It was this time a year ago when general manager Dave Gettleman first left his mark on the Panthers.
After holing up in his office and watching film for most of his first two months on the job, Gettleman made a series of personnel moves last March to shape a Panthers team that ended the franchise’s four-year playoff drought last fall.
Now Gettleman, a long-time scout and personnel man before the Panthers gave him his first GM job at 61, is in the process of trying to do it again.
Much like last offseason, Gettleman is trying to patch together a secondary and plug holes along the line (the defensive front last year, the offensive line this year) and at wide receiver.
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The difference this year is he also has to replace two of the best players in team history – Steve Smith, the franchise’s receiving leader, and left tackle Jordan Gross, who went to his third Pro Bowl in his 11th season before retiring in February.
Gross indicated to the Observer in Hawaii he had planned to play another season before Gettleman asked him to restructure his contract and take a pay cut last year.
But it was Gettleman’s decision to cut the popular Smith that shook the team’s fan base and made Gettleman the object of national criticism when three other receivers left via free agency.
Gettleman’s reaction to the piñata-like beating he took publicly?
“What was I thinking? I was thinking we were doing the right thing,” Gettleman said this past week at the league meetings in Orlando. “We had a plan. We had a philosophy. We made a decision and we were going to stick with it.”
His plan last year worked, largely because of his signings of backup players looking for an opportunity.
Receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a former first-round pick, was coming off two terrible seasons in San Francisco.
Safety Mike Mitchell had been a backup for four years in Oakland.
Cornerback Drayton Florence was a proven veteran, but he was 32 and returning from an injury-plagued season in Detroit.
Diminutive corner Captain Munnerlyn re-signed with the Panthers when he couldn’t find any better offers.
None of those transactions prompted a spike of PSL sales or a run at the ticket office. But each paid dividends.
Ginn gave the Panthers a deep threat to complement Steve Smith. Mitchell, Munnerlyn and Florence were mainstays in the so-called Legion of Whom secondary.
Ginn, Mitchell and Munnerlyn outperformed their one-year, team-friendly deals and parlayed their success into long-term contracts with other teams this offseason.
Gettleman’s plan for this season?
He has not elaborated on that yet. But the Panthers’ activity during the second wave of free agency provided clues to their thinking.
Having committed $13.1 million to defensive end Greg Hardy (and a total of $29.5 million in salary cap space to the defensive end position), the Panthers are hoping a strong pass rush and dominant front seven will allow to them to assemble a patchwork secondary.
Former New Orleans safety Roman Harper essentially assumes the role of Mitchell, albeit an older, grayer version who will play closer to the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Antoine Cason steps in for Florence on a “show me” contract after failing to win a starting job during his lone season in Arizona.
Offensively, the Panthers are hoping newly acquired receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood can replace the production of Brandon LaFell and Ginn.
But the Panthers are still without successors for Smith and Gross, although Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera expressed confidence last week in Byron Bell shifting from the right side to take over for Gross.
No unbiased observer could look at the current roster and suggest the Panthers are better off than they were at this point a year ago. But with a draft deep at the Panthers’ two biggest positions of need – offensive tackle and receiver – Rivera is hopeful.
“I think we are headed in the direction of being a better team. There are some things that we have to do,” Rivera said. “In talking with Dave, we still have time in free agency, time in the draft coming up. And we have some guys on the roster that we are hoping will take the next step and develop.”