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Carolina Panthers happy enough with a few extra nickels in free agency

Joseph Person
Joseph Person covers the Carolina Panthers and the NFL for the Charlotte Observer. You can reach him by email.

During his pre-draft press conference Thursday, new Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman started talking about free agency.

“When free agency starts, we don’t have a nickel,” Gettleman said. “Now we have three.”

Several reporters in the room laughed, thinking Gettleman was talking about the unenviable salary cap situation Gettleman inherited from Marty Hurney.

But that wasn’t the reference.

Gettleman was talking about, you know, actual nickel backs.

They had none. Now they have three after re-signing Captain Munnerlyn and bringing in D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence, a veteran cornerback who could play nickel in a pinch.

But the nickel(s) reference applies to the Panthers’ cap situation, as well. They were $16 million over the cap when Gettleman was hired in January; now they are $5.3 million below it.

The Panthers jettisoned three defensive starters, restructured a few contracts and asked safety Haruki Nakamura and left tackle Jordan Gross to take pay cuts to get beneath the cap.

Even doing so, the Panthers were not in a position to be major players in free agency.

So Gettleman acquired several complementary pieces. He wound up with a dynamic returner in Ted Ginn, a potential starter in safety Mike Mitchell, two ex-Giants he was familiar with in receiver Domenik Hixon and linebacker Chase Blackburn, and, somehow, three nickels.

“None of those three are throwaways. They are talented people,” Gettleman said. “Drayton Florence can play inside if we need him to. Captain, you guys are well aware of his qualifications. And D.J. Moore, 10 picks in three years (with Chicago) with not as much playing time, that ain’t too shabby. We’re looking for great players, but a lot of times they’re there in raw form.”

It will be up to Ron Rivera and his staff to apply the spit and polish.

Gettleman said Florence was signed to compete for a starting spot. But the 32-year-old also will be asked to serve as a sounding board and sage counsel for young corners Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and James Dockery.

Moore and Munnerlyn play the same position and have similar attributes – small in stature but big in play-making ability. Munnerlyn tied a team record last season by returning two interceptions for touchdowns, while Moore returned three picks for scores over the past three seasons, including one against Cam Newton in 2011.

Mitchell is this year’s Nakamura – a career backup getting his first chance to start.

No need to rehash how that first attempt turned out.

Gettleman, who spent 15 years with the Giants, called Hixon and Blackburn “pros that have been there, know how to prepare and have jewelry,” in the form of the two Super Bowl rings each won in New York.

Two players who should play huge roles are Ginn and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, whose six sacks last season matched the second most by a defensive tackle in Panthers history.

Ginn, with six career returns for touchdowns, immediately makes the return teams better. Meanwhile, Edwards’ interior penetration in 2012 forced quarterbacks out of the pocket and into the rush of defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks.

Edwards was the only free agent who signed for more than one year. And while the short contracts helped as far as future caps, they could hurt locker room chemistry as new players file through each year.

But with a flat cap tamping down salaries, players like Mitchell and Moore wanted the 1-year deals so they could take their chances that next year’s free agent market will be more bullish for players.

Three Extra Points

• Gettleman said Norman has come back from his 2012 benching “a different kid.” Norman is a talented player who, like many corners, does not lack for confidence. But Norman, a fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina, needs to be more disciplined and do less freelancing to be a top-tier corner, which he is capable of becoming.

• When he was hired as the Panthers’ secondary coach last year, Charlotte native Steve Wilks wanted to do something to give back to his hometown. The result is the Steve Wilks Elite Defensive Backs Academy.

The two-day camps for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors will be held in June at Mallard Creek High and a Greensboro facility owned by Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl. Several current and former players and coaches will assist Wilks, including Munnerlyn, Norman and Panthers safety Charles Godfrey.

Wilks, who graduated from West Charlotte, said some of the proceeds will go to a CMS college scholarship fund.

• Ginn recently returned from a series of mission trips in Uganda, where he teamed with several other NFL players to distribute free hearing aids to more than 4,000 people.

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