NFL Nation: Jerricho Cotchery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But when healthy, he can be a weapon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it comes down to whether the new receivers can replace those lost in production.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are expected to take a wide receiver early in the draft and they could try to find what ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson defines as a No. 1 pass-catcher.

Williamson, a former NFL scout, wrote an interesting piece about the traits that define a true No. 1 receiver, of which there are only 14 in the NFL, in his opinion -- and none named Antonio Brown.

Brown, who set a Steelers single-season record with 1,499 receiving yards in 2013, just missed making the cut. That is probably because one of Williamson’s requirements of a No. 1 receiver is that he plays big.

That usually, but not always, eliminates players such as Brown, who is only 5-foot-10, 186 pounds. As dynamic as Brown is, particularly when he is in the open field, he did not prove to be a viable scoring option in the red zone last season.

Brown’s eight touchdown catches last season averaged 32.3 yards and his shortest scoring reception was 12 yards. That teams were able to neutralize Brown where players are bunched together in a smaller space highlights the Steelers’ need for a bigger receiver they can target in the red zone.

So too does the loss of Jerricho Cotchery.

Cotchery excelled in the red zone last season, catching all 10 of his touchdown passes in that area, including six inside opponents’ 10-yard line. The Steelers replaced Cotchery, who signed with the Panthers, with Lance Moore, and they can’t expect the 5-9, 190-pounder to come close to giving them what Cotchery did last season when the offense moved into scoring territory.

The need for a taller wide receiver leads me to think that the Steelers will consider two players who fit that profile in the first round: Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin.

The problem for the Steelers is they likely will have to trade up to take Evans while Benjamin, who played just two seasons, may be a reach with the 15th overall pick.

Consider ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s take on the latter.

“Big, physically talented receiver,” Kiper said of Benjamin. “He improved this year from a pass-catching standpoint. He didn’t drop as many balls but he still needs to continue in that area. He’s got upside but he’s not a finished product yet. You wish he would have stayed [in school] because he would have been a top-10 pick next year.”

If Evans is gone before the 15th pick and the Steelers are willing to take a bit of a gamble on Benjamin, maybe they try to take trade back in the first round to collect an extra draft pick and take the 6-5, 240-pounder a little lower.

If it isn’t Evans or Benjamin in the first round, I’d expect the Steelers to wait until the second or third round to take a wide receiver. The position is arguably the deepest one in the draft and the Steelers should be able to get a good receiver -- and a bigger one than the projected top three wideouts on their roster -- even if they wait until after the first round to select one.
The names may have changed, but the 2013 statistics aren't dramatically different when it comes to the new and old wide receiving corps of the Carolina Panthers.

Gone are Steve Smith (Baltimore), Brandon LaFell (New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona).

Replacing them are free agents Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay) -- and a draft pick or two to be named later.

When you compare what the replacements did this past season versus the old regime, it's not enough to lose sleep over.

In overall age (based on the start of next season), Carolina got slightly younger with the average of the newcomers 30.0 compared to 30.3 of those they replaced. Smith, who will be 35 before the season, is the primary reason.

In terms of 2013 receptions, the old regime held a 149 to 108 advantage. Last year's receivers held a 1,928 to 1,489 edge in receiving yards.

The new guys held a 16 to 14 advantage in touchdown catches.

It's not a wash, but it's not worth panicking over.

And overall price tag of the newcomers is considerably lower, which will help with the salary cap down the road.

Coach Ron Rivera recently said at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., that Carolina needed to replace about 10 catches a game based on last season's statistics. The Panthers aren't far from that, although Cotchery and Avant are only short-term solutions.

Underwood is a wild card. He had 24 catches this past season, which is 22 more than Ginn had at San Francisco the year before coming to Carolina.

Ginn saw a 94.4 percent increase in production in 2013. If Underwood can double his that's a win for the new regime.

The other wild card is the draft. Rivera said he's looking for a dynamic receiver. Although none are as dynamic as the top two -- Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M's Mike Evans -- who will be gone way before Carolina picks at No. 28, there's a deep and talented crop.

