Carolina Panthers

Panthers face questions as free agency closes in

Receiver Lance Moore has spent most of his career with the New Orleans Saints. He played last season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who released him this month. Moore could provide a speedy complement to the Carolina Panthers’ Kelvin Benjamin, but he’s not a clear upgrade over veteran Jerricho Cotchery.
Receiver Lance Moore has spent most of his career with the New Orleans Saints. He played last season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who released him this month. Moore could provide a speedy complement to the Carolina Panthers’ Kelvin Benjamin, but he’s not a clear upgrade over veteran Jerricho Cotchery. GETTY FILE PHOTO

Since general manager Dave Gettleman said in January the Carolina Panthers would be moving up from the dollar store this offseason, fans and media members have fumbled with department store analogies and tried to figure out how much Gettleman will charge to Jerry Richardson’s credit card.

Agents for the Panthers’ free agents, and those representing players the Panthers are interested in, are curious too.

Everyone will have a better idea by the middle of this week.

With free agency beginning at 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Panthers again are looking to give quarterback Cam Newton better protection and more weapons.

They took the first step Friday by signing former Baltimore and Tennessee left tackle Michael Oher to a two-year deal. Oher, of “Blind Side” fame, will try to solidify a position that Byron Bell failed to lock down last season.

With a weak free agent market at tackle, Gettleman might be inclined to wait for the draft to add another one. But he should dip into a deep group of wideouts to find a speed receiver to complement Kelvin Benjamin.

The Observer examines the questions facing the Panthers at the start of free agency:

Will the Panthers have a signing to announce late Tuesday afternoon?

Not if Gettleman’s first two years are any indication.

Gettleman signed cornerback Drayton Florence on the second day of free agency in 2013, but the bulk of his work has come during the second wave of free agency.

He added Ted Ginn, Mike Mitchell and D.J. Moore during the second week two years ago, and signed defensive backs Roman Harper and Antoine Cason and receivers Tiquan Underwood and Jerricho Cotchery during the second week in 2014.

Gettleman got a jump on things this year with the pick-up of Oher, available after the Titans cut him in February.

How much do the Panthers have to spend under the salary cap?

After being saddled by cap constraints his first two years, Gettleman has a little more wiggle room this year. The Panthers are $13 million under the $143.3 million cap, according to the NFLPA database.

They would gain another $2 million if they designate running back DeAngelo Williams as a post-June 1 cut. And a third contract restructuring in as many years could be coming for defensive end Charles Johnson, who has a $20 million cap figure.

So will they use all of that?

No. Gettleman and Panthers cap specialist Rob Rogers like to keep a $7 million reserve for injury replacements and possible contract extensions.

With Greg Olsen done, who’s next up for an extension?

Thomas Davis should be. The veteran linebacker and NFL’s Man of the Year is entering the final year of his contract. Davis turns 32 this month, but still moves well and is playing at a high level following three ACL surgeries.

But the big contract on the horizon remains quarterback Cam Newton’s. His representatives met with the Panthers at the combine, but Newton seems content to wait for Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson to sign their deals and reset the market for quarterbacks.

Will Gettleman get Newton another receiver?

He has to after last year’s makeover of the receiving corps was only partly successful.

Benjamin is a transcendent talent who was a red-zone beast as a rookie. But the losses to Seattle revealed a lack of speed, as the receivers simply couldn’t get open.

So which wideouts do the Panthers go after?

Scratch Percy Harvin off the list, given Gettleman’s distaste for locker room cancers.

Dwayne Bowe and Andre Johnson are big-bodied receivers more in the style of Benjamin. Lance Moore is intriguing because of his NFC South background, although he’s not a clear upgrade over Cotchery.

The guy the Panthers keep coming back to is Ginn, who would slot immediately into the No. 3 receiver spot and both return roles. Carolina has competition for Ginn, but unlike last year they have money to spend.

Which of their own free agents will the Panthers keep?

They’d like to bring back No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson, who emerged as a dependable complement to Olsen late last season after playing fullback for two months because of Mike Tolbert’s injury. But Dickson is expected to draw interest from a number of teams, and might price himself out of the Panthers’ plans.

It seems counterintuitive the Panthers would re-sign both veteran defensive tackles. But Ron Rivera likes to employ a rotation up front to keep everyone fresh.

Colin Cole re-signed last week for one year at the veteran minimum. Dwan Edwards has been more productive than Cole and will command more money, but expect the Panthers to get a deal done.

Linebacker Chase Blackburn likely won’t be back, but No. 3 QB/reserve WR/special teams contributor Joe Webb might be.

And despite his injury history, re-signing offensive lineman Garry Williams could be worthwhile given his ability to play multiple positions.

We’re 800 words into this without a mention of Greg Hardy?

What’s left to say? Richardson decided months ago he was moving on from Hardy, regardless of how his domestic violence case played out.

The league will rule on Hardy, possibly as early as Monday, and he’ll sign with a team that needs a pass rusher even if it doesn’t have him the whole season.

And the Panthers will count on Kony Ealy to continue to develop. Or Gettleman will draft another edge rusher. Or both.

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