Carolina Panthers

Thursday’s moves are latest step in Carolina Panthers’ defensive line remake

Thursday’s departure of Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson is just the latest step in a remake of the team’s defensive line that will continue through free agency and the NFL draft.
Thursday’s departure of Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson is just the latest step in a remake of the team’s defensive line that will continue through free agency and the NFL draft. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Dave Gettleman goes big when it comes to hog mollies.

Naturally.

Carolina’s general manager set the tone for his Panthers tenure in the 2013 draft by taking defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds. Gettleman often says fans and reporters looked at him as though he had brain damage when he took a pair of defensive tackles when the Panthers had needs at wide receiver and offensive tackle.

Nobody questions Gettleman’s brainpower or love of hog mollies anymore, not even on a day that saw the Panthers part with veteran defensive linemen Charles Johnson and Dwan Edwards.

Cutting Johnson and Edwards on Thursday continued the Panthers’ remake of their defensive line, coming two weeks after defensive end Jared Allen announced his retirement on horseback.

These were tough decisions, but they were business decisions.

Edwards will be 35 next season, and Allen turns 34 in April. Johnson is relatively young at 29, but his body started to breakdown the past two seasons and he was set to count $15 million against the salary cap.

The three moves created $21.2 million in cap space for the Panthers, who are about $28 million below the cap with free agency set to start next week.

That’s a lot of cash.

But a sizable chunk of it will be set aside for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short, who isn’t necessarily a priority now but will be this summer before he heads into a contract year.

Short and defensive end Kony Ealy are the faces of the Panthers’ new-look defensive line, which should be younger and faster than last season’s version.

Gettleman was in New York when the Giants collected pass rushers like centerpieces. Gettleman hardly needed a reminder about the importance of putting heat on quarterbacks, but Super Bowl 50 provided it.

Denver speed rusher Von Miller nearly won the game himself, coming up with two strip-sacks against Cam Newton that resulted in 15 points either directly or darn-near directly (the second and decisive one gave Peyton Manning the ball at the Carolina 4).

The Panthers’ defensive ends made their presence felt against Manning that night, too. Johnson sacked him once, and Ealy was a wrecking ball with three sacks, a forced fumble (that he recovered) and an interception.

Johnson’s release might not have shown up on the transaction wire until Thursday, but the changing of the guard occurred last month in Santa Clara, Calif.

It’s Ealy’s time

Like franchise-tagged cornerback Josh Norman, Ealy’s development was slowed somewhat by his stubbornness and a reluctance to take coaching well early in his career. That he spent much of last season behind veterans Johnson and Allen, whom coach Ron Rivera felt deserved the chance to start, didn’t help Ealy’s growth.

But that won’t be an issue any longer.

Ealy had nine sacks combined during his first two seasons. If he doesn’t top that total in 2016, then Ealy either was injured or underachieved.

Ealy should have help in the persons of Short, Lotulelei, situational speed-rusher Mario Addison and a draft pick(s) and free agent(s) to be named later.

The Panthers kicked the tires this week on former North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, who didn’t fit in the New York Jets’ 3-4 scheme. Coples, whom the Panthers liked before the 2012 draft, makes sense at the right price.

And while recently released Mario Williams, at 31, doesn’t fit the trending-younger profile of the Panthers’ line, it’s hard to write off a four-time Pro Bowler two years removed from a 14.5-sack season.

A draft full of defensive linemen

But where it really figures to get enticing for Gettleman is during his draft evaluations of the deepest defensive tackle class in recent memory. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said teams can get first-round talent at defensive tackle in the third round, and second-round talent in the fourth.

The question isn’t whether Gettleman will go after another hog molly, but how many?

Acquiring a defensive tackle high in the draft could affect the Panthers’ plans for Lotulelei, a strong run-stuffer who has not made nearly the number of game-changing plays Short has collected.

The Panthers are currently flush with cash, but teams usually don’t like tying up too much money at one position (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart serving as one exception).

The Panthers must decide this spring whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Lotulelei for 2017. There’s no real risk in doing so because the fifth-year money for Lotulelei would not become guaranteed until next March (except in the event he’s injured during the 2016 season).

Gettleman can exercise the option for Lotulelei, work out a long-term deal for Short and see if Lotulelei plays well enough this fall to merit bringing him back for another season or more.

That’s what the Jets did with Coples, exercising the option for their first-round pick from 2012 before ultimately cutting him during his fourth season.

There are a lot of moving pieces that will set the Panthers’ defensive line strategy, a couple of which started moving Thursday at a position group near and dear to their general manager.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

Panthers 2016 defensive line depth chart

The Carolina Panthers’ defensive line depth chart before the opening of free agency and the 2016 NFL draft:

Position

Starter

Backup

LDE

Free agent

Rakim Cox/Arthur Miley/Ryan Delaire

DT

Kawann Short

Draft pick

DT

Star Lotulelei

Draft pick/free agent

RDE

Kony Ealy

Mario Addison

Joseph Person

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