NFL Nation: Jordan Gross

Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.
Every now and then during offseason workouts, Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil will get a text from recently retired left tackle Jordan Gross. The message usually is accompanied with a picture from the golf course, the lake or some other fun activity.

"Typical Gross,"Kalil said last week.

What's not typical for Kalil is being in offseason workouts without Gross, wide receiver Steve Smith and others that no longer are a part of the Carolina roster. They have either retired, like Gross, were released, like Smith, or were not re-signed.

[+] EnlargeKalil
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kalil said he likes the competition that is occurring in OTAs.
As Kalil said, it's strange. It's also accepted.

Parents often go through a period of mourning, otherwise known as empty nest syndrome, when children leave home. Sports fans go through a similar grieving period when star players leave for other teams or retire.

Players don't have that luxury. To spend time debating or agonizing over the loss of a teammate, even if that teammate is a good friend like Gross and Kalil were, is time not spent getting better.

"That's just how it is,"Kalil said. "A lot of players, we joke that if you can cut Peyton Manning you can cut any of us. And it's true. It's part of the business and I don't envy those decisions that they have to make upstairs."

But while it feels strange for Kalil and others to see a room full of new faces during organized team activities, they are focused on moving forward. They are trying to do what it takes to assure the group is in position to become the first to record consecutive winning seasons in team history.

A big part of that is competition. The changes, for better or worse, have created more competition than Kalil can remember in any of his seven seasons at Carolina.

It's something Kalil has embraced and believes will be "really healthy for this team.''

Instead of the complacency that sometimes comes from having veterans back in key positions, the release of a 13-year player like Smith sends the message that no player's future is safe.

"Everybody's trying to make a good impression with coaches, with some of the established guys, and that's something I haven't felt around here in a while that I think is real exciting for this team,"Kalil said.

Kalil saw this initially in the weight room with players "sizing themselves up with other guys and established guys.''

There's not a sense of panic like many fans have expressed since Smith was cut and the team's next three wide receivers were allowed to sign elsewhere.

There's a sense of opportunity for others to step forward. The left tackle position, for example, has created an opportunity for right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler to compete for one of the more high profile jobs on the team.

"He's been busting his butt this offseason," Kalil said of Chandler. "You can tell he's put on some weight just to prepare for that.''

Kalil is excited about the prospects along the line, including the possibility of drafting a tackle with the 28th pick. He also made a plea for the team to re-sign left guard Travelle Wharton, who is contemplating retirement if Carolina's doesn't make an offer.

"I'd be more excited if we had Travelle coming back," Kalil admitted. "I'd feel good about having a young guy next to an older guy like that.

"So if you can write, 'Travelle, Ryan wants to know.' I text him, 'One more year,' and he won't respond back to me. So if you can let him know that I'm waiting for him to return my calls.''

But even Wharton's situation isn't something Kalil wastes a lot of time focusing on. He understands the sense of urgency to begin moving forward with the players on the roster instead of worrying about those that aren't.

So do other veterans such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who like Kalil realizes the unfortunate part of the business is you lose friends who are teammates.

"But everyone realizes it's a business and that's how it works,"he said.

Gross understood that when he was a player. But that doesn't keep him from giving Kalil and others a hard time when they're in OTAs and he's having a good time.

Typical Gross.
Former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney will appear on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" on Thursday and Friday. It will be the first time he has spoken publicly since he was fired on Oct. 22, 2012, after a 1-5 start.

Hurney, in my opinion, was the fall guy that day.

It wasn't his fault the Panthers were losing. They had many of the key players -- quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross -- that helped them to a 12-4 record and NFC South title this past season.

He was the one who hired Ron Rivera, who was the NFL coach of the year this past season.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMarty Hurney was fired after a 1-5 start to the 2012 season.
His philosophy to build through the draft and not overspend in free agency is sound.

Hurney's biggest fault was signing running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson to ridiculously high contracts that has current general manager Dave Gettleman in what he might call salary cap hell.

Oh, and there was the five-year, $42.5 million deal he gave to 34-year-old Jake Delhomme after the quarterback had six turnovers in the 2008 playoff loss to Arizona.

