NFL Nation: Marty Hurney

TAMPA, Fla. -- I like just about everything the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done in the last week. But there's one notable exception.

I think they're making a mistake in giving coach Lovie Smith final say over the 53-man roster. That's kind of like walking a tightrope without a net. I'm not saying a coach shouldn't have a lot of say in personnel matters. But I think a general manager should have a voice that's at least equal.

The Bucs don't have a general manager yet. Kansas City Chiefs executive Chris Ballard reportedly is the favorite. Ballard and Smith worked together in Chicago, and Smith said all the right things when asked about the coach-general manager dynamic Monday.

"First off, I look at it as a marriage and as a big group making the decision," Smith said. "Of course, as a head football coach, most things stop at your doorstep. As you know, we don't have a general manager in place yet. Once our owners decide who, exactly, will be in that role, I look forward to getting with them and making decisions together that are going to lead us to a championship."

That sounds good, but Smith's contract reportedly has a clause that gives him final say. I think you need a system that includes checks and balances.

I've covered a variety of setups through the years. But the two most successful were coach Tony Dungy and general manager Rich McKay in Tampa Bay, and coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney in Carolina. In both situations, there was an equal partnership.

Dungy and McKay used to like to say their choices never came down to a final say because they always reached a consensus that included input from other members of the coaching staff and front office. Hurney and Fox used to say that they disagreed on a fair amount of things. When they didn't see eye to eye on an option, they didn't take it. Instead, they would go with another option that both were content with.

We'll see what happens when the Bucs name a general manager. But the best thing Smith can do with that general manager is to look at him as a teammate, not an underling.

Buccaneers filling staff quickly

January, 4, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. – Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith is off to a fast start in filling his coaching staff.

It was known from the beginning of Smith’s candidacy that he planned to bring Jeff Tedford aboard as the offensive coordinator. The Bucs officially announced that move Saturday morning.

“We are very fortunate to have Jeff as our offensive coordinator,” Smith said. “I have a great deal of respect for the job Jeff did at Cal for more than a decade and I believe he will be a great fit for what we are attempting to do in Tampa. Jeff has a successful and proven track record as a teacher and developer of young talent and I know our players, and the organization as a whole, will benefit from his experience.”

The Bucs also are bringing in former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier as the defensive coordinator. Smith is off to a much better start at filling his coaching staff than predecessor Greg Schiano.

In fairness to Schiano, he was hired late. Many of the coaches he wanted were already taken and there were times when Schiano had to go with his third or fourth choice.

Tedford clearly was Smith’s first choice. Frazier was no worse than the second choice. Smith wanted Rod Marinelli, but the Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t let him out of his contract as defensive line coach.

The Buccaneers also are likely to get their top pick as general manager because there aren’t any other jobs open at the moment. Kansas City personnel executive Chris Ballard, who has history with Smith, reportedly is the favorite.

But the Bucs also could consider former Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo, who has ties to Smith and the Bucs, former Carolina general manager Marty Hurney and former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

One other name the Bucs could look at is Atlanta Falcons director of football operations Nick Polk. He’s viewed as a rising star around the league.
You probably haven’t seen the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers in the top 10 of too many power rankings recently. But we’ve come across a very notable exception.

Check out this Insider post Insider that ranks all 32 teams based on the talent level of players 25 or younger on each roster. The Buccaneers come in at No. 7 and the Panthers are No. 8.

That’s not all that surprising. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik has had some big hits (Gerald McCoy, Doug Martin and Lavonte David) in recent drafts and there still is hope that quarterback Josh Freeman and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers can emerge as stars.

Former Carolina general manager Marty Hurney gets bashed a lot for leaving the Panthers in difficult salary-cap shape. But he left the Panthers with a nice young nucleus that features quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Atlanta and New Orleans didn’t fare nearly as well in the under-25 rankings. That’s understandable because they’re veteran teams.