There are enough receivers that if Carolina takes one or two in the first three rounds, those players can be as much or more of a factor as last year's fourth wide receiver, Domenik Hixon.

Hixon, now with Chicago, had only seven catches for 55 yards and one touchdown last season. While that one touchdown was huge -- the game-winner against New Orleans in the 15th game -- it can be easily replace.

There's more long-term upside for a first- or second-round selection than Ginn, last season's No. 3 receiver.

Throw in Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, two young players management is high on, and the situation isn't nearly as bad as it appeared a few weeks ago.

Time will tell.

Here's a closer look at what the Panthers have lost versus what they have gained:


Cam NewtonAP Photo/Dave MartinDonovan McNabb says there is reason to be concerned about the lack of weapons around Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is a big fan of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. He's not a big fan of Carolina's free-agency strategy that left the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner without his top four wide receivers from last season.

"Oh, I would be worried," McNabb told ESPN.com on Wednesday before South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney began his pro day. "First of all, I didn't have a top wide receiver until pretty much T.O. [Terrell Owens] got there.

"For him, I'm just wondering what they are doing to build around him. You lose Brandon LaFell, you lose Steve Smith, Ted Ginn's gone. All you have at this point is Greg Olsen."

Olsen is Carolina's tight end, who led the team in receptions last season with 73.

I reminded McNabb, now an analyst for Fox Sports, that0 Carolina signed Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Jerricho Cotchery. He didn't seem impressed.

"Greg Olsen," he reiterated as Newton's only legitimate weapon.

McNabb wasn't suggesting the Panthers should have gone after former Philadelphia Eagles teammate DeSean Jackson, who signed with Washington after being cut last week.

He respects the opinions of Carolina coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who were with him during parts of his career in Philly.

"But you've still got to give him some help," he said of Newton. "The quarterback is only as good as the people around him. If you don't ever want him to throw to a player that can create big plays out of the passing game, it's not going to go well."

And to Rivera's argument that the Panthers don't have to have a bona fide No. 1 receiver to be successful, McNabb simply rolled his eyes.

"I hate when teams [say] that," McNabb said. "Who are they, Bill Belichick and the Patriots now?"

McNabb's best example is himself. Let's go back to his comment that he didn't have a true No. 1 until Owens arrived in Philadelphia in 2004.

In the two seasons before Owens, McNabb threw a combined 33 touchdown passes. With Owens, he completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes for a career-high 31 touchdowns and 3,875 yards.

He also ran less that season -- 41 times for 202 yards after averaging 69.8 carries and 447.8 yards rushing in his first five seasons.

To further the argument, McNabb had two of his better seasons late in his career with Jackson in 2008 and 2009.

"[A receiver] doesn't have to be considered a No. 1, but in their offense you need a top dog," McNabb said of Carolina. "We've seen what Steve Smith can do in that offense. We've seen how LaFell has been able to get catches off of Steve Smith.

"What are they going to get them off? Jerricho Cotchery? What was Jerricho Cotchery in Pittsburgh? A No. 4? A 3?"

To be fair, Cotchery caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season. He was also the third or fourth receiver.

Regardless, McNabb is concerned about the Carolina passing game. But he's not concerned with Newton, who is out approximately four months recovering from recent surgery to tighten tendons in his left ankle.

He recalled overcoming a broken right ankle in 2002 to be stronger than ever.

"The biggest thing is they're going to benefit from making the playoffs," McNabb said. A record of "12-4 is not easy. What did they do? Win eight straight? That says a lot, and the quarterback is responsible for that."

McNabb likes where Newton is mentally, and that Newton no longer feels the urgency to do it all on the field. But will that change due to the loss of weapons from last season?

"It's just a minor setback," McNabb said of the surgery. "He'll be ready for training camp, which is good. Obviously, it's going to take some time to recover. But Rivera understands how to slowly put him in that arena, that progression to be right.

"He's still a franchise quarterback."
PITTSBURGH -- A day after adding depth at cornerback with the signing of Brice McCain the Steelers could do the same at wide receiver.

