NFL Nation: Jeff otah

What happened with the Carolina Panthers on Monday morning is a reminder that the NFL is a cold, hard business and the win-loss record is all that really matters.

The Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney. It was inevitable. Carolina came into the season with very high expectations but is off to a 1-5 start. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008.

Fans are getting restless, and so is team owner Jerry Richardson, a man who spent a ton of money coming out of this past summer’s lockout.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney had been the Panthers' GM since 2002.
Someone had to take the fall, and Hurney was the choice. You can question whether Hurney was the right guy to sacrifice, and some already are doing that.

“Marty wasn't the reason we are losing!" Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said on his Twitter account. “That's bs! Unbelievable! Marty might be the realist GM that I know #InMyMind BS BS BS BS!"

You can wonder if maybe head coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should have been ousted. At least to me, it looks as though the Panthers have a talented roster that is not being coached very well.

And you can certainly question the timing of Hurney’s firing. Does it really make sense to fire the guy who runs the personnel department after Week 7?

No, it doesn’t. The Panthers will bring in someone from outside or elevate director of pro scouting Mark Koncz, but either way, they’re not going to right the ship in the middle of the season. Any personnel moves that can help this team will have to come in the offseason.

But this wasn’t just a football move. It went much deeper than that.

To understand what I mean by that, you have to know a bit about Hurney and Richardson. They were -- and even now probably will remain -- exceptionally close. After saying he’d never have a general manager again after Bill Polian’s ugly departure, Richardson hired Hurney to manage the salary cap in 1998.

The two hit it off, and Hurney quickly gained Richardson’s trust. When former coach George Seifert ran the franchise into the ground in 2001, Richardson reversed course and promoted Hurney to general manager. He also essentially let Hurney hire John Fox as coach.

The Panthers reached the Super Bowl in Hurney and Fox's second season together, 2003. Two seasons later, they were back in the NFC Championship Game.

But soon after that, Richardson started to see cracks. He wanted to see back-to-back winning seasons, and he was starting to worry about growing egos.

Richardson’s worries eventually turned into realities. Fox never produced consecutive winning seasons, and the level of trust between the coach and Richardson seemed to erode to a point where things became downright hostile in Fox’s final season, 2010.

But the Richardson-Hurney relationship survived all that, and Richardson let Hurney hire Rivera to replace Fox. Part of the reason is Hurney is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet in football or anywhere else. He’s the kind of guy who picked up the phone to offer condolences to a reporter whose father had died the moment he heard about it.

Hurney is the kind of guy who would call a reporter on draft night just to exchange thoughts on what happened around the league. He’s the kind of guy who would never lie to you and always try to steer a reporter in the right direction, even if it wasn’t necessarily in his best interest.

On the job, Hurney made some brilliant moves through the years -- signing Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis as free agents, drafting the likes of Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. His drafting of quarterback Cam Newton looked brilliant last year, but not so much this season.

He also made some very questionable moves -- signing Delhomme to a big contract extension after the quarterback had flamed out, drafting Armanti Edwards, Jimmy Clausen, Dwayne Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Eric Norwood, Everette Brown, Jeff Otah and some other busts. He also committed $80 million of Richardson’s money to running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

But for some reason, the coaching staff isn’t making much use out of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Is that Hurney’s fault?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Richardson totally believes that, either.

Still, it really doesn’t matter. Richardson needed a scapegoat, and it had to be hard for him to decide on Hurney. But keep in mind, Richardson once fired his two sons (Mark as team president and Jon as stadium president). His logic on that move was that their dysfunctional relationship was taking a toll on the other 300 people who worked in the building and on fans.

The logic on Hurney was similar. Things weren’t going well, and fans were giving up on the Panthers.

When I spoke to Hurney last week, he seemed resigned to the idea that his time was running out, but it seemed he thought the move would come more toward the end of the season.

That might have been more logical. But Richardson had to send a message now to his fans that he still cares about winning and that the current product is unsatisfactory. It would be difficult to fire the entire coaching staff or fire Rivera and elevate one of his assistants in the middle of the season.

Someone had to go now, and that was Hurney. But I think it should be clear to Rivera, every assistant coach in the building and every player that if Richardson is willing to get rid of Hurney, no one is sacred.