The Falcons rank No. 24. Aside from receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons don’t have many young stars. The Saints are No. 29 and defensive end Cameron Jordan might be the closest thing they have to a young impact player.
 Star LotuleleiRuss Isabella/USA TODAY SportsCarolina drafted a defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, in the first round for the first time in team history.

In the first draft of his tenure, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman did something predecessor Marty Hurney never did.

Heck, Gettleman did something Bill Polian never did. He did something Dom Capers and George Seifert did in the brief windows when coaches held general-manager powers in Carolina.

Gettleman drafted a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time in franchise history. He drafted Utah’s Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick.

It’s not a fancy move, but I think this is a great start for Gettleman, who wasn’t bluffing when he said at his pre-draft news conference that he believes the game starts up front and that he likes big defensive and offensive linemen.

In Lotulelei, Gettleman and the Panthers are getting a huge defensive tackle that once was being talked about as the potential No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Lotulelei had a bit of a health scare around the scouting combine, but reportedly later received a clean bill of health.

I don’t know Gettleman well yet, but I know enough about him and his scouting staff that I’m sure the Panthers wouldn’t have taken Lotulelei if they had any doubts about his health.

If they’re right, the Panthers got a steal. If they’re right, Carolina suddenly has a heck of a defense.

Think about it? Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, suddenly has someone to jam up the middle. That’s going to allow Kuechly to roam freely. Same for outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

And picture Lotulelei taking a little blocking attention away from defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who each had double-digit sacks last season? Carolina’s secondary still isn’t loaded with talent, but the front seven might be able to compensate more for that now that Lotulelei is on the roster.

Carolina’s defense suddenly is looking like a major strength. It might even be the best in the NFC South.

That’s a pretty major statement for a defense that was horrible two years ago. Coach Ron Rivera’s tenure got off to a rough start because of the defense in 2011 and coordinator Sean McDermott took a beating from fans.

Things started to improve last season, but there still was a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. The sad part is Hurney, who was promoted to general manager in 2002, might still have the job if he had used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle sometime after 2007.

It was after that season that Kris Jenkins, who had a brief stint as the best defensive tackle in the NFL, left the team. Jenkins (a second-round pick in 2001) had to go because there were chemistry issues between him and the coaching staff at the time.

But Hurney never devoted the resources to fully replace Jenkins. He did overspend for veteran Ron Edwards coming out of the 2011 lockout. Edwards promptly got hurt in that training camp and never really got healthy. Edwards never really contributed in Carolina and the Panthers released him in one of Gettleman’s first personnel moves.

Hurney also tried to address the defensive tackle position by taking Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round of the 2011 draft. But you don’t get stud defensive tackles in the third round. You’re rolling the dice and Hurney didn’t get lucky with McClain and Fua. McClain no longer is with the team and Fua is best suited to be a backup.

There’s only one way to get a dominant defensive tackle (and we’re only going to briefly mention how Capers once gave up the farm to get Sean Gilbert in a trade that went wildly bad back in 1998). If you want success in the middle of the defensive line, you need to draft a defensive tackle in the first round.

The Panthers never had done that before. That means it’s time to review the overall history of this franchise. Since coming into the league in 1995, the Panthers have had only four winning seasons.

Maybe that’s largely because the people who ran the show in the past never saw the importance of plugging the middle of the defense with a big-time talent.

Maybe Gettleman just made a move that can help put this franchise on a path to consistent success.
With the 14th pick in ESPN.com’s #bloggermock draft, I chose Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson for the Carolina Panthers.

Richardson
The choice was easy. I also had my eye on safety Kenny Vaccaro, but I was pretty much locked in on Richardson from the start.

I wanted to do something that former general manager Marty Hurney hadn’t done in a long time. I wanted to use an early draft pick on a defensive tackle. Hurney’s failure to do that helped cost him his job as the Panthers struggled in the interior line.

They did find a bit of a hidden gem last year with Dwan Edwards, but he’s getting up in age and it’s time to think long term.

That’s why I took Richardson. The Panthers have very good defensive ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who each reached double-digit sacks last season.

