Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers have urgency, money to spend. Here’s what to expect as free agency opens.

Former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (24) would make sense in some ways at nickel, and he was a favorite of coach Ron Rivera.
Former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (24) would make sense in some ways at nickel, and he was a favorite of coach Ron Rivera. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman a few years ago famously compared the team’s salary-cap situation early in his tenure to shopping at the dollar store.

Gettleman offered no department store or upscale boutique analogies last week at the combine when asked about the Panthers’ current position relative to the cap. He just laughed and repeated a reporter’s word choice that things were “different.”

Gettleman said the Panthers don’t have “crazy” money to spend like some teams (Cleveland, San Francisco and Jacksonville, for starters) when free agency begins at 4 p.m. Thursday.

But the Panthers’ estimated $25 million in cap space will go a long way toward plugging holes at offensive tackle, nickel cornerback and edge rusher before next month’s draft in Philadelphia.

“It gives you flexibility,” Gettleman said in Indianapolis. “It allows you to – for lack of a better term – expand your thought process. We’ll see.”

The Carolina Panthers are not going away and will get the things that went wrong in the 2016 season corrected, Dave Gettleman said.

Gettleman’s word choice suggests that free agency might look different for the Panthers this year.

Instead of waiting to do most of his business during the second or third week of free agency – after prices drop – the Panthers figure to be active right from the jump Thursday.

A look at players Gettleman might target at several key positions:

Offensive tackle

High-end shopping: Russell Okung is representing himself, so teams weren’t allowed to talk with him the past two days during the legal tampering window. Panthers players reportedly have been lobbying for Okung, one of several established tackles on the market. He won’t come cheap.

Makes too much sense: Ryan Kalil was not among those pushing publicly for Okung, considering his younger brother is in the free agent pool. Matt Kalil has given up his shares of sacks since the Vikings drafted him fourth overall in 2012. But he’s said to be healthy after hip surgery and could benefit from a change of scenery while playing with big bro.

Answer formerly on the roster: The Panthers expect right tackle Mike Remmers to get paid – at least more than they’re comfortable paying him. But if the market for Remmers is soft and a couple of the Panthers targets fall through, a return is not completely out of the question.

Slot receiver

High-end shopping: Kendall Wright won’t command a huge contract. But the list of free agents slot guys is such that Wright is the only one who approaches this category – at least among those who might fit the Panthers. Wright’s numbers have been in decline since his first two seasons in Tennessee, and the Panthers would probably be better off drafting a slot guy than finding one in free agency. But Wright is only 27 and is worth considering.

Makes too much sense: The Panthers had Victor Cruz in for a visit last month and seemingly would have already signed him if they felt he was healthy and could still be productive -- and the two sides could agree on a number. Cruz remains a fallback option at this point. Former Carolina wide receiver Brandon LaFell seemed like a logical candidate before agreeing to terms Wednesday to stay with the Bengals.

Answer formerly on the roster: Ted Ginn Jr. is not a slot guy, but the Panthers’ receiving corps will lose a lot of speed if Ginn signs elsewhere. Carolina also would need a new punt returner if Ginn leaves. Gettleman apparently didn’t feel Philly Brown was worth even a low tender, so it’s hard to envision the affable Brown coming back.

Nickel cornerback

High-end shopping: Green Bay’s Micah Hyde plays all over the secondary – and well – but primarily aligns in the slot. Hyde’s versatility means he could also help the Panthers at outside corner, safety and as a punt returner, particularly important if Ginn bolts.

Makes too much sense: Captain Munnerlyn spent his first five seasons in Carolina, where he was a favorite of Ron Rivera. It’s unclear how Munnerlyn might be viewed in the locker room after his comments about the Panthers having a front-running mentality and his harsh critique of Devin Funchess. Munnerlyn didn’t have much of a mentoring style with Josh Norman when he was with the Panthers. But he might better suited to help Carolina’s young corners at this stage of his career.

Answer formerly on the roster: Leonard Johnson had a strong debut with a sack and a pass breakup on a 2-point try vs. Arizona after coming off the injured list last season. But Johnson’s play leveled out after that and there’s been little mention of him in the team’s offseason plans. One nickel still on the roster is second-year cornerback Zack Sanchez, who struggled early as a rookie before landing on IR with a groin injury.

Edge rusher

High-end shopping: Several disruptive pass rushers came off the market when Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram were franchise-tagged. That could generate demand for New England’s Jabaal Sheard, who is reportedly a top target of the Saints. The Panthers have already invested in three of their own defensive ends in re-signing Mario Addison, Charles Johnson and Wes Horton. So don’t expect Gettleman to get in any bidding wars for another edge rusher.

Makes too much sense: Gettleman thought he had a good chance of bringing Julius Peppers back to Charlotte in 2014 before he signed with the Packers. Peppers, 37, is said to want to finish his career in his home state, and Johnson said he plans to recruit him to Charlotte. But the NFL’s fifth all-time leader in sacks will have other suitors, as was the case three years ago.

Answer formerly on the roster: The Panthers had three defensive ends eligible to become unrestricted free agents and re-signed all of them. But as Gettleman often has said, teams can never have too many pass-rushers – especially in a division featuring Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Jameis Winston.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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