Less than six weeks before the May 8-10 draft, the Observer looks at the Panthers’ areas of strength and the positions they need to address.
Five Positions of Strength
But the move was further proof that Gettleman is not going to stray from the Giants’ defensive philosophy of starting with a strong pass rush. With the exception of DT Colin Cole, an unrestricted free agent who remains unsigned, the Panthers’ front seven from last season is intact.
Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were among the best linebacking tandems in the NFL last season, and veteran Chase Blackburn and promising second-year player A.J. Klein compete at the third spot.
Fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton took a step forward last season in recognition of coverages and his route progressions. Center Ryan Kalil came back from foot surgery to make his third Pro Bowl, and the well-compensated running back committee was deep enough to overcome Jonathan Stewart’s injury issues.
Newton, who is taking classes at Auburn, will miss all of the organized team activities this spring while he recovers from March 19 surgery on his left ankle.
Newton will have time at training camp to develop a rhythm with Cotchery, Underwood and the team’s young receivers. The bigger concern is protecting the franchise quarterback from further punishment and injury.
It was the first time since 1997 a Panthers’ wideout did not lead the team in receiving.
Behind Olsen, the Panthers have a raw receiving project in Brandon Williams and a couple of blocking specialists in Richie Brockel and newly acquired Mike McNeill. Ben Hartsock, another blocking tight end, is an unrestricted free agent.
Third-year punter Brad Nortman also is coming off a big season. Nortman set franchise records with a 41.6-yard net average and a 47.8-yard gross average, which ranked fourth in the league.
Five Positions of Need
The Panthers could be content to wait until the May draft to find Smith’s successor. Draft experts believe there will be impact receivers available when the Panthers pick 28th.
When asked whether Cotchery was signed to be a No. 1 receiver, Rivera said he was signed to help develop the team’s young wideouts. Gettleman is hoping Marvin McNutt or Tavarres King turns into the next Victor Cruz.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Cotchery is a versatile receiver who can play anywhere he’s needed. And while Underwood looks to be an ascending player, his seven starts last season in Tampa Bay were more than twice his total (three) from his first four years combined.
The Panthers showed last season they want to be a run-first team under coordinator Mike Shula. But if Cotchery gets hurt and Underwood/McNutt/King don’t pan out, then what?
Clearly, the Panthers need more at the position. If free agent Sidney Rice tires of waiting and drops his price, the Panthers should grab him.
Gettleman and Rivera made it clear at the owners meetings Bell will be given every opportunity to win the job protecting Newton’s blind side.
The 330-pound Bell has shown he has the size and strength to be a successful run-blocker. But his footwork has to improve if he is going to hold up as a pass-blocker.
With Gross retired, right guard Nate Chandler is the team’s most athletic offensive lineman. The former defensive tackle successfully moved to guard last season, and now could be shifting to tackle. He could be an option on the left side.
Given their cap restraints and their commitment to Hardy, the Panthers never were going to be in the market for a high-priced corner. But they thought – wrongly – they could re-sign Munnerlyn.
Instead, they signed former San Diego and Arizona CB Antoine Cason to the veteran minimum. Cason couldn’t win a starting job with the Cardinals, and looks to have lost a step. But Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks coached Cason in San Diego, and believe he can help.
Melvin White started 10 games as an undrafted rookie last year, and held his own most games. Like Cason, White also lacks top-end speed.
This is likely Josh Norman’s last chance to prove he can be more than a practice star.
If Godfrey, who has a $7.1 million cap figure, is cut or comes back less than 100 percent, the Panthers will be left with essentially two strong safeties in Harper and Robert Lester. Lester, undrafted out of Alabama, played well in spots last season, but his coverage/communication breakdown in the playoff loss to San Francisco was critical.