Heyward-Bey
Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft, will visit the Steelers on Wednesday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

According to the NFL Players Association, the Steelers are only $171,934 under the cap, but hovering near the spending ceiling hasn’t stopped them from filling holes on their roster, and Heyward-Bey has emerged as their latest target.

Heyward-Bey never lived up to enormous expectations in Oakland after the Raiders fell in love with his speed and made him the first wide receiver drafted in 2009. The 6-2, 219-pounder spent four seasons in Oakland before signing with Indianapolis.

Heyward-Bey played in all 16 games last season for the Colts -- he started 11 of them -- and caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown. In five NFL seasons Heyward-Bey has 169 catches for 2,380 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Steelers are expected to take a wide receiver early in the draft but they apparently are interested in adding another veteran to the position as well.

Markus Wheaton is expected to get the first crack at replacing Emmanuel Sanders opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown, but he played just 153 snaps his rookie season and caught six passes for 64 yards.

The Steelers signed Lance Moore to take over as their No. 3 wide receiver following the loss of Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers and the only other wide receiver on the roster with any NFL experience is Derek Moye.

The 6-5 Moye played 52 snaps last season and caught two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.
PITTSBURGH -- The NFL draft is still more than five weeks away but the Steelers may turn their full attention to it since it looks like they are finished with free agency for now.

The signing of running back LeGarrette Blount to a two-year, $3.85 million contract on Friday puts the Steelers smack up against the spending ceiling and with the least amount of salary-cap space of any team.

They have not tried to restructure linebacker Lawrence Timmons' contract, and they could create millions of dollars in cap room by turning a significant portion of his $6.75 million base salary this year into a signing bonus.

There doesn't appear to be any other moves on the horizon that could create cap room such as a new contract for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or a multiyear deal for outside linebacker Jason Worilds.

The Steelers will most likely wait until after June 1 when they receive more than $8 million in cap savings from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley before they sign more free agents, including some of their own.

If they have put free agency on hold the Steelers have to be more than pleased with what they've accomplished in the last three weeks.

They signed a starting safety in Mike Mitchell, who makes them younger and faster in the secondary. They added much-needed depth at running back as well as a starting-caliber player in Blount. And the Steelers compensated nicely for the loss of Jerricho Cotchery by signing Lance Moore to step in as their No. 3 wide receiver.

They have also addressed both of their lines and signed a linebacker in Arthur Moats, who has the flexibility to play inside and outside as well as on special teams.

The Steelers haven't been splashy during free agency but they have been effective -- at least on paper -- in filling holes.

And it would have been hard to foresee them making this many signings without compromising the foundation of their team a month ago when they still had work to do just to get in compliance with the salary cap.
PITTSBURGH -- The team with the least amount of salary cap continues to find ways to plug holes on its roster.

The Pittsburgh Steelers added a thumper to their backfield on Friday when they signed former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount to a two-year contract.

Blount, just like the signing of wide receiver Lance Moore a week ago, gives the Steelers a proven NFL player and one who adds depth to a position that had been conspicuously lacking it.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
AP Photo/Matt SlocumLeGarrette Blount rushed for four TDs, including this 75-yarder in the playoffs against the Colts.
That the Steelers have remained active in free agency despite hovering so close to the spending ceiling -- they were roughly $1 million under the cap prior to the Blount signing -- is not a surprise.

Remember, this is the organization that was supposedly in the salary cap equivalent of Leavenworth only a month ago. The Steelers have since put on another clinic in managing the cap, as they have shed salary without compromising the core of the team.

They created enough room under the cap to sign starting safety Mike Mitchell, add depth along their offensive line, as well as other positions, and compensate for the loss of Jerricho Cotchery by signing Moore.

Blount, the Steelers’ latest addition, is 27, has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in four NFL seasons.

Blount was one of the better running backs at the end of last season.

Just ask the Colts.

Blount steamrolled them in the AFC playoffs in January, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-22 Patriots win.

The 6-foot, 250-pounder is cut in the mold of a Steelers running back, and fans who embraced a player nicknamed “The Bus” will be delighted to know that Blount’s moniker is “The Winnebago.”

That is not to say fans should expect a Jerome Bettis redux in Blount.

