Two days after the loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50 ended the winningest season in franchise history, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said remorsefully the locker room and roster would not be the same.
A couple of guys might retire, others would move on and a few would be re-signed from a team Rivera said he was proud to have coached.
With the NFL’s free agency period set to begin at 4 p.m. Wednesday, several of those moves already have begun.
Defensive end Jared Allen retired, cornerback Josh Norman was franchise-tagged and last week three players were cut – defensive linemen Charles Johnson and Dwan Edwards and right tackle Nate Chandler.
A couple more pieces fell into place this week.
Veteran free agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery was informed he’s not in the Panthers’ plans, according to a league source. And do-it-all utility player Joe Webb re-signed on a two-year contract, his agency said.
The recent activity leaves the Panthers with nine unrestricted free agents. The list includes several veteran defensive backs who aren’t expected back – safety Roman Harper and corners Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan.
The Panthers, who begin the league year Wednesday about $28 million under the salary cap, will try to get deals done with fullback Mike Tolbert and punter Brad Nortman. They’ll also look to fill holes at safety (Eric Weddle is expected to be a target) and defensive end, assuming Johnson does not come back on a team-friendly deal.
Johnson, whose release created $11 million in cap room for Carolina, visited the Giants and Tampa Bay this week. He tweeted that fans would know his next moveWednesday, adding it would “be epic.”
But Cotchery will not be among those at Spartanburg when the Panthers begin their quest for a fourth consecutive division title.
Cotchery, who turns 34 in June, caught 87 passes for 1,065 yards and four touchdowns in two seasons with the Panthers. But he dropped three passes in Super Bowl 50 against Denver – one that went to a replay challenge – in what apparently will be his final game in a Panthers uniform.
Cotchery, the former N.C. State standout, had said previously he would keep playing only for the Panthers. But Cotchery is open to signing elsewhere if he can find an interested team, the source said.
In 2014 the Panthers brought in Cotchery on a two-year, $5 million deal that included three voidable years at the end of the contract to ease the salary cap burden.
With the contract automatically voiding this month, Cotchery becomes a free agent and the Panthers will absorb $1.35 million in dead money against the cap.
Cotchery was part of the Panthers’ makeover of their receiving corps following the 2013 season, when Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon all departed.
General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera liked Cotchery’s sure hands, his toughness going across the middle and the steadying influence he had on young receivers such as Kelvin Benjamin, Philly Brown and Devin Funchess.
Cotchery pulled down 44 passes in 2015 without a drop during the regular season. But he struggled against the Broncos, beginning with a bobbled catch on a first quarter slant route he tried to secure before hitting the ground.
Officials reviewed the play and determined there was not enough evidence to overturn it.
Cotchery’s two other drops came on contested passes, including a beautiful deep throw from Cam Newton that Cotchery had inside the Denver 10 before linebacker Von Miller broke it up.
After the game Cotchery stood in front of his locker and answered questions for about 10 minutes from a couple of waves of reporters.
“Bringing it in I had two hands on the ball. He just raked one of my arms away from me. I couldn’t bring it in after that,” Cotchery said of the deep throw. “I’m going to be replaying that for the rest of my life. I could have switched it over to the other hand quicker. We weren’t able to make that play. That’s one of those deals.”