Adding Richardson should make life easier for Johnson and Hardy because offensive lines will have to devote more blocking to the interior. The Panthers still have needs at safety and cornerback, but they can address those later in the draft.

Panthers need to utilize RBs

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DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan StewartAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart led the NFL's most expensive backfield last season.
It’s Trivia Thursday, so let’s jump straight to the question.

What NFC South unit in 2012 was the most overpriced and underutilized, and helped get a general manager fired?

The answer is the Carolina Panthers’ backfield. Yes, in 2012, the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert was more useless and more expensive than even former Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards.

That’s saying a lot because Edwards, who the Falcons dumped midway through last season, will go down as one of the all-time busts in division history. The difference is the situation with Edwards, who was messing with locker room chemistry, moved past the point where it could be repaired.

Carolina’s backfield still has a shot at redemption. A very good shot. For that to happen, though, coach Ron Rivera and his staff need to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert be running backs, and let quarterback Cam Newton be a quarterback.

“That's something we have to work on," Rivera said when asked about his situation at running back during the recent NFL owners meetings. “We've been talking about that. We reviewed the season, looked at how things unfolded. We have to find a way to really be able to rotate those guys and make sure everybody's getting enough quality touches. We'll continue to try to develop it, because our running back position is loaded, and at the end of the year we had a lot of success with it. So, we've got to make sure we find the right formula."

The formula shouldn’t be that difficult to find, because the talent is there. Williams and Stewart are very good tailbacks (with first-round draft status and 1,000-yard seasons on their résumés) and Tolbert can make an impact at tailback and fullback. Rivera and his staff simply have to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run.

But that was a problem last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers used a league-high $15.3 million in salary-cap space on running backs. But Newton ended up leading the team in rushing, yards per rush, runs of 20 yards or more, and rushing touchdowns.

For reasons that never have been fully explained, the Panthers came out of the gate last year letting Newton run the read option and ignoring the power-running game. It would have been one thing if that was translating into wins, but it wasn’t.

The Panthers lost six of their first seven games, and general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October. It’s easy to look at the backfield and Carolina’s salary-cap situation and blame all the Panthers’ problems on Hurney.

But shouldn’t Hurney, Rivera and the rest of the coaching staff have been on the same page when Williams was given a huge contract coming out of the 2011 lockout, when Stewart was given a big extension last summer and when Tolbert was signed as a free agent from San Diego last offseason? Shouldn’t it have been automatic that all three would get plenty of touches?

That didn’t happen, and here’s another stat for you: The Panthers spent $12,179 per rushing yard by their running backs last season. Only Jacksonville ($12,402) spent more per yard, and the Jaguars finished 2-14.

The Panthers finished 7-9, but that’s only because they started to change their offense in the second half of the season. They won five of their final six games because they went back to the power-running game. Williams had 210 yards in the season finale against New Orleans.

Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula need to keep that in mind, or else they’ll end up following Hurney out the door. I’m not saying the Panthers need to go back to the John Fox days and bring back Nick Goings to run draw plays on third-and-long. But there needs to be a little balance to this offense.

I’m not saying the Panthers should completely scrap the read-option. Newton is a threat any time the Panthers even give a read-option look. But when Newton’s a threat too often, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert aren’t threats at all.

They’re way too talented to waste another season. Besides, Rivera, who barely survived last season, needs to win this year.

The way to do that is to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run. Newton can run a little from time to time to keep defenses off balance, but the guy has an incredible arm, and the Panthers need to let him focus on being a quarterback.

Let the running backs do the running, and everything else will fall into place.
When the Carolina Panthers signed Ron Edwards coming out of the lockout in 2011, the thinking was he’d give the team the run-stuffing defensive tackle it had lacked since Kris Jenkins left after the 2007 season.

It never came even close to working out that way and now Edwards’ time with the team is over. The Panthers announced Friday afternoon that they have released Edwards. The move frees up $2.4 million for a team that’s working to get under the salary cap.