The Steelers are committed to Le'Veon Bell as their feature back -- as they should be -- and the former second-round draft pick will get the majority of the carries assuming he builds on a stellar rookie campaign.

Blount does provide the Steelers much-needed insurance behind Bell.

Just as significant, he gives them options.

With another ball-carrier who packs a punch, the Steelers can reduce some of the wear and tear on Bell by incorporating Blount into the running game.

That could prolong Bell’s career, and in the short-term it would allow the Steelers to wear down defenses by hammering them with two big running backs.

Whatever role Blount assumes, the Steelers improved by signing him.

And they continue to improve themselves despite limited room under the salary cap.
Before anybody gets too far into the dream of DeSean Jackson wearing a Carolina Panthers No. 10 jersey this season, wake up.

It's not happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not happening.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers won six of their final eight games last season in large part because the offense thrived with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger running a no-huddle attack.

The Steelers only lose one starter from that group – they didn’t show much interest in re-signing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders – and they effectively add a Pro Bowler to the mix assuming center Maurkice Pouncey returns from the torn ACL he sustained in the 2013 season opener.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesWith Ben Roethlisberger leading a no-huddle attack, the Steelers' offense sizzled during the second half of the 2013 season.
The offense appears poised to drive a team that is retooling its defense, and a strong finish in 2013 bodes well for it carrying the Steelers back to the playoffs.

Then there is Mike Tomlin on the assumption that the offense will pick up where it left off last season when the Steelers averaged 28.2 points in their final nine games.

“I think that if that’s your mentality, you set yourself up for failure,” the seventh-year coach said at the NFL owners meetings. “I think that each year stands on its own. We have some quality guys that grew together in the latter parts of 2013, but I am not going to assume that means in anything in regards to 2014. I just think that’s the appropriate mentality to take.”

Indeed, as well as the offense played in the second half of last season it hasn’t been immune to change.

Along with Sanders the Steelers lost wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and the two combined to catch 16 of Roethlisberger’s 28 touchdown passes last season.

Will Lance Moore provide Roethlisberger with a reliable, productive No. 3 wide receiver as Cotchery did last season? Is Markus Wheaton, who has all of six career receptions, ready to take over for Sanders and start?

There are other questions, such as whether running back Le’Veon Bell will build on a stellar rookie season, and injuries are always an X factor. The Steelers’ offensive line has been consistently scrambled by injuries and there is no way to foretell how they will impact that unit in 2014.

That is not to say there isn’t a lot to like about the Steelers’ offense.

Roethlisberger always gives the Steelers a chance to win and he played every snap last season. Tight end Heath Miller will be better almost two years removed from reconstructive knee surgery. And new offensive line coach Mike Munchak could prove to be the Steelers’ most significant offseason addition given his body of work and the respect he will command from his new players.

So was Tomlin just trying to downplay expectations for the offense or just simply being a downer when he refused to buy into any hype surrounding the unit?

Not necessarily.

What looks good on paper does not always translate to success on the field, and Tomlin is nothing if not a realist.

“What we were able to do in terms of finding traction down the stretch was significant in 2013,” Tomlin said, “but I am not going to assume that it means anything in 2014, to be honest with you.”
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- One by one reporters from around the NFL stopped by the table of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who under strict orders from his wife was eating a healthy plate of fruit at Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast.

One by one they asked about wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina's decision to cut its all-time leading receiver, which Rivera and management believe was healthy for the Panthers.

The rest of those at the NFL owners meeting apparently aren't so sure. I've had my doubts as well. So Rivera spent well over half of his 45-minute interview period talking about the newest addition to the Baltimore Ravens.

He finally had enough.

He finally became animated -- at least for him -- and defended general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to part ways with one of the most popular players in team history. He talked passionately about how Gettleman took a hit for the team.

He expressed his frustration over reports that it was personal and that Smith was a distraction to the locker room. He made it clear that it was neither.

Finally.

Had he done this two weeks ago, we might have moved on to another topic for the defending NFC South champions.

And it is time to move on.

The Panthers have. They believe they are headed in the right direction even though much of the league believes they are headed for a hard crash after a 12-4 season.

