Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers coach, GM hint at offseason priorities

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who is expected to earn his degree from Auburn this spring, also has told coach Ron Rivera he’s as healthy as he has been in a long time.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who is expected to earn his degree from Auburn this spring, also has told coach Ron Rivera he’s as healthy as he has been in a long time. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

In keeping with his policy, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman wouldn’t talk specifically about contract issues Thursday when he met with the media at the NFL scouting combine.

But as he did last year at the combine, when he talked about Steve Smith having had a great career a couple of weeks before cutting him, Gettleman provided some clues to how the Panthers might handle several key offseason decisions.

Five takeaways from the comments of Gettleman and Panthers coach Ron Rivera on Thursday:

1. The writing is on the wall for Greg Hardy.

Both Rivera and Gettleman declined to comment specifically about Hardy, the embattled defensive end who remains on the exempt list while the league investigates his domestic violence case.

But it was telling that Gettleman said he hasn’t spoken with Hardy since mid-September when he went on the exempt list, and has had only minimal contact with Drew Rosenhaus, Hardy’s agent.

And when discussing drafting players with character issues, Gettleman said: “Who wants a ticking time bomb?”

The Observer has reported for months Hardy is unlikely to remain in Charlotte, and Gettleman’s remarks did nothing to change that thinking.

2. DeAngelo Williams’ future in Carolina also murky.

There has been speculation the Panthers might cut Williams, who is coming off an injury-plagued season and turns 32 in April. The Panthers could save $2 million against the salary cap by designating Williams as a post-June 1 cut.

Williams’ situation seems to be different from Smith’s last year. For starters, Gettleman and Rivera recently sat down with Williams, and Rivera called it a good meeting.

The only time Gettleman met with Smith last year was when he told him he was cutting him.

Gettleman praised Williams’ professionalism Thursday, but pointed out the challenges an aging running back faces.

“He broke his hand against Minnesota (in Week 13). That’s hard, especially when you’re 32. A 32-year-old running back in the NFL. It was extremely difficult,” Gettleman said.

“But he finished the season like a pro’s pro, and like a man. And I really respect DeAngelo for the way he finished it. We had our conversation and we’ll probably continue, and that’s where I’m going to leave it.”

3. The Panthers will explore all options at left tackle.

Neither Gettleman nor Rivera ruled out bringing Byron Bell back, although Gettleman said this year’s tackle class is deeper than last year’s top-heavy group.

Rivera said the Panthers would look at tackles in free agency and the draft – as well as Bell – as part of their evaluation process.

Bell, who will be an unrestricted free agent next month, was the second-lowest rated offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus in 2014 in his first season on the left side.

“There’s a lot of things that are going to play into this as to the other guys that are out there in free agency, the guys that are in the draft, and obviously Byron himself,” Rivera said. “He did some good things for us down the stretch, and these are all things that we’re looking at and considering.”

4. Cam Newton is feeling good.

The Panthers’ franchise quarterback is expected to finish his degree at Auburn this semester. He was in Charlotte recently and told Rivera he’s as healthy as he’s been in a long time.

Gettleman wouldn’t say where things stand in contract talks with Newton, but said – again – Newton is the team’s long-term quarterback.

Newton and his representatives could be waiting for Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck to re-set the market for quarterbacks.

5. The team still feels the need for speed.

Watching the tape of the playoff loss to Seattle only reinforced Rivera’s belief the Panthers need to get faster – and not just at the skill positions.

The Panthers’ injection of youth and speed late in the season helped spur the December run into the playoffs. But Rivera said there are other areas where the Panthers can get faster.

Given the first item on this list, expect the Panthers’ scouts and coaches to keep a close eye on the edge rushers at the combine this week.

After mentioning the depth at tackle, receiver and running back in this draft, Gettleman said: “And there’s a real interesting crop of defensive linemen, which you know doesn’t upset me.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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