Aside from those things, Hurney is the same person who helped build the Panthers into a team that made it to the Super Bowl in 2003, the NFC Championship Game in 2005 and back to the playoffs in 2008.

What he said the day he was fired was more truth than anybody probably was willing to admit at the time.

"I think we need somebody to step up in the locker room and take hold," Hurney told reporters at Bank of America Stadium. "I think there are people capable of that. I think we need some players to step up and say enough is enough."

That finally happened last season when Gross, with the team 1-3 heading into Minnesota, gave a speech that many of his teammates credit for the ensuing eight-game winning streak.

That Hurney, a former sportswriter, has decided to resurface now is a good thing. That he's resurfacing at a time Gettleman is under siege for releasing Smith and letting Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers get away in free agency -- not to mention failing to sign a veteran from another team -- is merely coincidence.

Hurney likes Gettleman and believes he'll do a good job.

So do I, even though I still disagree with the release of Smith.

I'm not sure what Hurney will be asked on "Insiders" (ESPN, 3:30 p.m.). I'm not sure how much he will talk about the past because he's a high-road guy. It's why players such as Johnson came to his defense when he was fired.

"Marty wasn't the reason we are losing! ... Unbelievable!" Johnson wrote on Twitter at the time.

But there will be questions, maybe a few that are uncomfortable. I'm sure you have a few. Here are five of mine:

  • When you said somebody needed to step up and say "enough is enough,'' did you believe the locker-room environment lacked the leadership to win? Who were the bad eggs?
  • Did you think at the time you signed Williams, Stewart and Johnson to big deals that it would strap the team financially this far into the future?
  • If you had to do it all over again with the exact same scenario, would you have given Delhomme such a big deal?
  • What do you think of Gettleman's decision to fire Smith?
  • Were you really fired, or did you just refuse to let others in the organization go and basically quit?

Some of these things surely will come up on the broadcast. How Hurney addresses them isn't as important as he's finally comfortable enough to talk football publicly again.

Hurney did a lot of good things for Carolina. Even Gettleman acknowledged that in his postseason wrap-up.

It's time to move on.
Quarterback Cam Newton will miss four months recovering from ankle surgery, his top four wide receivers from last season are on other rosters and his starting left tackle is retired.

And oh, no receivers from other teams have been signed.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesBarring setbacks, Cam Newton's recovery period from ankle surgery is four months.
If you're looking for good news on the Carolina Panthers, you're in the wrong place. The offseason has been nothing short of disastrous -- particularly on offense.

It went from bad to worse Tuesday as the Panthers announced their franchise quarterback will undergo surgery Wednesday to repair an ankle that has bothered him since late last season.

That came at about the time Pittsburgh Steelers free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery left town without a contract. He'll decide between the Panthers and a return to the Steelers soon. You couldn't blame him if he stays put, considering everything that has gone on with the Carolina offense recently.

This all began last month, when tackle Jordan Gross retired. While not totally unexpected, it was a blow in that it forced the Panthers to look for a valuable and expensive replacement. That hasn't happened in free agency. The team's top target, Cincinnati's Anthony Collins, went to NFC South rival Tampa Bay.

On Thursday, the team released its all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, who then signed with Baltimore.

By the end of the week, No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots), No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and No. 4 Domenik Hixon (Bears) had signed with other teams, and free-agent target Hakeem Nicks had picked Indianapolis over Carolina.

Cotchery's Monday-Tuesday visit was a ray of sunshine on what has been a cold, cloudy week in Charlotte. But then he left without a deal.

Then came the worst news of all: Newton's surgery.

With that, all the glow surrounding the franchise tag that kept defensive end Greg Hardy on the roster was gone.

While Newton's surgery may not be considered as serious as, say, an ACL reconstruction, his recovery period is four months. That takes Newton to the start of training camp before he's ready to go, and that's assuming there are no setbacks.

Missing four months isn't a major deal when you're returning to a group you've developed chemistry with the past three seasons. But when you're returning to a group that you've never thrown to, it's at least concerning.

Nothing against backup Derek Anderson, but he can't simulate the offense like Newton. He's more of a pure pocket passer. Newton uses his legs to buy time.

Receivers need to get used to that rhythm. Newton needs to get used to understanding how they react when he scrambles.

