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.
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• 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:
Hakeem Nicks, Giants: Gettleman likes signing players he knows from his time with the Giants. Linebacker Chase Blackburn and wideout Domenik Hixon were nice additions last year, but didn’t command the type of contract Nicks will. The Panthers can’t count on Nicks, the former Independence and North Carolina standout, to give them a hometown discount. Gettleman will have to get creative with some more restructurings to create cap space for Nicks.
Sidney Rice, Seahawks: The former South Carolina standout is 6-foot-4 and would be a big target for Newton, who still has a tendency to overshoot his receivers. Rice’s injury history could scare off some teams. And the Gaffney, S.C., native might be willing to take a short-term deal to prove he can still play after a sub-par, injury-plagued season in Seattle.
James Jones, Packers: More of a No. 2 receiver, Jones does not expect Green Bay to re-sign him. The 6-1, 208-pound isn’t as big as Rice, but he has good size, decent speed and is a dependable receiver. Jones led the league with 14 touchdown catches in 2012, and put up efficient numbers – 59 receptions for 817 yards and three touchdowns – last season. It also helps that he’s represented by Frank Bauer, Ron Rivera’s agent.
Jacoby Jones, Ravens: Jones visited the Panthers two years ago before signing with Baltimore, where he had a big hand in the Ravens’ Super Bowl win his first season. With his elite speed and return abilities, Jones would be an ideal replacement if the Panthers can’t re-sign Ginn.
Anthony Collins, Bengals: Career backup blossomed after replacing Andrew Whitworth at left tackle for the Bengals last season. Collins, 6-6 and 308 pounds, did not allow a sack in seven starts. The Bengals want to re-sign Collins, but not at an exorbitant price.
Zach Strief, Saints: Strief, 30, is a so-so run blocker who is best known for his pass-blocking skills. He wants to stay with the Saints, but their salary cap situation might make it tough for them to re-sign him. Strief’s knowledge of the NFC South, especially the Saints, could be invaluable.
Eric Winston, Cardinals: Like Strief, Winston is 30 and plays exclusively right tackle. Winston struggled in his first season with the Cardinals, allowing seven sacks and 43 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. But Winston played better as the season went on, and could help fill void the leadership void left by Gross’ retirement.
Walter Thurmond, Seahawks: Thurmond’s four-game suspension last season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy could hurt his value. Thurmond, 5-11 and 186 pounds, is a nickel back who played corner when Brandon Browner was out with a hamstring injury. Thurmond isn’t as physical as Browner or Richard Sherman, but he looks like he’s ready to become a starter.
Charles Tillman, Bears: The longtime Bears corner is 33, the same age cornerback Drayton Florence and strong safety Quintin Mikell were last season when they started for the Panthers on one-year deals. Rivera was the Bears’ defensive coordinator during Tillman’s early years as a starter. Signing Tillman would be a short-term fix, an approach the Panthers used successfully in the secondary last year.
Aaron Ross, Giants: Ross, the Giants’ first-round pick in 2007, played only four games last season after returning to New York following a one-year stint in Jacksonville. Ross, who will turn 32 in September, thought he could have returned from a back injury last year but the Giants had put him on season-ending injured reserve. Like Tillman, Ross would give the Panthers a proven veteran on a one-year rental.