Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman paused – he joked it wasn’t a seven-second pause – before answering a question about whether his roster is better now than it was at the end of last season.
“Yes, it is,” Gettleman said. “We’ve addressed the left tackle spot. We’ve addressed the speed wide receiver spot. We got our whole (defensive) front coming back. We got (defensive tackles) Dwan (Edwards) and Colin Cole signed.”
The departure of defensive end Greg Hardy means the line will be missing its most disruptive player. But the Panthers played 17 games without him last year (including the playoffs) after his domestic violence arrest, and Gettleman is confident second-year end Kony Ealy could be an effective replacement.
Gettleman declined to discuss the decision to cut ties with Hardy during his 30-minute media session Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. But Gettleman addressed a number of other topics, including the contract status of the team’s two best players, a likely extension for linebacker Thomas Davis and why Gettleman believes Michael Oher will succeed at the position for which he inspired a movie.
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Five takeaways from Gettleman’s comments:
1. All the two-year deals this offseason were by design
Gettleman indicated part of the reason Oher, receiver Ted Ginn Jr., Edwards, safety Kurt Coleman and special teams ace Teddy Williams received two-year contracts was to give the Panthers salary-cap flexibility for the big contracts he hopes to give to quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Gettleman said he plans to exercise the club’s fifth-year option on Kuechly, much like he did with Newton last spring.
“I’d have to have brain damage not to,” Gettleman said
The Panthers have until May 3 to formally pick up the option on Kuechly, who would make a guaranteed $11.1 million in 2016. The option does not preclude the Panthers from reaching a long-term deal with Kuechly, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker and the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
“The things he does – directing traffic, the impact plays that he’s capable of making – obviously he’s a really good player,” Gettleman said. “You don’t get Pro Bowls and Defensive Player of the Year by accident. There are some guys that are myths. He ain’t.”
2. Gettleman is not showing his cards on Newton
Gettleman makes a point of not discussing contract negotiations, and he was consistent Tuesday when asked about Newton. The two sides met at the combine last month, but Newton might be content to wait and let Russell Wilson sign his extension and reset the quarterback market.
Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay said this week the Colts would not extend Andrew Luck’s contract until next season.
Newton is under contract for 2015 at a guaranteed $14.7 million. The Panthers then could use the franchise tag on Newton in 2016, although going to year-to-year with Newton would not be ideal from a salary-cap standpoint.
“The thing that you want is cost certainty,” Gettleman said. “Time will tell.”
3. An extension is coming for Davis
Gettleman broke his no-contract-talk policy when he strongly suggested Davis would be next in line for a contract extension.
Davis turned 32 this week and has endured three ACL surgeries on his right knee. But he has performed at a high level while playing in 46 of 48 games since his last surgery.
“He is a pro’s pro, and he is a core player for us,” Gettleman said. “And we have great confidence in him medically, as well.”
Gettleman said certain front office moves, such as the extension Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen received last month, send a loud message to the locker room.
“By extending Greg, you send a message down: You’re one of our core guys, you’re getting it done, we’re going to do everything we can within reason to re-sign you.”
4. Michael Oher will be on the ‘Blind Side’
Gettleman said Oher was signed with the expectation he will be the starter at left tackle. Despite his struggles at Tennessee last season, Gettleman expressed confidence in the player whose rags-to-riches story was made into the movie “The Blind Side.”
The Panthers are leaning heavily on Oher’s relationship with Panthers offensive line coach John Matsko, who held the same position in Baltimore when Oher played for the Ravens.
“John Matsko did a heck of a job with him as a young player,” Gettleman said. “And in 2012, he’s their left tackle and they win the Super Bowl. There was a coaching change and it put him out of sorts, and then he goes to Tennessee and it just doesn’t work.
“He loves John. There’s a real bond there. He completely trusts John.”
5. There might be more free-agent moves, but the focus is shifting to the draft
Gettleman said he’s still in talks with cornerback Alan Ball and wideout Greg Jennings, free agents who visited the Panthers last week. Both have received interest from other teams and are taking their time with their decisions.
“We’re not finished,” Gettleman said. “We’re still kind of futzing with a couple guys, and we’ll see what happens.”
Gettleman feels Carolina accomplished enough in free agency that he can take the best player available when the Panthers pick 25th.
Georgia running back Todd Gurley could be in play if he passes his follow-up physical in Indianapolis next month, and Gettleman did not rule out taking a speed receiver at some point despite the return of Ginn.
Gettleman also said the addition of two compensatory picks will give the Panthers flexibility to trade picks – although they can’t be the comp variety – throughout the draft.
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