There’s been a lot of online hand-wringing by armchair general managers recently over the Panthers’ negotiations with defensive tackle Kawann Short.
But the Panthers have another key piece of their defense who is quietly entering a contract year after a strong 2015.
Safety Kurt Coleman didn’t go to the Pro Bowl (like Short), and he happens to play a position that Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman doesn’t value as highly as defensive line.
But Coleman deserves a contract extension for what he did last season as part of a veteran secondary and what the Panthers’ coaches and front office are expecting him to do this season with a young defensive backfield that has almost entirely turned over.
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Coleman, 28, proved to be a quick study during his first year in Charlotte. He finished with 103 tackles and a career-high seven interceptions, including one in five consecutive games late in the season.
His seven picks were tied for third most in the NFL and tied Chris Gamble for second by a Panthers player in a single season. He did all that at the bargain-basement price of $750,000.
Coleman hit incentives for playing time and interceptions, which increased his 2016 salary to $1.35 million. But the Panthers need to give him a bigger bump and extend his contract for two or three more seasons – not that Coleman is clamoring for it publicly.
That’s not Coleman’s style.
“I respect everyone that’s involved in the process and I’m trusting that both sides are going to do what’s right and what’s fair,” Coleman said during a recent interview.
“Honestly, it’s out of my hands. My job isn’t to negotiate. I probably wouldn’t be that good at it. My personal feelings might get (involved),” he added, laughing. “I just control what I can control.”
The Panthers are asking the steady Coleman to help control the ebbs and flows of a secondary that could feature three rookies in prominent roles after an eventful offseason.
Strong safety Roman Harper returned to the New Orleans Saints. Veteran cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan were not re-signed and Pro Bowler Josh Norman wound up in Washington after a contentious contract battle.
The Panthers drafted corners with three successive picks while waiting for third-year corner Bené Benwikere to come back from a broken bone in his lower leg.
The secondary shake-up left Coleman as the veteran voice in the secondary.
“We are young. So we don’t have a lot of guys that understand the effort day in and day out, the consistency, to get to where we got last year. But not only to get where we got but to finish where we got,” Coleman said.
Coleman likes what he’s seen from the rookies – outside corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley and nickel back Zack Sanchez. But he spent organized team activities and minicamp trying to teach them the value of putting all they had into every practice.
With the Panthers off until the start of training camp in late July, Coleman hopes his message will resonate.
“They’ve gotten so much better from the moment they started to where they are now. But we need them to get even so much better over these next (three) weeks and when we hit training camp, they have to get even better,” Coleman said. “We all do. That’s just a small sample of where we have to get and the mindset it’s going to take for us to pass that hurdle.”
Coleman has gone through his own transition, moving from free safety to strong safety in the wake of Harper’s departure. Coleman played closer to the line of scrimmage after signing with the Panthers last year before flip-flopping with Harper.
But Coleman, who underwent minor surgery on one of his fingers during the offseason, said his responsibilities and those of free safety Tre Boston are similar.
“Last year I started off at this spot and obviously transitioned as the season got underway. Really it’s about knowing what we’re doing on both sides no matter what,” he said. “You look throughout the season last year I was playing it, too. So it’s no different.”
Coleman didn’t flinch when asked to move to strong safety – much like he embraced his role as mentor.
“There is a void back there that has to be filled in terms of leadership,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last month. “Kurt has done that and understands how important he is to us.”
Coleman soon will get more of an appreciation of what his value means monetarily.
Gettleman and the rest of the Panthers’ front office are on summer break. But the team is expected to begin negotiating with Coleman in earnest prior to training camp.
Gettleman let safety Mike Mitchell walk in free agency a few years ago and wasn’t willing to get in a bidding war for Eric Weddle this offseason. So Coleman is in the wrong place to become one of the league’s top-paid safeties.
But after spending some of their Norman savings on extensions for offensive linemen during the spring, it’s time for the Panthers to reinvest in a defensive back still in his prime who’s been a positive locker-room influence since he arrived.
“I want to win,” Coleman said. “I want to win with this team. I want to be here.”
Coleman said he hopes the two sides can get a deal done before the season.
“Who wouldn’t? But there’s a whole business side of things,” he said. “I’ve been around this game long enough to know if it doesn’t get done, I still have to go out and perform.”