Free safety Mike Mitchell spent only one year with the Panthers before bolting in free agency last offseason when Pittsburgh offered him $25 million over five years.
But Mitchell has become the blueprint of what the Panthers are looking for in free agency: Players still in their prime who have been solid special teams members while showing flashes of big-play ability.
“They’re guys,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera explained Tuesday, “we feel can be on the cusp.”
The hope is the players will blossom when given more playing time in Carolina, a la Mitchell in 2013.
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Mitchell had started only nine games in four seasons in Oakland, but he became a full-time starter in Carolina, where he tied for the team lead with four interceptions and added four sacks.
“Here was a guy that had played sparingly at Oakland, was a very good special teams player, but we thought was on the cusp,” Rivera said. “Lo and behold, he was. Fortunately for Mike, he got a chance to prove it and then move on – unfortunately for us.”
With the exception of offensive tackles Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin, the Panthers’ offseason acquisitions have strong special teams backgrounds.
That’s not by accident. After finishing among the league’s worst in several major special teams categories in 2014, the Panthers promoted veteran special teams coach Bruce DeHaven to lead the unit and have been trying to improve their personnel in that phase of the game.
Their biggest pickup was punt returner Ted Ginn Jr., who – along with Mitchell and several other players – had left in free agency after the Panthers’ 12-win season in 2013.
Rivera believes Ginn’s return should have a ripple effect throughout the special teams units.
“Bringing Ted back is that punt returner that we sorely needed,” Rivera said after he spoke to a group of business leaders at a USO event in south Charlotte.
“And when you bring (in) special guys at that position, it kind of lifts everybody else because they know: ‘Hey, all we need is that one little block. Be that guy to make that one little block, and Teddy can take it to the house.’ That adds a little bit of excitement for us.”
Defensive backs Kurt Coleman and Teddy Williams, who signed early during the free agency period, are “four-phase” special teamers, meaning they can play on both coverage teams and the two return teams.
The Panthers brought in two more special teams players on one-year deals this week.
Running back Jordan Todman, who signed with Carolina on Monday, was one of the league’s most consistent kick returners in Jacksonville last season, and his seven special teams tackles were tied for second on the Jaguars.
After the Panthers signed linebacker Jason Trusnik on Tuesday, Rivera called the eight-year veteran a “special teams ace” who would add competition at linebacker.
Besides boosting special teams, the Panthers hope a couple of the newcomers could have breakthrough seasons and help the offense or defense.
Rivera pointed to recently acquired wideout Jarrett Boykin as a player with that type of potential.
“This is a guy that had some tremendous success when he was in Green Bay and showed that he’s a quality receiver,” “But at the same time, he’s a very good special teams guy.”
Boykin, who starred at Butler High in Matthews, caught 49 passes for 681 yards and three touchdowns for Green Bay in 2013 when Randall Cobb was out most of the year with an injury.
But a groin injury sidelined Boykin for a three-game stretch last season, during which he lost the No. 3 wideout spot to rookie Davante Adams. Boykin, 6-2 and 218 pounds, finished the season with just three catches for 23 yards.
Rivera said he’s interested to see what Boykin can do with a fresh start. Rivera said the addition of Boykin has had an effect on the Panthers’ pursuit of Greg Jennings, a more established, free agent receiver.
“We’ll see how things unfold right now. We’re not in a hurry to make any decisions,” Rivera said. “I think adding Boykin to the mix has really taken a lot of pressure off of having to go out and find another guy. I think Boykin can do a good job for us.”
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