Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers: Strengths and needs in 2014

Less than six weeks before the May 8-10 draft, the Observer looks at the Panthers’ areas of strength and the positions they need to address.

Five Positions of Strength

Defensive line: While Gettleman was bashed for not going after any top-tier free agents, it’s worth noting several publications had Hardy ranked among the top free agents had he hit the open market. The Panthers paid a steep price by putting the franchise tag on Hardy, and could still work out a long-term extension to bring Hardy’s cap number down.

But the move was further proof that Gettleman is not going to stray from the Giants’ defensive philosophy of starting with a strong pass rush. With the exception of DT Colin Cole, an unrestricted free agent who remains unsigned, the Panthers’ front seven from last season is intact.

Linebacker: The Panthers’ first offseason commitment to the front seven was the extension they gave linebacker Thomas Davis. Carolina picked up the two option years for Davis, 31, who finished with 123 tackles and four sacks in 2013, two years after the third ACL surgery on his right knee.

Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were among the best linebacking tandems in the NFL last season, and veteran Chase Blackburn and promising second-year player A.J. Klein compete at the third spot.

Quarterback/running back/center: In baseball, they call it being strong up the middle. Likewise, for the Panthers’ offense.

Fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton took a step forward last season in recognition of coverages and his route progressions. Center Ryan Kalil came back from foot surgery to make his third Pro Bowl, and the well-compensated running back committee was deep enough to overcome Jonathan Stewart’s injury issues.

Newton, who is taking classes at Auburn, will miss all of the organized team activities this spring while he recovers from March 19 surgery on his left ankle.

Newton will have time at training camp to develop a rhythm with Cotchery, Underwood and the team’s young receivers. The bigger concern is protecting the franchise quarterback from further punishment and injury.

No. 1 tight end: Rivera said at the league meetings the Panthers might not have a true No. 1 wide receiver in 2014, which would put more pressure on tight end Greg Olsen. The former Bears tight end, acquired in a 2011 trade, was Carolina’s leading receiver in 2013 with a career-high 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns.

It was the first time since 1997 a Panthers’ wideout did not lead the team in receiving.

Behind Olsen, the Panthers have a raw receiving project in Brandon Williams and a couple of blocking specialists in Richie Brockel and newly acquired Mike McNeill. Ben Hartsock, another blocking tight end, is an unrestricted free agent.

Kicking game: The Panthers locked up kicker Graham Gano with a four-year, $12.4 million deal 11 days before the start of free agency. Gano was nearly automatic in 2013, making 24 of 27 field goals and booming 77.8 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks, the NFL’s highest percentage since 1994.

Third-year punter Brad Nortman also is coming off a big season. Nortman set franchise records with a 41.6-yard net average and a 47.8-yard gross average, which ranked fourth in the league.

Five Positions of Need

No. 1 wide receiver: Rivera created a stir Friday when he told USA Today the Panthers would be interested in DeSean Jackson, released by the Eagles on Friday amid reports he has ties to known gang members in Los Angeles. But multiple team sources said the Panthers, in fact, will not go after Jackson.

The Panthers could be content to wait until the May draft to find Smith’s successor. Draft experts believe there will be impact receivers available when the Panthers pick 28th.

When asked whether Cotchery was signed to be a No. 1 receiver, Rivera said he was signed to help develop the team’s young wideouts. Gettleman is hoping Marvin McNutt or Tavarres King turns into the next Victor Cruz.

No. 2 wide receiver: Cotchery excelled in the slot last season in Pittsburgh, using his size to take advantage of mismatches with smaller nickel corners and catching a career-high 10 touchdowns.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Cotchery is a versatile receiver who can play anywhere he’s needed. And while Underwood looks to be an ascending player, his seven starts last season in Tampa Bay were more than twice his total (three) from his first four years combined.

The Panthers showed last season they want to be a run-first team under coordinator Mike Shula. But if Cotchery gets hurt and Underwood/McNutt/King don’t pan out, then what?

Clearly, the Panthers need more at the position. If free agent Sidney Rice tires of waiting and drops his price, the Panthers should grab him.

Left tackle: Maybe Byron Bell’s struggles against speed pass-rushers were because the natural left-hander played right tackle his first three seasons. That’s what the Panthers are hoping, anyway.

Gettleman and Rivera made it clear at the owners meetings Bell will be given every opportunity to win the job protecting Newton’s blind side.

The 330-pound Bell has shown he has the size and strength to be a successful run-blocker. But his footwork has to improve if he is going to hold up as a pass-blocker.

With Gross retired, right guard Nate Chandler is the team’s most athletic offensive lineman. The former defensive tackle successfully moved to guard last season, and now could be shifting to tackle. He could be an option on the left side.

No. 1 cornerback: On the day Rivera said the Panthers might not need a No. 1 wideout, he also questioned how many teams had a No. 1 corner other than Seattle. He seems more concerned about finding a nickel corner to replace Munnerlyn.

Given their cap restraints and their commitment to Hardy, the Panthers never were going to be in the market for a high-priced corner. But they thought – wrongly – they could re-sign Munnerlyn.

Instead, they signed former San Diego and Arizona CB Antoine Cason to the veteran minimum. Cason couldn’t win a starting job with the Cardinals, and looks to have lost a step. But Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks coached Cason in San Diego, and believe he can help.

Melvin White started 10 games as an undrafted rookie last year, and held his own most games. Like Cason, White also lacks top-end speed.

This is likely Josh Norman’s last chance to prove he can be more than a practice star.

Free safety: This may be a moot point if Charles Godfrey returns to his pre-Achilles surgery form and mans the centerfield spot opposite strong safety Harper. But Gettleman gave less than a ringing endorsement of Godfrey last week by saying he was “part of the evaluation.”

If Godfrey, who has a $7.1 million cap figure, is cut or comes back less than 100 percent, the Panthers will be left with essentially two strong safeties in Harper and Robert Lester. Lester, undrafted out of Alabama, played well in spots last season, but his coverage/communication breakdown in the playoff loss to San Francisco was critical.

Joseph Person