Not that they can't accomplish that in four or five weeks of training camp, but it would be nice to have a little time together before then. It's not like Newton is Tom Brady, who makes average receivers look like Pro Bowlers.

There also has to be concern that Newton's ankle now may be more susceptible to injury. This is a quarterback who has made a large part of his living with his legs. One bad wheel makes him less valuable.

And how does this impact discussions for a long-term deal with Newton? The Panthers can't be too gung-ho about offering anything outrageous until they see how he recovers.

Not that they can afford anything outrageous at the moment. If they could, surely they would have signed a veteran receiver by now.

My guess is Carolina will go ahead and take the fifth-year option on Newton to buy another year to negotiate a long-term deal. That probably was going to happen regardless of the surgery, but this should cement it.

The Panthers also might be smart to draft another quarterback in the middle to late rounds. Again, nothing against Anderson, but he's not the future of the organization.

And I'm pretty sure you can say the same thing about Matt Blanchard, an undrafted quarterback out of Wisconsin-Whitewater who spent the last part of last season on the practice squad.

Think about it. If the season started today, you would have Anderson throwing to wide receivers Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

I'll repeat: If you're looking for good news on the Panthers, you're in the wrong place.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonGeneral manager Dave Gettleman has made some questionable decisions in the first week of free agency.

Let's go back to January, two days after the Carolina Panthers finished a 12-4 season, to when Dave Gettleman assessed his first year as an NFL general manager.

"The gaffes I made this year didn’t hurt us too much,'' he said.

A reporter: "Gaffes?''

Gettleman responded with a laugh and a Ric Flair-like "Wooo!," followed by a moment of awkward silence, followed by "let's say I didn't make any big ones.''

Back to the present. Gettleman appears to have made several gaffes a week into his second venture into free agency. Whether one or more turn into big ones remains to be seen. Whether they'll ultimately be called gafffes also remains to be seen because we're a long way from the final snapshot of this team.

But for the sake of evaluation, let's take a look at what could be called the gaffes of the past week:

Gaffe 1: Cutting wide receiver Steve Smith. This was a gaffe on several levels, although Gettleman may disagree. First, the way it was handled. Either Gettleman never should have said he was reviewing whether Smith would have a spot on the team or he should have consulted Smith in some way. Teams part with long-time contributors all the time. But it's the way they part that most remember. Second, that Smith signed with Baltimore a day later, and had strong interest from New England, Seattle and San Diego, tells me somebody thought he has something to offer at 34.

Gaffe 2: Losing No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots), No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and No. 3 Domenik Hixon (Bears) to free agency after cutting Smith left quarterback Cam Newton without a wide receiver with an NFL catch. I'm not suggesting all three or even two should have been re-signed, but you've got to find a way to keep one for some sort of continuity going into 2014.

Gaffe 3: Losing free agent wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to Indianapolis. Nicks said Gettleman made an offer. It apparently wasn't enough. Maybe Gettleman never really wanted Nicks that badly. Maybe he's targeted Green Bay wide receiver James Jones, who remains on the open market. Maybe he has somebody else in mind to be the veteran leader at this position. But for the moment, losing the hometown Nicks on top of gaffes 1 and 2 seems like a mistake.

Gaffe 4: Not re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell. To be fair, the Panthers probably couldn't compete with the five-year, $25 million deal Mitchell got from Pittsburgh. But to lose a 26-year-old on his way up and replace him with 31-year-old Roman Harper on his way down isn't a long-term solution.

Gaffe 5: Losing Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Collins to NFC South rival Tampa Bay. He would have been a nice replacement for recently-retired Jordan Gross protecting Newton's blindside. Unless something changes, that job will go to right tackle Byron Bell or a rookie from the draft. Stay tuned.

Again, to be fair, Gettleman didn't have the money to make 3, 4 and 5 happen. The Panthers, after saving about $2 million in cap room by cutting Smith, had only about $8 million before Saturday's signing of Harper to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million.

But had one or two of those happened the others wouldn't seem as significant.

Let's go back to Gettleman two days after the season. Perhaps the following comments he made will help put some of this in perspective that we don't all understand at the moment.