There’s going to be a lot more housecleaning in Carolina after the season. This was just the first step.
The Denver Broncos are reportedly going to investigate former Jets’ safety Jim Leonhard.

CBS Sports reported that Leonhard will visit the Broncos on Saturday. He completed a visit with Buffalo on Friday. The report said Leonhard is keeping his options open.

Clearly, so are the Broncos. Denver has been impressed with second-year safety Rahim Moore. He had been competing with fellow second-year player Quinton Carter, who has been injured. Mike Adams is the other starter. Leonhard has a reputation for being a tough player. He could add good veteran depth at the spot if Denver signs him.

In other AFC West news:

I’ve been asked often if I think former Carolina tackle Jeff Otah could end up in Denver with former coach John Fox. Well, if he can pass a physical, I think there could be some interest, but Otah might need some time before he is ready to sign with a team. Everybody could use a talented backup, and Fox is familiar with Otah. I think it’s a wait-and-see situation.

Oakland running back Darren McFadden, in a radio interview, discuses the changes in Oakland.

Instead of practicing with the Arizona Cardinals twice next week at the Chiefs’ camp, the Chiefs will work with Arizona just once, on Tuesday.

Oakland receiver Denarius Moore was back practicing Friday after taking Wednesday off because of a lingering hamstring issue.
Here’s a move that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Carolina Panthers just announced the official release of offensive tackle Jeff Otah.

Otah
That’s been expected ever since Otah’s trade to the New York Jets was voided because he couldn’t pass a physical. Otah’s rights returned briefly to the Panthers, but it was obvious he had no future with the team.

A first-round draft pick in 2008, Otah had two good years before knee injuries started to become chronic. Otah appeared in only four games over the past two seasons.

In his absence last season, the Panthers discovered they had a capable replacement in Byron Bell and he’s expected to be the starter this season with Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams as his backups.

The Panthers will have to absorb a $218,750 salary-cap hit for Otah, but they still free up about $800,000 with the release. The Panthers now have about $9 million in cap space.

The Panthers filled Otah’s roster spot by signing cornerback Nate Ness. Ness previously has spent time with the Dolphins, Seahawks, Giants and Rams.

NFC South evening update

July, 31, 2012
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Time to take a look at the day’s headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said he plans to meet with offensive tackle Jeff Otah on Wednesday. The Panthers previously traded Otah to the New York Jets, but that deal was rescinded after Otah couldn’t pass a physical. The Panthers already were prepared to move on without Otah, and I don’t see them hanging onto him now. It will be tough to find another trade partner now because the fact Otah couldn’t pass a physical was made very public. I think Carolina’s only choice is to release Otah. But we’ll see if Hurney has something up his sleeve.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis drew some praise from coach Mike Smith. The coach talked about Davis’ strong arm. I can verify that. When I was at Atlanta’s camp, it clearly was evident Davis has a strong arm. But the thing that caused me a little concern was that he seemed to have only one speed -- fast. It didn’t matter if it was a screen pass or a shot over the middle to a receiver or a tight end, Davis was throwing the ball very hard, and didn’t seem to have a lot of touch.
  • Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster said he knows there are no guarantees as to how the linebacker group will be utilized in the regular season. But it’s pretty obvious the Bucs want Foster starting in the middle, with Quincy Black and rookie Lavonte David on the outside. Unless they really struggle in the preseason, I don’t think you’ll see any changes.
  • The Buccaneers got their first day off from training camp Tuesday. That’s probably a good thing. This team is off to a rough start when it comes to injuries, and a little rest can’t hurt.
Now that Carolina’s trade of Jeff Otah to the New York Jets has been voided because he couldn’t pass a physical, it might be a good time to revisit the 2008 draft as it pertains to offensive tackles and NFC South teams.

There’s an old school of thought that you’re not getting any sure things with an offensive tackle unless you take one in the top half of the first round. That, very much, holds true when you look back at what happened in 2008 and how the careers of the tackles have played out.

Otah
The No. 1 overall pick in that draft was Jake Long by Miami. He was viewed as a sure thing then and that’s turned out to be true. Long has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons. Denver selected Ryan Clady at No. 11 overall and he’s been to two Pro Bowls.