Smith
That is understandable. Even Rivera was a bit nervous when it became obvious the Panthers would not have their top four wide receivers from last season and quarterback Cam Newton needed ankle surgery.

But as I said early in the process, what did they really lose? Not that Rivera wanted to lose Brandon LaFell, or even Ted Ginn Jr. But when he explained that Carolina averaged more than 100 yards rushing in 15 of 16 games last season, and in doing so the wide receivers collectively averaged 10 catches a game, you knew what he meant.

Ten catches? That's not much to replace.

The likes of veteran Jerricho Cotchery, along with his kiddie corps of Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and whoever else you want to throw into the mix, surely can catch 10 passes cumulatively.

Now, many of those have to be the big catches. While Smith's numbers were down last season, he still made many of the big third- or fourth-down receptions that made 2013's turnaround possible.

None were bigger than the 19-yard catch into double coverage on fourth-and-10 from deep in Miami territory with 2:33 remaining. That led to a last-minute 20-16 victory that extended Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

But surely Cotchery, 31, can replace that. He had 10 touchdown catches last season for Pittsburgh. That is more than Smith (4) and No. 2 LaFell (5) combined for in 2013.

A funny aside. The Panthers never intended to go an entire week after releasing Smith without signing a wide receiver, which added to the anxiety of many. They wanted to bring Cotchery in early, but he was on vacation and couldn't.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera is confident the additions of veterans like safety Roman Harper will keep Carolina on track despite its losses in free agency.
"I really do wish people and hope people will understand there's a process," Rivera said of the team's plan. "If you do things the right way you have a chance going forward. That to me is what we've done."

And the Panthers aren't done. They plan to add other pieces in free agency and the draft. Some of them will be key.

But with the front seven of the league's No. 2 defense intact, and with Newton expected to be better than ever after surgery for a left ankle issue that has been lingering since college, Rivera has just as much or more to work with now than he had a year ago.

It's not like he has the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster.

There still are some key areas -- the secondary and offensive line at the top of the list -- that must be addressed. If the season started today, right tackle Byron Bell likely would start at left tackle, with Nate Chandler or Garry Williams on the right side.

But is that so bad? Rivera really likes Bell, who played left tackle in college, even though public sentiment is that this is a disaster. Sometimes you have to trust the coach's instinct.

The Panthers already have a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Kalil, and the guard situation is solid with Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila back from injuries that kept them from starting last season.

So the line could be as good or better than a year ago.

The biggest concern in the secondary is the nickel back. Rivera likes the competition he has for the two cornerback spots in Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

He believes Charles Godfrey, if he returns healthy from last season's Achilles injury, can play the nickel as well as free safety. He's thrilled to have New Orleans free agent Roman Harper at strong safety, and if Godfrey doesn't return, Rivera has Robert Lester and a few other young players who played well in spurts last season.

It's really no different than it was this past August when the big questions were the offensive line and secondary.

So Rivera is upbeat. He's ready to talk about something -- no offense -- other than Smith.

"We're headed in the direction of being a better team," he insisted.

Think of it like his breakfast. Sometimes you have to eat fresh fruit instead of bacon and eggs that taste good but aren't exactly good for you in the long run.
Mitchell/CotcheryUSA TODAY SportsThe swap of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers bring a veteran presence to each locker room.

It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.

Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?

David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.

Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?

Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.

I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.

Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?

Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.

Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?

Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.

The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.

David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?

Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.

How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?

Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.

I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
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PITTSBURGH -- Jerricho Cotchery leaves for a better deal with the Carolina Panthers and all but takes the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2014 season with him.

That may be overstating the anxiety some Steelers fans felt after Cotchery's departure left the depth chart at wide receiver in worse shape than an NCAA tournament bracket but it's not far off either.

Moore
The Steelers moved quickly to fill that void by signing a wideout who is a little younger than Cotchery, has been more productive than Cotchery and is just two seasons removed from a 1,000-yard campaign.

This, folks, is what the Steelers do.

Others panic, they simply stick with their plan, moving deliberately when it comes to filling some holes and swiftly when it comes to others.