"The truth of the matter is, everybody is on the outside looking in,'' he said. "The fact of the matter is, there's stuff going on behind closed doors that we don't know about. I don't care what team it is. I don't care what sport it is. You don't know all the facts. Unless you know all the facts all you're doing is speculating.''

Fortunately for Gettleman, he won't have to evaluate his second year as a general manager for another 10 months.

That's when we'll know if the above gaffes are big or small, or gaffes at all.

Analyzing Kiper 3.0: Panthers

March, 13, 2014
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ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. finally has come around to my thinking on the Carolina Panthers having to take an offensive tackle with the No. 28 pick of the NFL draft.

He has, at least for the moment, given up on Carolina taking a wide receiver -- although when Steve Smith is traded or cut, the team won't have any of its top four wideouts from last season under contract.

That could make receiver more of a priority, particularly if the Panthers are sold on Byron Bell replacing Jordan Gross at left tackle.

But I'm not.

So Kiper's pick of Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio makes sense.

Maybe this will be a repeat of last year's draft in which defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was considered one of the top picks -- if not the top pick -- until a medical issue involving his heart at the NFL combine forced some teams to back off.

Carolina got him for a steal at No. 14. Lotulelei played so well he could have been defensive rookie of the year.

Kouandjio was considered one of the top players in this draft until concerns surfaced at the combine about his knee, which doctors have since said is fine. Then he didn't work out at Alabama's pro day, another negative.

If he falls to No. 28, the Panthers can't pass on him. He could be the starting left tackle for the next 10 years.

If not him, then Virginia tackle Morgan Moses.

If not one of them, then Kiper and I will agree it's a wide receiver.

Check out a complete look at Kiper's 3.0 draft Insider.
No member of the Carolina Panthers 'offensive line took more heat last season than right tackle Byron Bell. Now, it appears, he'll get a chance to prove if he can protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side.

Bell
The Panthers on Monday tendered the restricted free agent, as well as exclusive rights player Chris Scott.

This occurred shortly after Carolina re-signed offensive lineman Garry Williams to a one-year deal and fullback/tight end Richie Brockel to a two-year deal.

Coach Ron Rivera mentioned Bell as a possible candidate to replace Jordan Gross at left tackle when the 11-year veteran retired a few weeks ago.

Bell, 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, started 14 games at right tackle this past season and has started 41 of 47 career games at Carolina. He first came under fire last season after Buffalo's Mario Williams had 4.5 sacks from his side in the second game.

The heat continued most of the season. Although Bell at times played well, Pro Football Focus gave him a season rating of minus-2.8. To put that in perspective, Gross had a rating of 33.5.

That's not the kind of rating a franchise quarterback wants to hear.

Nevertheless, Rivera and Gross said Bell played much better than people gave him credit for, and both endorsed him as a possibility at left tackle.

Filling the left tackle position from within would be a huge benefit for Carolina, which had only about $7 million left under the salary cap before the day began. With a strong draft class at tackle, the Panthers also might look to fill one of the two starting spots with a first- or second-round pick.

And don't forget, Williams has started 13 games at right tackle.

Scott (6-4 and 320 pounds) gives the Panthers more depth at guard. He started the first eight games this past season -- one at left and seven at right -- before suffering a knee injury against Atlanta in October.

Monday's moves won't draw big headlines, but they could mean the Panthers won't be heavily involved in free agency for offensive linemen -- at least not a high-priced tackle.

That's big considering the needs for upgrades at cornerback and wide receiver.
The Carolina Panthers secured two of their own free agents Monday in an attempt to shore up the running game.

Offensive lineman Garry Williams, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, signed a one-year deal. Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel, a restricted free agent, got a two-year deal.

Williams could figure into Carolina's plans at guard and tackle. He was the starter at right guard entering last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Seattle.

He has 21 starts since signing as an undrafted free agent from Kentucky in 2009. His presence at right guard gives Carolina more flexibility if it chooses to give Nate Chandler, who was working at tackle before becoming the regular at right guard due to injuries, a shot at replacing left tackle Jordan Gross.

Williams also has started 13 games at right tackle, so he could figure into the mix there if the Panthers choose to move starter Byron Bell into Gross' spot.