After those two is when you start to see a drop off. Kansas City selected Branden Albert at No. 15. He’s started 60 games, but hasn’t been to any Pro Bowls. It’s a similar story for Gosder Cherilus, who went to Detroit at No. 17. He’s started a lot of games, but doesn’t have any real accolades on his résumé.

Now, we’re getting toward the back half of the first round where there’s an even bigger drop off and, sadly, that’s where the NFC South comes into the equation.

The Panthers already had drafted running back Jonathan Stewart, but they felt they really needed a tackle and they saw the good ones were coming off the board in rapid order. They made a trade to get Otah at No. 19. Otah was pretty good his first two seasons, but he was playing right tackle. You don’t need to reach for a right tackle (the Panthers had and still have Jordan Gross on the left side), and I think time has shown the Panthers reached on this one. Otah started having knee problems and played in only four games the past two years. At least for the moment, the Panthers hold his rights. But they’re ready to go with Byron Bell at right tackle and they have some depth behind him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Panthers work out an injury settlement and release Otah. I would be surprised if he ever plays for Carolina again.

Carolina general manager Marty Hurney has made a lot of good draft picks through the years. But the final verdict is in on Otah and he clearly was not a good draft pick.

The final verdict isn’t in on Sam Baker just yet. The Falcons still hope Baker can overcome injury problems and be their starting left tackle this season. If Baker doesn’t have a good season, then you can label him as a bad draft pick. At the time, a lot of people said the Falcons were reaching when they traded to get Baker at No. 21. That may turn out to be true in the final analysis.

But the Falcons wanted a left tackle to protect the blind side of quarterback Matt Ryan, who they selected third overall in that draft. They didn’t have the currency to move up any higher and there weren’t many other options. The only other tackle taken in the first round was Duane Brown by Houston at No. 26. He’s been a solid starter for the Texans, but the Falcons must have had Baker rated higher.

After Brown, no tackle was taken until the third round. John Greco went to St. Louis with the No. 65 overall pick. Chad Rinehart (Redskins) and Oniel Cousins (Ravens) were selected late in the third round. Greco has made four career starts. Rinehart spent two seasons in Washington before moving onto Buffalo, where he became a starter at guard last season. Cousins has made only five career starts.

The lesson here is pretty obvious. If you want an elite tackle, chances are good you’re not going to get one unless you’ve got a pick in the first half of the first round.
The Carolina Panthers just announced their trade of offensive tackle Jeff Otah to the New York Jets has been voided.

The Panthers made the trade in exchange for a conditional draft pick last week, but Otah failed his initial physical with the Jets. He had a week to pass another physical, but wasn’t able to do that, so his rights revert to the Panthers.

But it’s unclear if Otah has any future with the team that used a first-round draft pick on him in 2008. Otah’s knee issues limited his playing time the past two seasons. Rookie Byron Bell took over his starting job at right tackle last season and performed well. The Panthers are planning on using Bell as their starter this year and they have solid depth behind him with Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams.

The Panthers may try to reach an injury settlement with Otah and release him.
New York Jets fans can rejoice. The infamous Wayne Hunter era as New York's starting right tackle is presumably over.

The Jets acquired Jeff Otah from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a conditional draft choice on Monday. Otah has 29 career starts and is talented enough to replace Hunter as New York's starting right tackle in Week 1.

Many were dumbfounded that the Jets did nothing to replace Hunter this offseason after Hunter struggled mightily in 2011. Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez had little protection on the right side and was sacked a career-high 39 times last season.

Otah is a solid player and a definite upgrade over Hunter and backup Vladimir Ducasse, who has been slow to develop.

The Jets are obviously tired of waiting for Ducasse and can no longer get by with Hunter as the starter. The Otah trade could quietly become one of the smartest moves in the AFC East this offseason.

Panthers unload Jeff Otah

July, 23, 2012
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The Carolina Panthers made just announced their second trade of the day. After trading with Oakland for receiver Louis Murphy, the Panthers said they have traded offensive tackle Jeff Otah to the New York Jets in exchange for a conditional draft pick.