His time in Carolina was star crossed almost from the beginning. Soon after his signing, he tore his triceps in training camp and missed the entire 2011 season. Edwards returned last season, but his impact was minimal.

Edwards started 11 games in 2012, making 16 tackles and recording one sack. But an elbow injury cut his season short.

At 33 and with a high salary, it was no longer practical for the Panthers to keep Edwards around. They can use some of the savings to try to re-sign defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who had a productive 2012 season.

Former general manager Marty Hurney deserves credit for bringing in quarterback Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. But disappointments like Edwards are the reason Hurney was fired midway through last season and why the Panthers face salary-cap challenges.
When New York Giants left tackle Will Beatty agreed to a five-year, $38.75 million contract Wednesday, the already-dwindling middle class in the NFC South instantly shrank by two.

Beatty’s deal sets the bar for Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker and New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod. The Falcons and Saints either will give Baker and Bushrod something similar to what Beatty got, or someone else will.

If they stay in the division, Baker and Bushrod won’t be drawing middle-class salaries as they did in recent years. But Baker and Bushrod might represent the new face of the NFC South, a division where there will be virtually no middle class next season.

In Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina, the 2013 rosters are going to be filled with a lot of guys making most of the money and a lot of other guys making minimum salary, or close to it. Tampa Bay’s in a different situation because the Buccaneers have about $30 million in salary-cap room and still can afford some middle-class players.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Matt Ryan
AP Photo/Paul AbellAtlanta QB Matt Ryan, right, will likely be in Drew Brees' salary-cap zip code soon.
But the Falcons, Saints and Panthers aren’t even close to being in the same boat.

Call it the price of success for the Falcons and Saints. And call it the price of some hefty (but, in some cases, questionable) contracts the Panthers have given out in recent years.

The Saints have been the division’s most successful team since 2006 and won a Super Bowl in the 2009 season. They’re paying handsomely for it now. Quarterback Drew Brees became the league’s highest-paid player last summer when he signed a new contract.

Brees has a $17.4 million salary-cap figure for this season. To put that in perspective, Brees is taking up 14.4 percent of New Orleans’ cap space. Even after some fancy restructuring of five contracts, the Saints still have six players with cap figures of at least $5.75 million.

They have another nine players counting more than $3 million against the cap. That means New Orleans has most of its cap tied up in 14 players.

Aside from Jimmy Graham, Mark Ingram and Cameron Jordan, who are still in their rookie contracts, the Saints really have no middle class. The rest of their roster is filled with guys making minimum salaries or very close to the minimum -- and I doubt that’s going to change because the Saints, who are still working to get under the cap, aren’t likely to have much room to add any free agents.

That’s not a good position to be in when the Saints are trying to overhaul a defense that ranked last in the league last season, one that is moving to a 3-4 scheme. The Saints need to add some key role players; the best way to do that is with mid-sized contracts in free agency. Instead, if the Saints are going to improve, they’ll probably have to do most of it through the draft.

But the Saints shouldn’t feel too bad about that because their rival, the Falcons are in a similar situation. The Falcons have had five consecutive winning seasons, using a lot of middle-class players. But their middle class is about to disappear. In addition to Baker, safety William Moore and cornerback Brent Grimes are potential free agents and are going to get big money, in Atlanta or elsewhere. Either way, they’re not going to have middle-class salaries anymore.

Not counting those three, the Falcons already have nine players scheduled to count at least $5.2 million against the 2013 cap. They have another four that are counting more than $3.5 million against the cap. After that, there’s not much more on the roster beside guys making the minimum.

Plus, the gap between Atlanta’s “haves’’ and “have-nots’’ is only likely to get bigger. At some point this offseason, the Falcons are likely to give quarterback Matt Ryan a contract extension that should at least put him in Brees’ ballpark. If veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez returns for one more season, it’s probably going to cost the Falcons at least $5 million a year.

There’s been a lot of fan speculation about the Falcons pursuing running back Steven Jackson or defensive ends Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora. The problem is, I don’t see how the Falcons can pull off any big deals and I doubt Freeney, Umenyiora or Jackson will sign mid-level deals.