Coach Ron Rivera said at Gross' recent retirement news conference that Bell and Chandler could be in the mix.

Bell also is a restricted free agent, so look for an announcement on him before free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Brockel is a big contributor on special teams as well as a factor in the running game when Carolina brings in a second tight end or fullback for blocking.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
Free agency begins on Tuesday, and the Carolina Panthers have a lot of holes to fill.

That means you have a lot of questions.

So let’s get right to my Saturday mailbag:
 
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay may be right in his latest mock draft Insider. The Carolina Panthers may take a wide receiver with the 28th pick. They may even take Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, as he projects. Benjamin is a tall, talented player at a position that is in need of an upgrade.

But if quarterback Cam Newton doesn’t have protection and time to throw, Jerry Rice in his prime doesn’t have a chance to catch passes. That's why I still believe the pick will go to a left tackle unless there’s not a quality receiver on the board.

This would be the best long-term solution to replacing recently-retired Jordan Gross.

Carolina’s biggest issue there may be NFC South rival New Orleans, which McShay has taking Virginia tackle Morgan Moses with the 27th pick. The Saints need help on the line as well -- as the Panthers made evident with six sacks against them in a late-season game.

If the Panthers aren’t sold on keeping Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver who turns 35 in May, then they should find a way to trade him for enough value to move up in the draft and get the player that can make an immediate impact.

NFL Nation Buzz: Carolina Panthers

March, 5, 2014
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ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton says Carolina must now deal with the void left by Jordan Gross' retirement and the uncertainty about Steve Smith's future with the team.
The free-agent pieces began falling into place for the Carolina Panthers last week with the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and the franchising of defensive end Greg Hardy.

So what's next with eight days before players hit the open market?

Ginn
Ginn
Mitchell
Management is talking with representatives for free safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., so that appears to be the direction the team is heading. Both make sense.

Mitchell gave the league's No. 2 defense an invaluable attitude with his aggressive style. He led all safeties in yards allowed per reception (8.1) and tied for third in interceptions with four.

If the Panthers can't come up with the money to re-sign him, there are many teams interested. Look for a deal to get done before free agency begins March 11.

The question is whether Mitchell will remain at free safety or return to strong safety with Charles Godfrey expected back after a season-ending Achilles injury. Mitchell moved to free safety after Godfrey was injured in the second game, and the defense only got better from there.

The other part of that question is whether the Panthers will keep Godfrey. He has a big salary cap number ($7.1 million), but the team could clear $5.1 million in cap space if it cuts him after June 1.

That could be an option if the deal can't be renegotiated for a lower number.

Of Carolina's three free-agent receivers -- Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon -- Ginn makes the most sense because he is the team's leading kick returner and a deep threat for quarterback Cam Newton.

It's hard to imagine LaFell, who has been average at best as the team's No. 2 receiver, coming back unless it's at a bargain price. Look for him to hit the open market.

The Panthers also seem content with letting starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn test the market to determine his value. They did this last season and got him for a bargain.

Look for Carolina to turn its focus to free-agent upgrades from other teams once it signs Mitchell and Ginn. The picture on Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, should become clearer this week as well.

General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera have said Smith's role is under evaluation. Look for them to meet with him, his management or both in the next few days to see where things go.

Should the Panthers look into the market for an upgrade at receiver, an intriguing prospect became available Friday when Seattle released Sidney Rice to clear salary-cap room.

Rice played high school football in Gaffney, S.C., about an hour from Charlotte, and was a star at the University of South Carolina 90 minutes away.

His numbers haven't lived up to his contract in recent years, but injuries have played a role. His 2011 season was cut short by a concussion, and an ACL injury kept him from finishing last season.

He is still young at 27 and at 6-foot-4 would give quarterback Cam Newton a tall target.

But Carolina's first priority will be re-signing Mitchell and Ginn.
The NFL will announce the 2014 salary cap within the next few days, possibly as early as today, and the reported available cap space for the Carolina Panthers has been all over the place.

So after consulting with ESPN's top cap gurus, here's what I came up with for Carolina.

The Panthers currently are approximately $18.3 million under the cap with an early conservative estimation of a $126 million cap. If the league bumps the cap to between $132 million and $133 million as was reported last week, that'll add approximately another $6 million to the total.

