited similar statistics while speaking to reporters this week.

Emery said he performed a mini-study of the NFC North to determine how many players from each team had been on the same roster their entire career, a slightly different measure. He found the Packers had 43, the Minnesota Vikings had 39, the Bears had 29 and the Detroit Lions had 27.

"I firmly believe the best way to build a team is your own original talent," Emery said. "Your draft picks, your college free agents. It helps you in several ways. It helps you manage the cap so that it gives you flexibility so that when you do need a dynamic player to help you fill in you are able to go and get them. You have the cap flexibility to go get that player which can add to the consistency of your team winning year in, year out. It also gives your team a home-grown flavor for your fans and it also allows those players to be together longer and to improve together and to play together as a team for a longer period of time and with more consistency."

I preferred our original measurement because it also takes into account the pro scouting part of a team's personnel department -- the people who are scouring practice squads and preseason tape to utilize another avenue of acquiring the same type of player. It casts a wider and more telling swath, I think.

The range for teams went from the Packers' 50 to Lions' 28. The average was about 38. A few thoughts on what these numbers do and don't mean, in my estimation:

  • Philosophy can beget results. If you are as opposed to signing free agents as Thompson is, you're by definition going to have more homegrown players on your roster. If you're the Denver Broncos, you might be a little less patient with unproven players when you have Peyton Manning, 37, at quarterback. The Broncos aren't necessarily worse at developing their own players. They are working in a tighter window.
  • In some cases, the failures of a predecessor are reflected in current statistics. When, say, Martin Mayhew took over as the Lions' general manager in 2009, he assumed control of an 0-16 team and a depleted roster. On the one hand, there was more opportunity for newly-drafted and/or unproven players to make the team. On the other hand, the Lions had so many weak spots that Mayhew felt compelled to use all available avenues -- including trades and veteran free agency -- to fill some of them.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have made some high-profile free agency moves during the tenure of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, from signing tight end Tony Gonzalez to running back Michael Turner to running back Steven Jackson. So from a national perspective, the Falcons' development of homegrown talent has fallen below the radar. Only the Packers had more such players on their roster by Monday night.

Panthers GM: Time for Cam to win

July, 31, 2013
7/31/13
1:00
PM ET

Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless react to Panthers GM Dave Gettleman's statement that it is time for quarterback Cam Newton to win.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When the Carolina Panthers end a training camp practice, there’s a universal yell from the fans.

“Cam!" they shriek.

It’s an attempt to get quarterback Cam Newton to come sign autographs. It’s also a reminder that Newton’s popularity is greater than that of the 89 other players in camp combined.

“Imagine what it would be like if we win," a team employee said on a recent day while fans yelled Newton’s name.

Yeah, imagine the frenzy around Newton if the Panthers produced a winning season in his third year. That’s pretty much the objective, because coach Ron Rivera needs to win to keep his job, and this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. And it’s mostly up to Newton, who is somewhat a polarizing figure, to make it happen.

The guy is an attention magnet. He’s beloved by Carolina fans but is often bashed by the national media. Presumably, the negativity stems from episodes in which he pouted when things were going badly, and critics have questioned his leadership skills.

But those who know Newton best say what you see isn’t what you get. They say Newton is ready to take the Panthers to the playoffs.

“The thing that I really admire about Cam is, even through all the adversity and even through all of the stuff the media has tried to create that’s not true about him, he’s done a really good job of weathering those storms," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “His self-evaluation is phenomenal. He’s approached many guys and said, 'Look, I know I don’t do a great job with this or that,' and he’s the first one to tell you that he’s working on it and he’s going to do his best to make sure bad things don’t happen again. I’ve been around guys that are too prideful to ever say that or make an effort to do that.

“I’ve played around guys who will tell you, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. I really don’t care what you think of me.' Cam’s not like that. That’s something that I really respect out of him, and that’s going to help not only with his teammates, but with himself."

Those who have spent the most time around Newton say the quarterback has grown immensely and is more than ready to be a leader.

“People have talked about him handling the ups and the downs," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who worked as quarterbacks coach during Newton’s first two seasons. “We all hate to lose. You don’t ever want to get used to losing and justifying and saying, 'That’s OK, we can get them next week.' You want them to burn inside, but on the outside you have to manage that. It’s not golf. You’re not by yourself. You’ve got 10 other guys that feel just as bad as you do, so channel that feeling and get the most of not just yourself, but get the most out of those other guys. That’s what leadership is in my opinion."

If Newton can get the most out of himself and his teammates, the Panthers will be in the playoffs. And the Newton critics finally will be silenced.

"He's had the best first two seasons of any quarterback," general manager Dave Gettleman said. “The elephant in the room is the win-loss record. Now, it's time to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonRon Rivera and Carolina finished strong last season, and hope that momentum carries into this fall.
1. Ron Rivera needs to make the playoffs. Rivera needs to win, and he needs to do it quickly. The Panthers have gotten off to dismal starts in each of his first two seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson spent several days after last season debating whether he should keep Rivera.

Richardson ultimately decided that the team’s strong finish last season was a sign that Rivera had the Panthers pointed in the right direction. But Richardson is running out of patience.

