Bank of America Stadium is under renovation, and from our newspaper parking lot the past few days you could see workers clambering around on top of the Carolina Panthers’ scoreboard and cranes jutting toward the sky.
The Panthers’ team is under renovation, too. As the deepest wounds from the 23-10 playoff loss to San Francisco are now mostly cauterized, I am asked more and more by Carolina fans to look forward, not back.
So here are five things I would do in the next few months if I were Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman. I have publicly advocated extending the contract of head coach Ron Rivera already, so this column focuses on what the Panthers should do on the playing field in moves that would affect the team’s salary cap.
1. Find a big-time wide receiver. Can you imagine what Cam Newton would be like if he had a player like Calvin Johnson or a younger version of Steve Smith on the other side? Many of the Panthers’ passing-game problems would evaporate. I don’t want Smith to go anywhere, but there has to be another reliable option on this team, and it’s not Brandon LaFell. The Panthers’ No. 28 overall pick should be used either on a wide receiver or an offensive lineman.
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I would like to see the Panthers re-sign Ted Ginn Jr. as the punt returner and the third receiver, but he is not enough. Charlottean Hakeem Nicks, a free agent, will and should be strongly considered by Carolina in the free-agency market. But the draft class for wide receivers is stronger than the free-agency class. And you can’t break the bank for Nicks, who has been hurt a lot and didn’t score a touchdown in 2013.
But the Panthers scored only 10 points against San Francisco in both meetings this past season, and that’s simply not enough.
In the 10 playoff games so far this postseason, every single one has been won by a team scoring at least 23 points. Scoring has to be the Panthers’ No.1 offseason priority, and one more superb receiver would be a quick way to move toward that goal.
2. Improve the offensive line. Left tackle Jordan Gross remains on the fence about returning to the team. I think Gross will eventually say, “Yes, I’ll come back,” but either way, the Panthers must replace that position before long. They also could use an upgrade at right tackle and more depth at guard, where their youngsters have been injury-prone.
You know those three running backs that the Panthers have plowed so much money into? You just can’t let those guys get hit 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage on every other down. You can’t have the sort of red-zone issues Carolina had against the 49ers. If I were Gettleman, I’d try for “hog molly” offensive linemen twice in the first three rounds of the May 8-10 NFL draft.
3. Figure out how to keep Greg Hardy. Because of salary cap issues, this is the hardest thing to do on this list. If you don’t do it – and the Panthers might not – the other four become much easier to handle. But Hardy is too good of a defensive end to simply let walk away. You can’t release the Kraken. I think the franchise tag might be the likeliest bet once the team clear more cap room by releasing some veterans.
4. Upgrade the defensive secondary. Re-signing safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to medium-sized contracts would be a good start. What the Panthers wouldn’t give for a shutdown corner, though – a Richard Sherman without the trash talk. This is another position that needs to be addressed in the draft.
5. Extend quarterback Cam Newton’s contract. One way or the other, this must happen. The Panthers still have Newton under contract through the 2014 season, but the two players they most can’t afford to lose in the next few years are Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Newton’s contract comes up first, and Carolina has gotten him at a relative bargain price for his first three years because he was the first No.1 overall pick on the new rookie wage scale. It’s time to pay up.