The latter is what they did on Friday by signing former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Lance Moore to a two-year contract.

Moore could be an upgrade over Cotchery, and his signing is a reminder that, to borrow one of coach Mike Tomlin's most well-worn clichés, this isn't the Steelers' first rodeo.

They know how to navigate March, even one as frenzied as this one when money has been tossed around.

They don't try to win news cycles -- or Super Bowls for that matter -- in March, and their steadfastness in following a plan is a result of the stability that is a franchise signature.

The Steelers have so far signed a starting free safety, a mammoth defensive tackle who can provide depth up front and a wide receiver who should figure prominently in the passing game next season and can start if needed.

Remember all of the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about how the Steelers would possibly clear enough room under the salary cap to take care of their necessary business? They did so without compromising the core of their team and have since added some key pieces via free agency.

The Steelers still have plenty of work to do as they are thin at a number of positions, including defensive end, running back and cornerback.

But they will fill those needs by staying mindful that while March may be about madness it is also more than six months before the start of the regular season.

CB Chris Owens visited Steelers

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
6:10
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted veteran cornerback Chris Owens for a visit this week, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan.

Owens played 13 games last season, recording 58 tackles and 2½ sacks. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder also broke up three passes.

Owens played 12 games for the Browns before hurting his knee. The Dolphins signed the fifth-year veteran in December after the Browns released Owens following an injury settlement, and he played one game for Miami.

Owens has played for three NFL teams, including the Falcons, who took him in the third round of the 2009 draft, six picks ahead of former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers need to add depth at cornerback and Owens, 27, would fit the profile of the kind of player they are looking to sign.

In other Steelers’ news:
  • ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton reported that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery's two-year deal with Carolina could be worth as much as $5 million. Good for Cotchery, but that price proved to be too far out of the Steelers’ range. Team president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that despite the loss of Cotchery and other free agents he is “happy with the progress” the Steelers have made. “I’m satisfied with the progress we've made in general to this date, the signings we've made,” Rooney said. "We have more work to do. It's early in the game as far as preseason preparations. I'm happy with the progress we've made so far.”
  • The Steelers were well represented at Notre Dame Pro Day on Thursday. Both general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin attended the workout for Irish draft prospects, according to Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm. Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Truitt could be targets for the Steelers early in the draft.
I can't say how many passes wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery will catch for the Carolina Panthers this season, but I can say he has class and he won't be a distraction to the locker room.

Why? He chose not to wear No. 89.

Smith
Cotchery
Out of respect to Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was released last week, Cotchery wouldn't consider wearing the number he wore at Pittsburgh with his new team.

Not that the topic, according to Cotchery, came up in negotiations. And if it had, management might have told the 31-year-old to pick another number.

But that wouldn't have been necessary because Cotchery never would have asked.

"I definitely won't touch that one," Cotchery said on Thursday after signing a two-year deal. "Steve is a guy ... he's one of my favorite players. Not just [among] receivers. He competes every Sunday. It's been fun to watch him play. He's been the face around here a long time. I definitely wouldn't think about touching that number."

Cotchery also handled with class questions about coming to a Carolina team without any proven receivers.

"First and foremost as a receiver, you look at the quarterback position," he said. "I left Ben Roethlisberger. If you're going to leave a quarterback like that you better be sure that you're going to go to someone that can play at a high level.

"I feel we have that here with Cam Newton."

Hear that Brandon LaFell? Kidding.

Many of you were upset on Wednesday when Carolina's former No. 2 receiver, LaFell, said he signed with New England for the chance to play with a Hall of Fame quarterback. You took that as a slight against Newton, so much that LaFell vowed to take a month off from Twitter.

I didn't take it that way. And I don't take Cotchery's comment as to suggest Newton literally has reached the level of achievement of Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion.

But Newton is a lot more Roethlisberger than he is Brady, and Cotchery immediately set the tone that he has confidence in his new quarterback.

Cotchery could be just as helpful in the development of Newton as he is expected to be with a young receiving corps. There is no risk that he will become a distraction as some believe Smith might have been.

He hasn't caught a pass here yet.

But he's shown a lot of class.

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