The details on the pick aren’t known yet, but I wouldn’t imagine it’s worth very much. After showing lots of promise at right tackle in his first two seasons, Otah has dealt with a series of injuries and has appeared in only four games the last two years. Byron Bell ended up starting in Otah’s place last season and made a favorable impression on the coaching staff.

The Panthers also have some depth behind Otah with Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams, who both can play guard and tackle.
The need wasn’t immediate, but that didn’t stop the Carolina Panthers.

They just selected Midwestern State offensive lineman Amini Silatolu in the second round (40th overall).

This one comes as a bit of a surprise. Most of Carolina’s remaining needs are on defense and their offensive line is in pretty good shape.

Silatolu played left tackle in college, but projects as an NFL guard. The Panthers appear to be set there with Geoff Hangartner and Mike Pollak as the likely starters and Byron Bell providing some depth. But this pick wasn’t about immediate need.

Silatolu is a guy with huge upside, but he likely will need a little time to develop. He’ll get that time with Hangartner and Pollak ahead of him. But the Panthers want to protect quarterback Cam Newton for the long term. Pollak was signed only to a one-year contract and Hangartner isn’t much better than average. The Panthers obviously are hoping Silatolu can be better than average in a year or two.

It also is possible the Panthers could view Silatolu as a tackle. There is some uncertainty at right tackle because of Jeff Otah's injury problems. But the Panthers already have some depth there with Garry Williams and Bell.
Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson (hip) is probable and participated fully in practice. Johnson had been added to the injury report Thursday. Right tackle Jeff Otah (back) is listed as questionable and participated in practice on a limited basis. Linebacker Omar Gaither (knee) is out for Sunday.

Atlanta has declared receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) and cornerback Chris Owens (concussion) out for Sunday’s game with Carolina. Defensive end John Abraham (groin), center Todd McClure (knee), guard Garrett Reynolds (ankle), and safety James Sanders (hamstring) are all listed as questionable. Abraham, McClure and Reynolds each participated in Friday’s practice on a limited basis.

The New Orleans Saints declared right tackle Zach Strief (knee), linebacker Will Herring (hamstring) and tight end David Thomas (concussion) out for Sunday’s game with Tampa Bay. Receiver Devery Henderson (calf) is probable.

The Buccaneers declared defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle), tight end Luke Stocker (knee) and receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) out for Sunday. Running back LeGarrette Blount (knee) is listed as doubtful and linebacker Mason Foster (knee) is questionable. Foster was able to participate in practice fully Friday.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 30, 2011
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The Friday injury reports are out for the Falcons, Saints and Panthers. The Buccaneers don’t have to put out statuses yet because they don’t play until Monday night. So let’s take a look at the most significant injuries for Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina.

The Falcons are listing Roddy White (thigh) as questionable. This is one to keep an eye on. If White can’t play against the Seahawks, the Falcons are going to have to juggle Harry Douglas, Kerry Meier and Eric Weems opposite Julio Jones. As expected, the Falcons also declared defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) and running back Jason Snelling (concussion) out for Sunday’s game.

The Panthers listed cornerback Chris Gamble (concussion) as doubtful. Coach Ron Rivera said he expects Darius Butler to take Gamble’s place in the starting lineup. Right tackle Jeff Otah (back) is probable.

The Saints have the NFC South’s longest and most significant injury list. The team said tight end David Thomas, linebacker Will Herring, right tackle Zach Strief, center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Martez Wilson will be out for Sunday’s game with Jacksonville. Charles Brown is expected to start in Strief’s place and Brian De La Puente is expected to start at center. The Saints also are listing linebacker Jonathan Vilma and receiver Marques Colston as questionable.
CHICAGO -- I just got into town and will be covering Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Bears.

The Saints already played Thursday night and we’ve now got the final injury reports from the other three teams, so let’s go ahead and check on the injuries that matter most.

The Falcons already had been saying center Todd McClure would miss the opener with a knee injury. They now have put defensive tackle Corey Peters into that same category. That should clear the way for the Falcons to move Peria Jerry into the starting lineup. If Jerry’s knee is fully healthy, he could keep the starting spot on a permanent basis.