Anything less than a playoff berth probably won’t be enough for Rivera to keep his job.

2. The offense needs to find an identity. Newton is talented in so many different ways that the Panthers haven’t figured out how to use him properly. That task is now up to Shula as he takes over the offense.

I think Shula has a chance to be one of this season’s success stories. In his previous stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, Shula was bashed for being too conservative. But he didn’t have very talented personnel. He also was under instructions from coach Tony Dungy to keep things conservative.

Shula is too smart to be conservative in Carolina. He has a rare talent in Newton and good skill-position players such as DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. I can’t see Carolina’s offense being boring.

3. The secondary can make this defense great. On paper, Carolina’s front seven is as good as any in the league. But some very large questions remain in a secondary that wasn’t very good last season.

Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing. Because of salary-cap issues, the Panthers weren’t able to bring in any big names to patch up the secondary and settled for several midlevel free agents. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of the secondary during my visit to camp.

Mike Mitchell looks like he can fit nicely at strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence aren’t household names, but they’re smart veteran cornerbacks and they seem to have the edge on youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. Still, it remains to be seen how this secondary will match up in a division that includes wide receivers such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The way the team finished last season showed that the players have bought into Rivera. It also showed he’s grown as a coach. The Panthers made major changes to their offensive scheme after the dismal start and wound up winning five of their final six games.

If the Panthers can carry over that momentum, anything is possible. This is a team that’s been down for a while. But there are plenty of players with elite talent on this roster. This isn’t a team that is building from scratch. This is a team that simply is looking to turn a corner.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeJon Beason
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTo reach their goals, the Panthers could use a healthy season from linebacker Jon Beason.
Linebacker Jon Beason and Stewart have been unable to practice so far as they attempt to come back from injuries. Both are extremely talented players. But their injury histories are troubling.

It remains to be seen if Beason and Stewart can get back to being anywhere close to the players they once were.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • A lot of people rip on Carolina’s receiving corps and say it has no depth beyond Smith. I have to disagree with that after watching the Panthers in camp. I think Brandon LaFell is a much better No. 2 receiver than he gets credit for. I also think reclamation project Ted Ginn Jr. might pay off because he has elite speed, and Domenik Hixon gives the Panthers a steady veteran backup.
  • That new-found depth at wide receiver doesn’t bode well for David Gettis. I know he’s a fan favorite because he had a nice rookie season in 2010. But injuries have limited Gettis to only two games over the past two seasons. I don’t know whether Gettis still is dealing with injuries, but I watched him in camp and he didn’t look much like he did as a rookie.
  • Sixth-round draft pick Kenjon Barner is going to have an impact on this team in some way. The backfield is crowded, and the Panthers have plenty of other options in the return game. But Barner has explosive quickness, and I think the Panthers will find a way to get him on the field.
  • Even though he hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since the 2010 season, I think defensive tackle Colin Cole has a shot at making the roster. Cole is massive and can be a nice backup run-stuffer to rookie Star Lotulelei.
  • Maybe it’s a smokescreen, but I don’t think I saw a read-option play the entire time I was at Carolina’s camp.
  • Despite their salary-cap limitations, I think the Panthers made an excellent move by signing free-agent linebacker Chase Blackburn. Beason and Thomas Davis have a history of injuries. Blackburn has starting experience and can play all three linebacker positions.
  • I’m not sure the Panthers are sold on their depth on the offensive line. They’re taking a look at some young backups now, but I think they could look to add a veteran or two.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers got a visit from a Hall of Famer from another sport on Monday.

NBA legend Jerry West spent much of the morning watching practice from a golf cart with owner Jerry Richardson. The two have been friends for years, and Richardson said West is one of the smartest people he knows in the sports world. Richardson said he wanted West to spend some time talking to some individual players and coaches after practice. But that process actually started during practice.

Quarterback Cam Newton and wide receiver Steve Smith spent time talking to West during a water break. General manager Dave Gettleman also spent a large chunk of time talking to West, who went on to a successful career as an NBA GM after his playing days.

West spent a little time talking to the media after practice and was asked about the differences between succeeding in basketball and football.

“Here, you’re talking about two different teams basically [with offense and defense]," West said. “I think coordination is really necessary in professional football. That’s why you see so many coaches trying to get everyone on the same page. One mistake can cost you a game. I watched two games they played last year that looked like to me that they had them won. [At the end of the game], they lost to Detroit and also to Washington. They played great, but lost. Those are the things that drive people crazy that are really competitive, and particularly the fans, and how disappointed they get.

“I know what Jerry wants to do. He wants to build a real great team here, and he feels like he has a lot of components in place to make that happen.’’

Of course, the main component is Newton, and West was asked for his scouting report on the third-year quarterback.

“He’s not quite big enough to be a power forward,’’ West said. “He’s a really nice kid and I think his best years are ahead of him. Obviously, Mr. Richardson thinks the world of him. It’s up to him at this period of his life to grow as a player and make everyone around him better. I think he’s going to be the type of player that everyone anticipates he’s going to be and lead this team to really a lot higher level.’’

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