As I’ve written in 15 of my past 17 columns, the Carolina Panthers made a mistake when they cut Steve Smith.
Aside from Smith, however, I have no qualms with what the Panthers are doing or, more accurately, aren’t.
We all have faults. One of mine is that I’m terrible at panic.
General manager Dave Gettleman is as stubborn this March as he was in March of 2013. The rest of the NFL shops at Nordstrom. Gettleman takes public transportation to Dollar General.
Last season was Gettleman’s first with the Panthers and first as a GM, and nobody can fault his work.
He re-signed quarterback Derek Anderson the second day of free-agency, re-signed tight end Ben Hartsock the sixth day, signed safety Mike Mitchell the ninth day, re-signed cornerback Captain Munnerlyn the 10th day, signed receiver Ted Ginn Jr. the 11th day and signed linebacker Chase Blackburn the 18th day.
Thursday is day nine of 2014 free agency.
If free-agency were a card game, Gettleman would be sitting at the table, probably not wearing sunglasses, the same small pile of chips in front of him with which he started. He’s waiting for his time even though several of his competitors already have cashed in and gone home.
The NFL salary cap jumped from $123 million in 2013 to $133 million in 2014. I’m not sure anybody anticipated a $10 million boost. Five million was more likely.
That boost enabled other teams to fling money around. They signed Mitchell and Munnerlyn to lucrative contracts the Panthers couldn’t, and wouldn’t, match.
Although Munnerlyn is going to enhance whatever team he lines up for and whatever locker room he belongs, a greater loss is Ginn, who signed with Arizona. Nobody from the Panthers will say it – nobody will say anything – but among the free agents, his absence will hurt most.
If the Nordstrom analogy and the poker analogy don’t work for you, here’s one more. Envision a credit card. You pay it down, pay it down and suddenly you get an unexpected bonus. Do you pay the card down further, or do you spend?
The Panthers have chosen the former. They’ve fought the salary cap for years. Their philosophy now is to shake the salary cap blues.
They’re going to need money. They’re going to pay Cam Newton. They’re going to pay linebacker Luke Kuechly. They are likely to pay the defensive tackles they took in the first (Star Lotulelei) and second (Kawaan Short) rounds of the 2013 draft.
If they make the 2014 playoff run they anticipate, they’re going to need money to stay fluid, to replace injured and ineffective players. They added six free agents in 2013 after the season began.
The three positions considered weakest going into training camp last season remain the weakest – wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back.
Yet last season Gettleman found bargains at each, enabling coach Ron Rivera to assemble a lineup that won 12 games.
They won’t win 12 with the receivers presently on the roster. Carolina’s veteran pass-catchers shipped out, or were shipped out. Staying behind are Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, who signed as free agents last season. The Panthers worked McNutt and King in practice and believe they’ll contribute.
They’re not famous. Whether they can play we’ll learn, as will their employers, soon enough.
So, let’s say McNutt, 24, and King, 23, join the rotation, and the Panthers choose, say, Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round of the draft.
Does Rivera send young receivers onto the field without a veteran to guide them? Does Gettleman eventually pick up a receiver who is cut by another team? He might. He might have to.
Are there veteran free-agent receivers who can play?
There are good character receivers. There’s also Kenny Britt, 25, who has almost as many arrests as he does touchdowns. But he’s an intriguing talent. You’ve seen New England regularly take troubled players and scare them straight. A strong locker room can do that.
The Panthers’ locker room is strong.
And plenty of lockers are available.