The preseason chatter about the Carolina Panthers focused on general manager Dave Gettleman’s three big offseason gambles – his overhaul of the receiving corps, the decision to let free safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn leave in free agency, and the $13.1 million franchise tag he placed on defensive end Greg Hardy.
All three moves have loomed large in the Panthers’ 3-5-1 record just past the midway point of the season, as has a fourth Gettleman gamble – his refusal to address the offensive tackle position in the draft or free agency.
During a critical game against New Orleans last week for control in a weak NFC South, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was forced to play David Foucault, an undrafted rookie from Montreal, at left tackle. Foucault allowed three of the four sacks the Panthers allowed in the 28-10 loss, which ran their winless streak to four games.
While the Panthers get a 10-day break before their Nov. 10 game at Philadelphia, the Observer revisits Gettleman’s offseason gambles.
Greg Hardy: A $13.1 million bet
The Panthers’ entire offseason plan centered on tagging Hardy, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he tied Kevin Greene’s team record of 15 sacks during Hardy’s contract year.
Gettleman had no way of knowing Hardy would get arrested on domestic violence charges two months after he signed the franchise tag, although there were signs of erratic behavior during Hardy’s first four seasons in Charlotte.
Despite a district judge finding Hardy guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, the Panthers were prepared to let Hardy play while he awaited a jury trial in November. He started the season-opening win at Tampa Bay, finishing with four tackles and a sack.
But everything changed the following morning with the TMZ video of Ray Rice’s attack on his then-fiancee. Increased public pressure prompted the Panthers to make Hardy inactive for a Week 2 win against Detroit, and on Sept. 17 he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list.
The Panthers’ defense, which is based on generating a pass rush from its front four, has not been the same without Hardy’s edge-rushing presence. The Panthers have fallen from No. 2 in total defense in 2013 to No. 22 this season, and they’re well off their sack pace from last season, when they led the league with a team-record 60.
“It affects a lot because of who he is,” said Rivera, noting the Panthers also have used Hardy as defensive tackle and a stand-up linebacker in certain situations. “But we don’t have him. You go through OTAs, minicamp and training camp and you work all these things, and then all of a sudden you’re put in a certain situation. So that’s been hard, but that’s not the reason (for the defensive struggles).”
It might not be the only reason for the defensive letdowns, but it’s been the main one. Besides his pass-rushing prowess, Hardy brings an energy and enthusiasm to the defense that has been lacking at times.
Rivera believes Hardy should be reinstated if his trial is postponed until after the season, as a source close to the player said last week.
But such a scenario seems unlikely, and many around the organization believe Hardy has played his last game as a Panther.
If that’s the case, Hardy will have made $13.1 million this season for one sack.
Defensive backs: No-name no more
The Panthers’ lost four of the top five members of their so-called “No Name Secondary” from 2013, including the free agent departures of Mitchell and Munnerlyn. Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal with Pittsburgh, is the Steelers’ fourth-leading tackler and has two forced fumbles.
Munnerlyn, who received a three-year, $14.25 million deal from Minnesota, has 35 tackles and an interception.
The Panthers’ three free agent additions in the secondary have been a mixed bag.
Strong safety Roman Harper has a team-leading three interceptions but is the 76th-ranked safety out of 83 in pass coverage in Pro Football Focus’ ratings. Free safety Thomas DeCoud is ranked fifth in coverage, but he and Harper both have negative grades overall.
Antoine Cason is PFF’s lowest-ranked cornerback in coverage and is tied for the third-worst overall among 107 corners.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has said repeatedly the defensive backs aren’t contesting enough passes, although some of that can be attributed to quarterbacks having more time to throw against Carolina, which ranks 18th in pass defense.
Cason was benched during the Saints’ loss after Drew Brees targeted him several times late in the first half, eventually drawing a 32-yard pass interference penalty against Cason that set up the Saints’ second touchdown.
But Rivera would not commit to starting second-year corner Melvin White, who was benched earlier this season after a poor performance at Baltimore against former Panthers wideout Steve Smith.
It isn’t only the newcomers who have struggled. The Panthers tried to turn safety Charles Godfrey into a nickel corner, an experiment that ended with Godfrey’s release Oct. 21 when he couldn’t make the transition coming off Achilles surgery.
Rookie Bené Benwikere has played well at nickel. But Benwikere has missed the past four games with a high ankle sprain, forcing McDermott to use a total of four players at nickel.
“We’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some things going on there that aren’t excuses, but that’s kind of been a challenge for us,” McDermott said.
Third-year corner Josh Norman has been the most consistent performer in the secondary. Norman has always had the physical skills, but now he’s playing his physical, aggressive style while staying within the scheme.
Wide receivers: New kids in town
When the Panthers jettisoned Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader, and chose not to bring back their other top three wideouts from 2013, Rivera said they needed to find a way to replace the group’s 9.75 receptions per game.
Thanks mainly to the emergence of rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the receivers have surpassed Rivera’s goal, averaging 12 catches a game.
The 6-foot-5 Benjamin, the 28th overall pick from Florida State, at times has been spectacular, using his big catching radius to pull down balls over smaller defensive backs. Other times he’s shown a lack of focus, both on the field (dropping passes in the end zone the past two games) and off (showing up late to a meeting before the Seattle game).
Benjamin has six drops in nine games, according to PFF. But he’s already the Panthers’ top receiver and a candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
What’s missing from this group is a deep threat to replace Ted Ginn Jr.
The Panthers have two catches of 40 yards or longer – Benjamin’s 51-yarder against Seattle and Cotchery’s 47-yard reception against New Orleans. Only two teams have fewer – Miami and Kansas City.
Rivera seemed to damn with faint praise when asked about the receiving corps, saying the group has been “more than adequate.”
“I do think unfortunately we’ve had some inopportune drops, some drops at the wrong moment,” Rivera said. “And I think we’ve had the ball delivered high a couple times.”
Gettleman declined to be interviewed, keeping with his policy of not speaking to the media during the season.
And while Rivera said the Panthers remain very much alive in a division in which no team has a winning record, the coach known as “Riverboat Ron” said the first half of the season has not gone as planned.
“It’s been a long nine weeks, to be honest. We had some good moments early on in the season. I thought we picked up right where we left off. And then things got crazy for a little bit,” Rivera said.
“I think we’ve had our opportunities to bounce back, and we did for a while. And now we’re in a lull. We’re in a figure-it-out situation.”
They have seven games to do so.