So Carolina is looking at about $24 million in cap space to sign its own free agents and those from other teams.

Recent restructures to the deals of center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and linebacker Thomas Davis helped significantly. Kalil's cap number dropped from $10.4 million to $7,284,000. Stewart's dropped from $5,496,250 to $4,585,000. Davis' dropped from $5,816,666 to $3,566,666.

That's a combined savings of just under $6.3 million.

It would help even more if Carolina could get defensive end Charles Johnson's $16.4 million cap number reduced.

Clearing this room should help keep defensive end Greg Hardy, one of the team's 20 remaining free agents now that left tackle Jordan Gross has retired.

The team has until 4 p.m. ET on Monday if it decides to use the franchise tag on its sack leader. The $12 million hit would be a bargain compared to what Hardy likely will get in the open market.

Coach Ron Rivera wouldn't say on Wednesday whether the team has notified quarterback Cam Newton's representatives that they plan to activate the 2011 draft pick's fifth-year option.

The Panthers have until May 3 to make that notification. It makes little sense to do it until closer to that date because the team would be responsible for about $15 million in 2015 if Newton were to suffer a career-ending injury between now and May.

In all likelihood, Carolina will have to exercise that option eventually to give it more time to extend Newton's deal long-term. The team can continue to negotiate after exercising the extension, and it has more immediate needs to take care of in free agency.

As Rivera said on Wednesday, there are a lot of moving parts.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was fitting that construction at Bank of America Stadium forced the Carolina Panthers to hold Wednesday's retirement news conference for left tackle Jordan Gross in the visitor's locker room.

As the landscape of Carolina's playground changes, so does the landscape of the team -- particularly the offensive line.

There's a chance in 2014 that center Ryan Kalil is the only starter at the same position he was when last season ended. It's not an enviable position for a team looking to get back to the playoffs, but it easily could happen.

Here's how looking at last year's starters:

Left tackle -- Gross. We know he's gone. Coach Ron Rivera said his replacement could come from one of three players on the existing roster in right tackle Byron Bell, fifth-year player Bruce Campbell or Nate Chandler, a backup tackle before injuries forced him into the lineup at right guard. If it's not one of those, then it'll be a free agent or draft pick. Regardless, a new starter.

Left guard -- Travelle Wharton. He started the final 14 games there, including the playoffs. But he was signed after starter Amini Silatolu was injured in training camp. There's a good chance the 32-year-old Wharton, a free agent, won't be re-signed. And even if he is it's likely a healthy Silatolu will get first dibs on the starting job. Or maybe it'll be Chris Scott, who started there in the opener before moving to the right side to replace the injured Gary Williams (ACL). Don't count out Williams, either.

Center -- Kalil. Four Pro Bowls since 2008. He's not going anywhere.

Right guard -- Nate Chandler. He played well, starting most of the final nine games after Scott suffered a knee injury in the first Atlanta game. He kept the job even after Scott was healthy. But suppose Scott beats him out in camp? Or Chandler gets the left tackle job. Or Edmund Kugbila, last year's fourth-round pick that spent the season on injured reserve, could take the job. Don't forget as I said above Williams, who started there the first game before the season-ending knee injury. Don't count on Geoff Hangartner. He plans on riding into the sunset with Gross unless something dramatically changes last minute.

Right tackle -- Bell. He took a lot of heat last season for allowing sacks, and according to Gross much of it was undeserved. Gross, like Rivera, said Bell should have a shot at left tackle. If he gets that job, there's an opening on the right side. There could be anyway if the coaching staff feels that heat was deserved and an adequate replacement can be found.

And don't forget, the Panthers certainly will sign a free agent offensive lineman or two and draft at least one. General manager Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside out with what he called "hog mollies'' after taking a pair of defensive tackles with Carolina's first two picks in the 2013 draft.

I often am wary of teams with a new front line. But like Bank of America Stadium, it could be better when the renovations are completed.

Let Gross explain.

"I always said I don't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are,'' he said on Wednesday. "They should be for a long time, and that's going to be regardless of whether I am here or not.

"And that's a beautiful thing.''

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