If you were a Carolina fan and you could see the Panthers’ salary-cap ledger, you’d probably cry. The Panthers have 10 players counting at least $5.7 million against the salary cap. For whatever reason (and I think there might have been some prodding from ownership), former general manager Marty Hurney spent like crazy as soon as the 2011 lockout ended.

Those deals are now getting into the time frame where they count far more against the cap than in the past. There likely will be some restructuring. But, at the moment, the Panthers have 78.04 percent of their salary cap tied up in 15 players.

After that, they’ve got a bunch of guys making somewhere near the minimum and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. At some point in the next couple of years, the Panthers are going to have to give quarterback Cam Newton a huge contract extension.

There’s no room for middle-class players in Carolina. Or Atlanta. Or New Orleans.

If the Panthers, Falcons and Saints are going to get better, they’ll have to do it through the draft.

Stewart or Williams in Carolina?

February, 12, 2013
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With the Carolina Panthers facing major salary-cap issues, it’s becoming quite obvious there’s almost no way they can keep both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

One of them almost certainly has to go because (along with fullback Mike Tolbert) the Panthers have way too much money tied up in their backfield.

SportsNation

Which running back would you rather see the Carolina Panthers keep in 2013?

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    46%
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    54%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,749)

Blame it on former general manager Marty Hurney for giving out two huge contracts to guys that play the same position. Or blame the coaching staff for not working in conjunction with Hurney and making sure there were enough carries to go around.

Whatever, new general manager Dave Gettleman has a major dilemma on his hands.

Should he keep Williams or should he keep Stewart?

If you’re going on pure football ability, I’d keep Williams. I think he’s a better all-around running back and he doesn’t have Stewart’s history of injuries.

But the decision might not come down to pure football ability. It might come down to pure economics and the contract the Panthers handed Stewart last summer makes it virtually impossible to cut him – at least if the Panthers want any financial gain.

They’d take an immediate $7 million cap hit if they released Stewart, who is scheduled to count $3.015 million against the 2013 cap. That’s largely because Stewart’s base salary is guaranteed for each of the next three seasons and only one year of his pro-rated money has been eaten up.

Releasing Williams, whose contract runs through 2015, might be the more practical way to go. Williams is carrying an $8.2 million cap figure for 2013. If the Panthers release him and designate him as a June 1 cut (and spread his hit out over this year and next) they immediately would clear $3.4 million in cap space for 2013.

Restructuring one or both contracts is possible, but it probably isn’t in the best interest of the Panthers to tie up any more long-term money in the running back position as they try to work their way out of a nightmare cap situation.

Let’s hear your thoughts on if the Panthers should keep Stewart or Williams. Cast your vote in the SportsNation poll and back up the reasoning for your vote in the comments section below.
NEW ORLEANS - Somewhere Marty Hurney should be smiling.

He was fired as general manager of the Carolina Panthers in October. But Hurney’s legacy got a lot stronger Saturday night.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the last first-round pick by Hurney, was named by the Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.

That comes one year after quarterback Cam Newton won the Offensive Rookie of the Year. There is little doubt Hurney’s tenure had to end when it did.

Amid extremely high hopes, the Panthers got off to a horrid start. Someone had to take the fall because the Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008. Hurney left, coach Ron Rivera stayed and, with Newton and Kuechly stepping up in the second half of the season, the Panthers rallied to finish 7-9.

Kuechly finished with a league-high 164 tackles and firmly established himself as the middle linebacker, after opening the season on the outside. Veteran Jon Beason had been Carolina’s middle linebacker, but he suffered a season-ending injury.

It’s pretty obvious the Panthers will keep Kuechly in the middle. Beason either will move to the outside or become a salary-cap casualty.

Hurney’s tenure began in 2002. He did some good things. But he also made plenty of mistakes and things didn’t end well.

Still, Hurney did some positive things that are going to stay with the Panthers in the future.

Hurney gave the Panthers a franchise quarterback in Newton.

