Carolina Panthers fans curious about what general manager Dave Gettleman might do in free agency can start by looking at the team’s depth chart from Super Bowl 50.
Gettleman’s philosophy is to fill holes in free agency, allowing him to go after the best players available, regardless of position, in the draft.
A little more than a month after the Panthers fell to Denver 24-10 in the Super Bowl, there are patches on the depth chart that need to be addressed, including defensive line, safety, cornerback, slot receiver and backup center.
The Panthers are in the best financial shape they’ve been in, relative to the salary cap, since Gettleman arrived from New York three years ago. They were about $28 million below the $155.27 million cap as of Friday afternoon.
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As the team’s front office prepares for the start of free agency at 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Observer answers eight questions about the Panthers’ plans for free agency.
Q. So with all that cash available, this is the year Gettleman splurges on a big-name free agent, right?
A. Not exactly.
That’s not Gettleman’s approach, regardless of the Panthers’ cap positioning.
“We have not spent big money on a free agent. You guys know that,” Gettleman told reporters at the NFL scouting combine last month. “It’s about your own, your core.”
Gettleman pointed out the Panthers shopped at Tiffany’s last year by taking care of their own, re-signing Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to long-term extensions.
Q. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is the next core player due for a big payday. But is there a top-tier free agent the Panthers have their eyes on?
A. Yep. Free safety Eric Weddle, the three-time Pro Bowler who played under coach Ron Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks in San Diego.
Weddle is regarded as the second-best safety available this winter behind Kansas City’s Eric Berry, and won’t come cheap. The Panthers had success dipping into the free agent market to find starting safeties Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper, whose two-year contract is expiring.
Coming to Charlotte should be attractive to a veteran like Weddle, 31, who’s never played in a Super Bowl.
Q. Will the Panthers be players during the first days of free agency?
A. They haven’t been under Gettleman, who prefers to sit back and let the market take shape.
That’s never been as important as it is this year when teams are rolling in dough relative to the record-high salary cap. That means some GMs will overpay during the opening free agency salvo.
Again, not Gettleman’s style. And if it costs the Panthers a player they targeted (such as Weddle), so be it. Gettleman is not a believer his team is one player away from a Super Bowl ring.
Q. Is there someone the Panthers would consider an exception?
A. Here’s someone I would consider making an exception for – Seattle OLB Bruce Irvin.
Irvin started out as a defensive end in the Seahawks’ 4-3 scheme and can play multiple spots. Seattle thought Irvin was a little light (6-foot-3, 245 lbs.) to hold up vs. the run as a defensive end, although he lined up there on passing downs.
And while he hasn’t been a dominant pass rusher, he’s had some monster games against the Panthers. Seven of Irvin’s 25.5 career sacks have come against Carolina (including the postseason).
The Panthers need an edge rusher to complement Kony Ealy, and there aren’t a lot of available this offseason. Irvin is an interesting option with a ton of upside.
Q. Who are some other pass-rushers that make sense for the Panthers?
A. Jason Pierre-Paul might not command as much as he did before his fireworks accident; I think his hand injury still makes him too big of a risk. Robert Ayers, who played opposite JPP with the Giants, would seem to be a better value-type signing.
Ayers, a first-round pick of the Broncos in 2009, had the best season of his career last year with nine sacks in 12 games. But the Giants have indicated they’re interested in re-signing Ayers.
Along those same lines, don’t be shocked if Charles Johnson returns to Carolina, which cut him last week in a move that created $11 million in cap space. Johnson has put down roots in Charlotte and might not find the deal he’s looking for in a defensive end market that’s been flooded by the likes of Mario Williams and Chris Long.
Q. What’s another position of need?
A. The Panthers aren’t expected to bring back cornerbacks Charles Tillman, who’s recovering from ACL surgery, and Cortland Finnegan, who was a stopgap during the Super Bowl season.
With Bené Benwikere sliding back outside after he recovers from his broken leg, the Panthers could use a nickel corner. But given how the Panthers used LB Shaq Thompson as the nickel on a lot of first and seconds downs late in the season, this isn’t a huge need.
Every year we try to sniff out a Giants player who might be of interest to Gettleman, who won two Super Bowl rings while running the Giants’ pro personnel department.
This year we’ll go with cornerback Prince Amukamara, a 2011 first-round pick who has battled injuries in four of his five seasons. Amukamara (6-foot, 201) is the same size as Josh Norman, although he wasn’t nearly as productive last season.
Among nickel corners, I like Pittsburgh’s Brandon Boykin, who had six interceptions with the Eagles in 2013.
Q. Wait, no mention of a wide receiver yet. Didn’t you hear about how bad the receiving corps was during the Super Bowl season?
A. Gettleman said getting Kelvin Benjamin back will be like adding a first-round receiver in free agency. He’s right, and Benjamin will make all the other receivers better, too.
Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown can return to more complementary roles, and Devin Funchess, who came on strong at the end of last season, should flourish as the No. 2 wideout opposite Benjamin.
If the Panthers make a move here, it won’t be major.
Q. What about the Panthers’ own free agents? Who are the priorities?
A. The Observer’s Jonathan Jones addressed that elsewhere. I’m not stepping on his toes.
NFL free agency facts
Starts: 4 p.m. Wednesday
What’s different this year? With the salary cap increasing by $12 million per club, the 32 teams have about $1 billion in cap space among them to use or roll over to future years. That won’t all go toward free agents. Teams generally set aside $10 million a year to spend on draft picks and to account for injuries.
Top free agents: Denver DE Malik Jackson, Baltimore OL Kelechi Osemele, Los Angeles CB Janoris Jenkins, Kansas City CB Sean Smith, Denver QB Brock Osweiler
Panthers’ top free agents: CB Josh Norman (franchise-tagged last week), FB Mike Tolbert, S Roman Harper, CB Charles Tillman, WR Jerricho Cotchery, P Brad Nortman