While the start of Greg Hardy’s jury trial on domestic violence charges figures to dominate the local headlines and newscasts this week, the Carolina Panthers have other business to address, beginning with final preparations for next week’s NFL scouting combine.
Last year in Indianapolis, general manager Dave Gettleman offered the first hints veteran wide receiver Steve Smith’s future with the team was no guarantee. Less than a month later, Smith was a Baltimore Raven.
Gettleman, who was criticized for his handling of the Smith situation, was more diplomatic last month when asked about DeAngelo Williams, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. Williams’ injury-plagued 2014 season and his expiring contract (after the 2015 season) have prompted speculation the back could be a salary-cap casualty.
Gettleman told reporters he wanted to speak with Williams, 31, before commenting publicly about his status.
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While the Panthers’ scouts and coaches huddle with Gettleman about their combine objectives, head coach Ron Rivera has made several changes to his staff.
In addition to promoting Bruce DeHaven to special teams coordinator and shifting former special teams coach Richard Rodgers to defense, Rivera has hired Cameron Turner as the assistant receivers coach, a source close to Turner said Sunday.
Turner spent the past two seasons at Florida International working for his father, Ron Turner, the former Illinois coach and NFL assistant. Cameron Turner, who played at The Citadel, is the nephew of Vikings offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Norv Turner.
He will assist Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl.
The Panthers’ contingent in Indianapolis will spend time evaluating what Gettleman believes is a deep pool of offensive tackles.
Left tackle Bryon Bell, an unrestricted free agent, was rated the NFL’s worst pass-blocking tackle last season by the analytics site Pro Football Focus. Gettleman offered a lukewarm endorsement of Bell during his press conference last month after the season ended.
“Byron showed flashes. It’s about consistency. I give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, it was his first year playing there,” Gettleman said in January. “But I think we’ve shown if a player shows up that we think is going to make us better, we’re going to go get him.”
Gettleman also views wide receiver and defensive end as two other deep positions in this year’s draft, which will be held April 30-May 2 in Chicago.
The Panthers drafted four players last year who started at least five games as rookies – wideout Kelvin Benjamin (first round), guard Trai Turner (third), safety Tre Boston (fourth) and cornerback Bené Benwikere (fifth).
Defensive end Kony Ealy, the second-round pick from Missouri, is the only remaining member of the Panthers’ 2014 draft class who did not start a game. But Ealy improved as a situational pass-rusher late in the season, recording a sack in each of the last three regular-season games.
Ealy’s continued development will be critical with the Panthers expected to cut ties with Hardy, an unrestricted free agent who made $13.1 million last season despite playing only one game.
Hardy’s trial is expected to last no more than two weeks, so his status – and any possible punishment from the league – should be known well before the start of free agency on March 10.
Gettleman has said the Panthers would have more money available this year after salary cap constraints limited their free agency spending each of the past two offseasons.
A salary cap expert recently told the Observer he expects the Panthers to be about $14 million below a projected $142 million cap. That estimate that includes a $14.7 million cap charge for quarterback Cam Newton on the club’s fifth-year option.
Getting a long-term deal done with Newton is another offseason priority for the Panthers. But Newton likely will let Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson reset the market before doing a deal with Carolina.
The Seahawks reportedly are ready to make Wilson the league’s highest-paid player after the former college standout led Seattle to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.