There’s mixed news out of Carolina. The Panthers listed right tackle Jeff Otah (knee) and linebacker Jon Beason (foot) as questionable. The good news is coach Ron Rivera said Otah was just getting a day of rest and will play against Arizona. The bad news is Rivera isn’t sure about Beason. He said a decision on Beason won’t be made until the team gets to Arizona.

Tampa Bay’s only serious injury is cornerback Myron Lewis (ankle). But this isn’t a huge deal for the Bucs. Lewis is behind starters Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib and nickel back E.J. Biggers on the depth chart, and Elbert Mack gives the team additional depth at cornerback.

Wrapping up NFC South preseason

September, 1, 2011
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The Panthers, Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons each completed their preseason Thursday night.

Not a lot of starters played, so let’s sum it all up with some quick observations on each team.

  • Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris sat most of his starters in a 29-24 loss at Washington. But he did a smart thing to get his backups ready. Morris showed his team the film of last year’s fourth preseason game and reminded the players that safety Corey Lynch, who had interceptions in the game, wouldn’t have made the roster without that kind of performance. Some of the “bubble’’ guys who appeared to get the message was defensive back D.J. Johnson and receivers Preston Parker and Ed Gant.
  • Tampa Bay second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers, who had been quiet much of the preseason, made a splash Thursday night. Bowers picked up a fumbled handoff on Washington’s first possession.

  • It wasn’t difficult to figure out that Atlanta coach Mike Smith was sending a message to his defense in the Falcons' 21-7 preseason finale loss to the Ravens. Although most of the offensive starters sat out, most of the defensive starters played. Undoubtedly, to fire up the defense and build some momentum for the start of the regular season. It seemed to work. Brent Grimes came up with an early interception and defensive end Kroy Biermann, starting in place of veteran John Abraham, produced a sack on a play where Ray Edwards also generated some pressure. Speaking of the pass rush, rookie Cliff Matthews also produced some pressure, which might help him secure a roster spot.
  • The one Atlanta offensive starter who did play a lot was rookie receiver Julio Jones. He was still playing in the second quarter and had a nice run on a reverse. He also got a nice block from quarterback Chris Redman. I’m sure part of the reason Jones got playing time was because he missed the normal offseason. But I also suspect the Falcons want to give opposing defensive coordinators some headaches as they watch film of Atlanta’s offense. Speaking of the offense, one reserve who stood out was running back Antone Smith, who might have secured a roster spot.

  • The Saints rested most of their starters, but two members of their recently-shuffled offensive line got to start in a 32-9 loss to the Titans. Those were tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief. On defense, it was more of the same, but cornerback Tracy Porter got lots of playing time. Porter missed much of the preseason and camp with an injury and this was a chance for him to catch up to his teammates.
  • Although the Saints appeared to be loaded at running back with Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles, Joique Bell has had such a strong preseason that it’s going to be difficult to cut him. If Bell does somehow hit the streets, Tampa Bay, which doesn’t have a lot of depth in the backfield, should do anything possible to get him.

  • One of the best signs for Carolina was the presence of right tackle Jeff Otah. He had missed some time with a knee injury, but it looks like he’s healthy. Otah could be the difference between Carolina having a mediocre offensive line and a very good one.
  • One of the worst signs for Carolina was when right guard Garry Williams went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of the 33-17 loss to Pittsburgh. The Panthers already lost starter Geoff Schwartz to injury and Williams had been the heir apparent. The Panthers don’t have lots of depth on the line and may have to go out and find someone off the waiver wire or in a trade.
Throughout the draft process, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton drew frequent comparisons to Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

It’s understandable since both have good size, running ability and strong arms. But the draft gurus weren’t the only ones comparing Newton to Roethlisberger.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
David Maxwell/Getty ImagesAs a rookie in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger stepped in and helped lead the Steelers to a 15-1 record.
Even before they drafted Newton, the Panthers were doing it. While the Panthers believe Newton has the ability to someday carry a team on his own, they’re looking ahead to his rookie year and hoping for something like what Roethlisberger gave the Steelers in 2004.

