In his first two years on the job, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman generally had done his most extensive work during the second phase of free agency.
That was not necessarily the case this year.
Gettleman knocked a bunch of items off his to-do list last week, several of them accomplished before free agency started Tuesday.
Upgrade the return teams with a proven returner? Check.
Replace Byron Bell at left tackle? Check.
Sign a player to be used exclusively on special teams? Check.
Improve overall team speed? Done.
But now things get interesting for Gettleman, who will look for a few value signings to fill some other needs. The Panthers, either through free agency or the draft, need a couple of defensive backs, another wideout, a speed rusher and an additional four-phase special teams player.
The market for top-end free agents is pretty much played out. There are still some big names out there such as wideouts Dwayne Bowe and Michael Crabtree, but the Panthers are not going to spend the money necessary to acquire a player of that caliber.
The Panthers are $12 million below the salary cap, according to the NFLPA’s database. But they like to keep a reserve of about $7 million to account for injuries and contract extensions (Thomas Davis is in line for one), and they need to sign their draft picks.
Having already acquired tackle Michael Oher and speed receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr., I get the sense the Panthers will wait until the draft – which is deep at both positions – to add another tackle and wideout.
Bottom line: Any free agents the Panthers sign this week are likely to be veterans on their last contract (see Drayton Florence) or under-the-radar players such as Teddy Williams, the special teams ace they added last week.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five free agents who might be fits for the Panthers:
Osi Umenyiora, defensive end
Gettleman, the longtime Giants’ personnel man, has signed ex-Giants before (Chase Blackburn, Domenik Hixon). Umenyiora, 33, has said he wants to retire with New York, but there’s no guarantee the Giants want him back after his 2.5-sack season in Atlanta.
Umenyiora didn’t start a game for the Falcons last season, but he’s only two years removed from a 7.5-sack campaign in 2013. He would be a low-cost signing who could spell Mario Addison and keep Addison fresh for special teams.
Mathias Kiwanuka, defensive end
Another former Giant who’s on the back side of his career, the 32-year-old Kiwanuka is coming off knee surgery that sidelined him for the final five games in 2014. Kiwanuka is a year younger than Umenyiora, and finished with the same number of sacks (2.5) last season.
If the Panthers are interested, they’d first have to determine whether the former first-round pick is healthy.
Charles Tillman, cornerback
Ron Rivera has long admired the play and performance of Tillman, who was limited to 10 games the past two seasons after twice tearing his right triceps. Tillman, 34, says he wants to win a championship before he retires, and could view the Panthers as a team on the rise.
The NFL’s Man of the Year in 2013 would be a great addition in the locker room. Given his age and recent injury history, Tillman would have to be willing to come to Charlotte on a team-friendly deal.
Ashlee Palmer, outside linebacker
Never heard of him? Well, most fans probably didn’t know Williams either before the Panthers signed the former college sprinter last week to play special teams.
Palmer has played in 94 of 96 games during his six-year career, including the past five seasons with Detroit. He would give the Panthers a solid backup to Thomas Davis and A.J. Klein, while playing in all four phases of special teams.
Jacquian Williams, outside linebacker
OK, so this list is getting full of ex-Giants, but Williams is another player who would improve the special teams, one of the Panthers’ top offseason priorities.
Williams, 26, a sixth-round pick in 2011, started 22 games in four seasons with the Giants. Several teams have shown interest in Williams, who likely is looking for somewhere he could be a starter.
Williams would have a chance to compete with Klein and Adarius Glanton at the strongside spot. But his real contribution would probably come on special teams.
Three extra points
▪ While several teams have said they’re not interested in signing former Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, an unidentified club is negotiating with him, Hardy’s agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday.
Hardy still hasn’t heard from the NFL on whether he’ll be suspended. But expect Rosenhaus to push for a sizable signing bonus, because any pay Hardy would lose while suspended would be deducted from his base salary.
▪ Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who re-signed last week, weighed in on the Panthers’ decision to part ways with Hardy. But Edwards also had an interesting perspective on Oher, Edwards’ teammate in Baltimore.
“He plays and he works extremely hard,” Edwards said. “I knew him just as a young guy coming in. He was very aggressive and eager to learn and get better. He obviously did. He’s still playing at a high level and I definitely think it’ll be a nice upgrade for our offensive line.”
▪ Shortly after signing with the Steelers on Friday, running back DeAngelo Williams responded to my tweet about the Panthers’ annual exhibition matchup with Pittsburgh. Williams wanted to know whether the game is in Charlotte or Pittsburgh this year.
It’s a good question. Under normal circumstances, it would have been the Panthers’ year to host. But with the North Carolina-South Carolina game scheduled at Bank of America Stadium the same night of Sept. 3, the Panthers likely will head to Pittsburgh again.
Williams tweeted: “either way there won’t be blood & guts don’t worry lol.”
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