He also left them with a quarterback for their defense in Kuechly.
The Carolina Panthers added plenty of scouting experience Wednesday when they hired Dave Gettleman as their new general manager.

“I was very impressed with Dave’s experience and think he will be a very good fit for our organization,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said. “He has an extensive background in personnel and comes from an organization in the New York Giants that I hold in high regard and he played an instrumental role in their success.”

There’s no denying Gettleman’s experience in scouting. Gettleman spent last season as the Giants’ senior pro personnel analyst after spending the previous 13 seasons as the director of pro personnel.

Gettleman, 61, also worked in the scouting departments for the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos at times when those organizations were going to Super Bowls.

That’s all great, but Gettleman is going to have to be more than a scout in this job. Gettleman is inheriting a coach (Ron Rivera) that he didn’t hire. And, as I pointed out Saturday, Rivera already is very much on the hot seat for the 2013 season.

Gettleman and Rivera have to get on the same page quickly. Just a suggestion here, but Gettleman might be wise to learn from the mistakes of predecessor Marty Hurney. If you’re going to invest a ton of money on one position (like running back), you might want to make sure Rivera and his staff plan to place some importance on that position.

But that’s not going to be the only challenge Gettleman is going to face. As I pointed out last week, the Panthers are in a brutal salary-cap situation. Gettleman is going to have to become a salary-cap wizard in a hurry because he’s going to have to trim about $15 million between now and the start of free agency in March.

He’s going to have to make some tough calls on veterans such as Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Williams, Ron Edwards and Jordan Gross. Once the Panthers are under the gap, I don’t know that Gettleman’s experience with pro personnel is going to come in all that handy with free agency.

That’s only because the Panthers aren’t going to have any room to pursue free agents. They’re going to subtract some veterans from their roster and replace them through the draft.

Gettleman is going to have to be much more than a scout to get this team straightened out. He's going to have to be a jack-of-all trades and pull things together quickly because this team hasn't won since 2008 and patience is wearing very thin.
The Carolina Panthers’ search for a general manager won’t be limited to the borders of the United States.

Long-time Canadian Football League general manager Jim Popp is getting some attention and likely will be one of five or six candidates to interview for the job next week, according to league sources. Although Popp has spent the bulk of his career in Canada, he does have some ties to the Carolinas.

He’s a native of Elkin, N.C., and also was an assistant coach at The Citadel and the University of North Carolina. Owner Jerry Richardson is a North Carolina native, and has always shown a willingness to hire people from the Carolinas.

The Panthers also reportedly will talk to Dave Gettelman, Marc Ross and George Paton, and there has been one report that they also could be interested in Lake Dawson.

But, as I’ve been saying, don’t rule out the possibility of Richardson simply promoting interim general manager Brandon Beane. Although Beane doesn’t have a deep scouting background, he’s a longtime Carolina employee, who worked his way up through the ranks to become the right-hand man of former general manager Marty Hurney and had been taking on added responsibilities in recent years. Beane already knows the landscape in Carolina, and has a good relationship with Richardson.

Saturday’s news that Ron Rivera will stay as the coach also could work in Beane’s favor. Rivera and Beane worked well together, and the Panthers won the final four games of the season and got contributions from several players Beane signed.

Carolina's nightmare cap situation

January, 3, 2013
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We took a look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap situation. It’s far from ideal, but at least the Saints have some obvious ways to free up cap space.

But I’m now looking at the numbers for the Carolina Panthers, and it sure looks like they’re in a much worse situation than the Saints. There simply aren’t a lot of easy escape routes for the Panthers.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams' contract is among those contributing to the Panthers' salary-cap issues.
I don’t know if former general manager Marty Hurney deserves all the blame or if he was acting on orders from above, but the contracts given to guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, James Anderson and Charles Godfrey in recent years have left the Panthers in a real salary-cap mess.

Whoever ends up as the new general manager is going to have his hands tied in a lot of ways, because most of those contracts include so much guaranteed in base salaries and so much pro-rated money that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get out from under some of the team’s biggest contracts by releasing players.