In Roethlisberger’s rookie year, Pittsburgh had strong talent and didn’t ask the quarterback to do too much. In the 14 games (13 starts) Roethlisberger appeared in, the Steelers averaged a little over 21 passes a game. Roethlisberger threw for 2,621 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Panthers gladly would take those kinds of numbers from Newton and they’d be thrilled if he came anywhere close to posting a 66.4 percent completion rate like Roethlisberger did as a rookie. Although Carolina is coming off a 2-14 season, the front office and coaching staff don’t view the Panthers as a typical 2-14 team and they believe Newton could be in a position to succeed right away without having to do everything.

There’s some sound logic in that. Carolina should have a good running game. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are one of the league’s top duos at running back. If right tackle Jeff Otah is healthy, the offensive line should be very good. The Panthers brought in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey to add a pass-catching element to the tight end position. If the Panthers can get a No. 2 receiver to step up behind Steve Smith, this offense is in good shape.

Of course, that’s all assuming Newton can come in and take advantage of what’s around him. He doesn’t have to be an instant superstar. He just needs to make a few plays a game and let the rest of the offense do its thing. Sort of like what Roethlisberger did as a rookie.

By the way, did we mention the 2004 Steelers went 15-1?

Camp Confidential: Panthers

August, 4, 2011
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- You’ve heard plenty about the lockout over the past few months, but it actually was in effect in Charlotte since 2008.

The moment owners opted out of the previous labor agreement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson realized there were tough financial times ahead. He immediately decided he wasn’t going to spend big money on long-term deals for players or coaches (the Panthers didn’t add a single unrestricted free agent in 2009 or 2010) because Richardson wanted to protect everyone else who worked for his franchise during the tough times.

That’s why defensive end Julius Peppers was allowed to walk in free agency last year. That’s why John Fox was allowed to be a lame-duck coach entering a 2010 season that turned into a nightmare. Despite having a roster filled with a reasonable amount of individual talent, the Panthers went 2-14 and fan apathy reached an all-time high.

But Richardson’s entire philosophy changed the moment the labor situation was resolved. He took the lock off his checkbook and began paying huge money to keep players such as defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebackers Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis, add free agents such as kicker Olindo Mare and trade for tight end Greg Olsen. Including rookies, Richardson already has written checks for more than $100 million in signing bonuses.

Throw in the fact that Ron Rivera has replaced Fox and the Panthers chose quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the draft and there suddenly is optimism the Panthers can quickly escape the label of being one of the league’s worst teams.

“That’s the one thing I’ve learned from being a Carolina Panther for going on nine years is that you never know what kind of a team we’re going to field from year to year,’’ veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Things can change dramatically, and I think they are going to here. I love Coach Rivera’s philosophy and the staff he’s put together. They’re committed to winning, and the organization has shown that as well with what it has done with getting new guys and re-signing our own guys. I think we can be as good as we want to be.’’

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAs the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, it is inevitable that Cam Newton will at some point start for the Panthers at quarterback.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Newton be savior of this franchise? It’s way too early to even have a clue if the guy who only played one full season at Auburn will succeed in the NFL. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Panthers aren’t asking Newton to be their savior -- at least not right away.

The hope in Carolina is that Newton will get a reasonable grasp of the offense in training camp and show it in the preseason games. If he does, he’ll be the opening-day starter. The Panthers don’t want to prolong the inevitable and start the season with Jimmy Clausen because Newton clearly is their future.

The playbook can expand as time goes on, but the organization believes that Newton can step right in behind an offensive line that should be good and can take advantage of a strong running game, very good tight ends and wide receiver Steve Smith.

2. What will the new offense look like? The popular thing to do in Carolina is assume that the departure of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson means the Panthers are suddenly going to start throwing the ball all over the field.

They will throw more, but the Panthers won't pass as often as people think. That would be foolish with a rookie quarterback and it would border on insanity to keep the ball out of the hands of running backs Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, there will be significant differences from the Fox/Davidson era.

Chudzinski came from San Diego and plans to use an offensive scheme that’s based on what the Chargers do. You’ll see more passes to the tight ends, a big reason the Panthers brought in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. You’ll see plays designed to get Smith away from double coverage. But don’t expect Newton to step right in and immediately be Philip Rivers.

