Some members of the Carolina Panthers’ staff were a little bit behind on NFL draft and free agency preparation because their season went an extra five weeks.
They’ll take that problem every year.
This week, the Panthers made up time at the NFL Scouting Combine. The coaches dug in on prospects. General manager Dave Gettleman and his staff got deeper into talks with player agents as free agency looms March 9.
After talking with team and league sources in Indianapolis, here are 10 things we learned about the Panthers and the draft from the combine.
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Norman destined for franchise tag, but ...
The Panthers began negotiating with Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman in Indy, but it seems highly unlikely the two sides will reach a deal before Tuesday’s franchise tag deadline.
Norman wants big money, along the lines of what Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson received in 2014 (a five-year extension worth an average of $14 million a year). And while the Panthers don’t want to lose Norman, it might take some time for them to get close to his number.
The tag would cost them $13.95 million to keep Norman for one more year, although they might have a disgruntled player on their hands.
Cam Newton will be busy
Cam Newton will have more offseason obligations than ever before, but the Panthers are confident he’ll be able to handle it.
The reigning NFL MVP goes into an offseason with a child for the first time. Newton’s son, Chosen, was born on Christmas Eve, and Ron Rivera has remarked before on how Chosen has refocused Newton.
Newton will also be in California for extended time doing a kids’ show for Nickelodeon. Newton already has a training facility picked out there.
Newton won’t miss any time at offseason workouts, for what it’s worth.
Some of the cuts will be deep
Gettleman and Rivera were asked about defensive end Charles Johnson, and both were careful not to say too much about a player who has been asked to take a pay cut.
Johnson, 30, who’s second on the team’s career sacks list, is set to count $15 million against the salary cap. He’ll have to take a significant cut or be released outright, which would save Carolina $11 million in cap space.
Johnson’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, knows the market, and he knows that the market isn’t set yet at defensive end. Chris Long was a surprise cut by the Rams, and there could be more cuts that would saturate the defensive end market.
The Panthers also seem to like Arthur Miley and Rakim Cox. Miley, who was on injured reserve in 2015, is a classic left defensive end fit for Carolina with his size, athletic ability, strength at the point of attack and run defending.
Panthers will try to wait Weddle out
The Panthers have signed several defensive players under Rivera who played for him or members of his staff, including Charles Tillman and Kurt Coleman last year.
So it makes sense that the Panthers would be interested in signing free agent safety Eric Weddle, who was in San Diego for three seasons with Rivera. Weddle is a good coverage safety with 19 career interceptions who has stayed healthy throughout his nine-year career.
But Gettleman indicated recently he’s not going to pay big money to a free agent. So as good as this fit seems for both parties, Weddle might have better offers elsewhere.
Other positions of interest
The Panthers think this is a deep draft at cornerback, offensive line and defensive line, and Gettleman’s love of hog mollies cannot be ignored.
Depending on what happens with Johnson’s situation, the Panthers could have a need for another edge rusher.
With Cotchery likely gone, the front office will have to find a slot receiver either through free agency or the draft. South Carolina’s do-it-all wideout Pharoh Cooper is a dynamic playmaker who spent a lot of time in the slot in the Gamecocks’ spread offense.
No one in the organization has said much about punter Brad Nortman, who is eligible for free agency. If Nortman is not re-signed, the Panthers will bring in another punter to compete with Swayze Waters, a CFL standout who was recently added to the roster.
O-line depth is still needed
Expect the Panthers to sign or draft an offensive lineman, although it won’t be with an eye on replacing right tackle Mike Remmers. Both Gettleman and Rivera said Remmers will go to camp as the starter despite his rough Super Bowl showing against Von Miller.
But Carolina needs a backup for center Ryan Kalil, preferably a young one the team can groom as Kalil’s eventual successor. Kalil is still playing a Pro Bowl level, but he turns 31 next month.
If second-year tackle Daryl Williams were to beat out Remmers, Remmers could serve as the No. 2 center. But again, the right tackle job is Remmers’ to lose.
It’s unclear which older guys come back
Gettleman and Rivera didn’t offer much clarity on the futures of several older free agents, namely Tillman, Harper, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and fullback Mike Tolbert.
Gettleman typically has let those types of players walk in favor of developing younger players, although the Panthers don’t have a fullback on the roster other than Tolbert.
With big deals on the horizon for Norman and defensive tackle Kawann Short, Gettleman won’t be looking to break the bank on a player such as Tolbert, who’s a versatile back and a popular locker room figure. A deal similar to backup tight end Ed Dickson’s (three years, $6.1 million) would seem to make sense.
Tre Boston is about to get a turn
The Panthers really like what they have in safety Tre Boston – now that he has calmed down.
According to a team source, Boston came into 2015 with a slightly inflated ego. He thought the free safety job was his after he finished 2014 as the starter. Then Kurt Coleman won the job and had a huge season with seven interceptions.
Boston played well in his spot time toward the end of the season, and he has given Carolina confidence that if Roman Harper doesn’t come back, the Panthers will be fine plugging Boston back in as a starter.
Panthers are still in catch-up mode
Gettleman and Panthers coaches were behind on draft prospects heading into this week.
Gettleman missed the Senior Bowl this year, when assistant GM Brandon Beane went in his place. Position coaches were just putting names to what they saw on film as they got into Indianapolis.
One coach said he usually knows about 25 prospects by the time he makes it to Indianapolis but was close to zero this year.
That’s what happens when you go to the Super Bowl. The Panthers will take it.
Carolina’s a nickel short
With Bené Benwikere focusing on the outside corner position, Carolina is in need of a No. 1 nickel.
The Panthers are in nickel more times than not, and there isn’t a nickel on the roster at the moment. And you can’t draft a guy and plug him into nickel in the NFL easily.
Carolina has a few options. The Panthers will want to play linebacker Shaq Thompson more next year after he played about a third of the snaps in 2015. His athleticism, versatility and strength help him as that hybrid player.
The Panthers could find a veteran in free agency in mid-March. They’ll look for someone who knows NFL offenses and receivers well enough to work against slot receivers.
Or they could give Lou Young a shot. Panthers receivers have raved about Young’s practice performance, and Carolina thought enough of Young to bring him off the practice squad late in the season when injuries were mounting.