Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman’s to-do list on the eve of free agency reads like this:
• Find playmakers for quarterback Cam Newton.
• Replace the guy responsible for protecting Newton’s blind side.
• Replace, potentially, Newton’s favorite target from his first three seasons.
• Sign two starting cornerbacks.
• Do all of the above with limited cap space.
While Gettleman’s comments about Steve Smith from the scouting combine have dominated the offseason talk about the Panthers, Gettleman said something else in Indianapolis that was equally telling.
“Our free agency is going to be just like last year’s,” Gettleman said. “We’re going to look at guys that we feel have been overlooked that can help us.”
Gettleman signed mostly mid-tier free agents last year, the majority of whom agreed to one-year deals for not a lot of money. Several panned out, including two – free safety Mike Mitchell and Ted Ginn Jr. – who may have played their way out of the Panthers’ budget.
The Panthers were in decent shape relative to the salary cap before putting the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy for $13.1 million. Bringing back Hardy for at least a year was the right move, but it doesn’t leave Gettleman with a lot of cap room as he seeks successors for retired left tackle Jordan Gross and Smith, and re-stocks the secondary.
Given their cap positioning – about $7 million under – the Panthers won’t be able to afford long-term replacements for Gross and Smith in free agency. But Gettleman proved last year he can spot undervalued players who can help a team win.
The Observer looks at potential free agent targets at the Panthers’ three biggest areas of need: