Carolina Panthers

3 areas the Carolina Panthers improved through free agency

Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.’s return to the Carolina Panthers was one of the team’s bright spots during free agency.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.’s return to the Carolina Panthers was one of the team’s bright spots during free agency. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Unless you’re interested in following whatever social media hijinks wide receiver Greg Jennings is up to next, feel free to commence with spring break plans and any mocks or preparations you have in mind for the NFL draft.

The Carolina Panthers have.

There were free-agent fireworks in a number of NFL cities the past four weeks, especially in Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly’s maneuverings came as fast and furious as his up-tempo offense.

Not so in Charlotte, where Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has blended in nicely with the bankers and brokers with the conservative and deliberate way with which he builds a roster.

The approach isn’t fancy, but neither is Gettleman’s 10-year-old minivan. Both have served him well.

The Panthers let another Pro Bowl defensive end walk out the door, although the circumstances behind Greg Hardy’s exit and that of Julius Peppers’ six years ago couldn’t have been more different.

Gettleman didn’t bring in an edge rusher to replace Hardy and he didn’t patch all the holes on the depth chart. But he filled most of them, enough to allow him to use the “best player available” philosophy that brought Star Lotulelei and Kelvin Benjamin to Carolina in Gettleman’s first two drafts with the Panthers.

Gettleman signed four free agents during the second week of April last year, including tight end Ed Dickson and since-departed safety Thomas DeCoud. So the third-year GM could make a few more moves, but the bulk of his free-agent work is likely done.

As Gettleman and his scouting staff get ready for the draft, we look at three areas the Panthers improved this offseason and three positions where they still have questions marks, as well as a projected depth chart.

Where the Panthers improved

Special teams: Gettleman followed through with his comments from the season wrap-up news conference that he was considering signing players whose chief responsibility would be to improve special teams.

Getting Ted Ginn Jr. back was the biggest pick-up. Coach Ron Rivera said last week having an elite returner sets the tone for the other members of the return team, who know one or two blocks could spring him.

The Panthers also added an experienced kick returner in Jordan Todman, who will give them another option in addition to Ginn and Fozzy Whittaker.

But Gettleman also signed several players who can play all four special teams phases – defensive backs Kurt Coleman and Teddy Williams, linebacker Jason Trusnik and receiver Jarrett Boykin.

Offensive tackle: The Panthers are better – if only marginally – at tackle after letting Byron Bell leave and signing Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin, who was claimed off waivers from San Francisco.

Gettleman is banking that a healthy Oher, after undergoing toe surgery, will return to his Baltimore form while working with John Matsko, his position coach with the Ravens. But if Oher plays like he did in Tennessee last season, the man who inspired “The Blind Side” book and movie won’t be an upgrade.

The Panthers have less invested in Martin, who – at a cost of $1 million – gives them someone to compete with Nate Chandler for the backup spot behind right tackle Mike Remmers.

Wide receiver: Cam Newton’s rally-killing interception during the playoff loss at Seattle happened on a play when Brenton Bersin, the first read, slipped in his route, forcing Newton to look backside. Bersin became part of the rotation because Gettleman whiffed badly on free-agent receivers Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood.

Jerricho Cotchery, another piece of last year’s receiver rebuild, was more consistent, albeit without many big plays and only one touchdown.

Getting Ginn back gives Newton another deep target to go with Corey Brown, who apparently has dropped his “Philly” nickname this offseason.

The X-factor could be Boykin, who disappeared in Green Bay in 2014 after a promising ’13. With the draft deep again at receiver, Gettleman needs to go after another wideout.

Areas to address

Defensive back: The Panthers thought they had cornerback Alan Ball signed, and then they didn’t.

Ball ended up going to Chicago, which offered him $1 million more than Carolina. Ball isn’t a Pro Bowl corner, but he’s a solid starter who would have allowed the Panthers to slide Bené Benwikere inside to the nickel spot.

Benwikere has great ball instincts, but at 5-foot-11, he lacks the size the Panthers like in their corners. Josh Norman had a breakthrough 2014, but there’s little depth behind him.

The Panthers appear to have hit on a playmaker in free safety Tre Boston, although UNC fans will tell you about his penchant for getting beaten deep. Strong safety Roman Harper was stout against the run but slow in coverage and pursuit.

Coleman is more of a part-time/special teams player.

Defensive end: Rivera doesn’t expect the Panthers to replace the 15 sacks Hardy racked up two years ago, but he’d like to find someone who can give them between six and 10. Speed rusher Mario Addison flirted with that number last season when he finished with 6.5 sacks.

Kony Ealy, the second-round pick last year, has the potential to become an every-down end who can do more than just rush the passer. But Rivera hedged a bit when asked about Ealy at the owners meetings, saying he’s not yet where the Panthers need him to be.

Like Hardy, Frank Alexander returns after sitting out nearly an entire season.

Running back: The Panthers added to their running back stock last week by signing Todman to a one-year deal. But Todman is a situational back who averaged fewer than 3.5 carries a game the past two seasons with Jacksonville.

Rivera said last week that signing Todman would not preclude the Panthers from taking a running back in the draft. Whittaker is a great changeup to Jonathan Stewart, but Rivera does not envision an expanded role for Whittaker.

Counting on Stewart to stay healthy over a full season as the featured back is a risky proposition.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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