3. What will the defense look like? Rivera has a defensive background. His coordinator is Sean McDermott, who spent time in Philadelphia. Some personnel changes in the middle of the defensive line will allow Beason, Anderson and Davis to again become play-making linebackers. That’s going to make this defense look a little like Fox’s defense of a few years back. But the real change will be a new philosophy that involves taking risks and being aggressive. The Panthers didn’t blitz much last year and didn’t have much success when they did. That’s going to change. McDermott’s going to use those athletic linebackers as blitzers and, with Johnson and Greg Hardy already up front, Carolina suddenly could have a dynamic and disruptive pass rush. The secondary is not loaded with big-time talent, but it could look a lot better if quarterbacks are forced into mistakes.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Armanti Edwards
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREArmanti Edwards reached out to punter Jason Baker during the offseason to work on fielding punts.
Granted, it’s early, but the Panthers are hopeful receiver/return man Armanti Edwards will make an impact. A second-round pick last year, Edwards was a non-factor as a rookie. That was largely because Fox believed the former college quarterback did not belong in the NFL. He barely let Edwards on the field as he made a statement to an owner and front office that wanted the lame-duck coach to embrace a youth movement. But Fox is gone and there’s sudden optimism about Edwards. The team didn’t know it until after the lockout ended, but it was delighted to find out that Edwards reached out to veteran punter Jason Baker during the offseason. The two worked out together frequently and Edwards made dramatic improvement in his ability to catch punts. There’s a good chance he could be the main punt and kickoff returner this season. He also could be involved in certain packages as a wide receiver.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The perception is the Panthers have done just about everything they’ve wanted to in free agency. But that’s not quite reality. According to a league source, the team made a strong play for free-agent receiver Santana Moss, offering him a three-year deal worth $15 million. Moss took the deal back to the Redskins, who matched it, so he elected to stay in Washington. That one shook the Panthers a bit. Although they have high hopes for young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, they want to pair a proven veteran with Smith to start the season. Look for them to bring in another veteran at some point before the start of the regular season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Keep your eye on the cornerbacks who remain on the market or come available over the next few weeks. The Panthers let Richard Marshall leave via free agency. They still have Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn, but a team that has been so aggressive this offseason isn’t going to sit still at this position. The Panthers will sign a cornerback with starting experience at some point. They’re just waiting for the right guy at the right price.
  • The Panthers pushed veteran kicker John Kasay out the door and handed Mare a $4 million signing bonus. Kasay, 41, remained accurate on field goals, but the feeling was that he no longer had the leg strength to make long kicks. Mare’s 38 and still can make long field goals. But the biggest reason the change was made wasn’t about field goals. It was about kickoffs. The Panthers carried a kickoff specialist the past few years and didn’t want to waste a roster spot by doing that again. With the league moving kickoffs up 5 yards this year, the team believes Mare can produce a lot of touchbacks.
  • Don’t overlook running back Mike Goodson. As long as Williams and Stewart are healthy, he’s not going to get a bunch of carries. But Goodson was one of the few bright spots from last season and the new coaching staff noticed him on film. He can do a lot out of different things out of the backfield, and the coaching staff believes there's a role for Goodson. Think of a scaled-down version of what New Orleans did with Reggie Bush and plans to do with Darren Sproles.
  • Perhaps the most unsung move the Panthers made all offseason was hiring Mike Shula, the son of legendary coach Don Shula, as quarterbacks coach. He's had ups and downs as an NFL coordinator and college head coach at Alabama. But Shula has grown from it all and is a very good quarterbacks coach and teacher. If Shula can develop Newton or Clausen into a big-time quarterback, the world finally might give this guy his due.
  • The return of right tackle Jeff Otah is more significant than many realize. Otah missed all last season with a knee injury but is fully healthy now. That’s going to have a huge impact on the running game.
  • Ryan Kalil signed his $10 million franchise tender and the team hasn’t talked to him about a long-term deal. But that’s simply because the front office has been so tied up making other moves. This team realizes Kalil is still young and already considered one of the best centers in the game. As soon as things settle down a bit, expect Kalil to be offered a big long-term deal.

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