The Panthers would lose cap space if they released Smith, Stewart or Godfrey. They’d basically break even on Anderson.

Beason and Williams could be candidates for release, but only if the Panthers designated them as June 1 cuts and spread their cap hit over two years, instead of one.

The Panthers currently have $136 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Let’s look at some guys who could be on the cap bubble.

Beason: The logical scenario for him is a contract restructure to knock his cap figure down. Beason currently has a $9.5 million cap figure and $3.75 million of his $5.25 base salary for this year is guaranteed. Beason also has $12 million in outstanding pro-rated money.

Williams: He has an $8.2 cap figure. He also has $9.6 million in outstanding pro-rated money. They only way the Panthers would benefit from releasing him would be to designate him as a June 1 cut and take a $4.8 million hit for him this year and the same in 2014.

Chris Gamble: It’s sad to say, but the Panthers almost have to cut their best cornerback, because he can provide more cap relief than anyone on the roster. Gamble has a $10.9 million cap figure. The Panthers could free up $7.9 million by releasing him.

Jordan Gross: The Panthers could clear up $6.7 million by releasing him, but I don’t think that’s practical. Do you really want to leave Cam Newton without a left tackle to protect his blind side. Good left tackles usually don’t hit the free-agent market, and the Panthers have too many other needs to use their first draft pick on a left tackle. They can restructure Gross and knock his $11.7 million cap figure down a good bit.

Ron Edwards: The aging and often-injured defensive tackle almost certainly will be gone. The Panthers instantly would clear $2.5 million by releasing him.

Jimmy Clausen: A lot of people assume the third-string quarterback will be gone. But there is no cap space to be gained by releasing Clausen, because his base salary ($575,000) is guaranteed and he still has $322,500 in pro-rated money. Besides, backup Derek Anderson is scheduled to become a free agent. The Panthers aren’t going to have the room to re-sign him. They might as well keep Clausen and bump him up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

Haruki Nakamura: The Panthers signed him as a free agent in 2012, and Nakamaura didn’t really work out. The Panthers could free up $1.8 million by releasing him.

The bottom line here is the Panthers are in a brutal spot. They're not going to be able to do much of anything to improve themselves in free agency. They're going to be subtracting from their roster, and the only viable way to add to it will be through the draft.

Panthers need to make call on Rivera now

December, 28, 2012
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One way or the other, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson already should have made his decision on the future of coach Ron Rivera.

I know there’s a school of thought out there that Richardson first will hire a general manager who then will make a decision on Rivera. But that could put the Panthers at a huge disadvantage.

Although the Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney in October, there have been no indications they’re ready to announce his replacement. It’s likely they want to talk to some people that are currently employed by other teams. They can’t talk to those people until the regular season ends and if the people they want to talk to are employed by playoff teams, the wait is even longer.

Richardson isn’t in a position where he can afford to wait to make the call on Rivera. On Monday, teams will start firing coaches. Speculation is that there could be as many as eight or 10 open jobs around the league.

They’ll get filled quickly. It’s a game of musical chairs and waiting to hire a general manager could leave the Panthers without a seat if Rivera isn’t the coach the new general manager wants.

Rivera has given Richardson at least some of the upswing the owner wanted to see. The Panthers have won their past three games.

Maybe that’s enough for Richardson to decide to give Rivera a third year. Maybe it’s not enough.

Either way, Richardson has to make his call public very soon. If he waits to let the new general manager decide Rivera’s fate and the general manager wants a new coach, the best candidates already will be employed elsewhere.

NFC South wrap: Year of the Falcons

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
12:30
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You could make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is way over his career average.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan has made a case to be the league's MVP.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.

Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.

Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.

The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.

While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.

Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans like Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and some more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.

The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared new coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact on the Buccaneers. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then, they started winning and got to 6-4, the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.

But something has gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder if the team is buying into Schiano’s hardline style. It works for guys like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.

All-Division Team

You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.

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