Dave Gettleman might not be ready to go hog wild on an offseason shopping spree of free agents, but the Carolina Panthers general manager says he won’t necessarily have to bargain-hunt this winter, either.
The Panthers defended their NFC South crown this season despite losing a number of starters from the 2013 team and failing to replace them with top-tier free agents because of financial restraints.
But after being salary cap-strapped during his first two years in Carolina, Gettleman says the Panthers are in much better shape heading into this offseason.
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“Last year, we were shopping in the dollar store. I think this year we might be able to move up in class a little bit,” Gettleman said Tuesday during a 30-minute news conference at Bank of America Stadium.
But with a potential hole to fill at left tackle, the Panthers’ stated need to get faster at wide receiver and Gettleman’s affinity for pass-rushers, Gettleman cautioned that he won’t be blowing the budget on a high-priced free agent.
“I said we’re going to move up in class,” Gettleman said. “I didn’t say we’re going to go out and spend big money on a player.”
A salary cap expert told the Observer this week that he expects the Panthers to be about $14 million below a projected $142 million cap, an estimate that includes a $14.7 million cap charge for quarterback Cam Newton on the club’s fifth-year option.
Gettleman reiterated that he views Newton as the franchise quarterback, but refused to be pulled into a discussion about the likelihood of signing Newton to a long-term deal before next season.
Gettleman said he wouldn’t discuss contractual matters or talk about specific players, although he did address the status of several key players whose futures with the club are in doubt.
Left tackle Byron Bell, who is an unrestricted free agent, was rated the worst tackle in the league in pass blocking and second-lowest overall by analytics site Pro Football Focus.
Gettleman said he was inclined to give Byron Bell a little slack because 2014 was his first season on the left side. But in answering a question about Bell, Gettleman mentioned how a team can improve through free agency.
“Byron showed flashes. It’s about consistency. I give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, it was his first year playing there,” Gettleman said. “But I think we’ve shown if a player shows up that we think is going to make us better, we’re going to go get him.”
Gettleman said he wanted to sit down with DeAngelo Williams before saying anything publicly about the status of the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. Last year, Gettleman was widely criticized for his noncommittal comments about Steve Smith’s future with the team before talking to the Panthers’ popular, all-time receiving leader.
“I need to talk to DeAngelo, I really do. He’s a pro’s pro, and he had a tough season,” Gettleman said. “The obvious loss of his mom was very, very difficult. He only played six (regular season) games this year, and it was tough for him. Before I say anything, just know he’s a pro’s pro. And the way he finished the season, he finished it like a man.”
Williams, who turns 32 in April, finished with career lows in every major rushing category after battling injuries most of the season. When Williams returned from a broken hand in December, he was reduced to part-time work behind Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker.
Knowing he planned to overhaul the receiving corps and secondary last offseason, Gettleman invested in the defensive front seven. He put a $13.1 million franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he tied Kevin Greene’s single-season, team record with 15 sacks.
But Hardy was arrested on domestic violence charges in May, was found guilty by a district judge in July and played only one game before agreeing to be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list in September.
“I thought it was extremely important that we keep the front together,” Gettleman said. “That’s why we made the decision to franchise Greg, and obviously it blew up.”
Hardy has a jury trial scheduled Feb. 9 on charges he beat up and threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend. Gettleman wouldn’t address Hardy’s situation. Team sources have said the Panthers don’t plan to bring him back.
When asked whether a player’s history of violence against women would keep the Panthers from signing him, Gettleman said: “It would be something that you’d have to really think about. How’s that?”
With Hardy expected to be gone, the Panthers could go after a pass-rusher in the draft or free agency.
Gettleman, who took Kony Ealy in the second round last year, certainly did not rule it out.
“There were plenty of people when we took Kony, looked at me like I had brain damage. If there’s a quality defensive end or defensive lineman there, it’s hard for me to pass him up.”
Both Gettleman and Rivera, who met with the media before Gettleman’s briefing, talked repeatedly about the need for improved team speed.
The Panthers signed three free agent receivers last winter, including two who ended up getting cut. Tiquan Underwood, a speed wideout, didn’t make it through preseason, and possession receiver Jason Avant was waived in November.
Gettleman said “economics” prevented him from doing more in free agency, and Rivera said Gettleman warned him 2014 might be a tough slog.
“We took a little bit of a step back after 2013 because we had to,” Rivera said. “We had a feeling 2014 was going to be hard. He was very blunt and very upfront about what he had to do, and I appreciated that.”
Despite dealing with the loss of Hardy, Newton’s injuries and car accident, a fire at Rivera’s house and a two-month stretch without a win, the Panthers managed to get hot in December and become the first repeat champ in the NFC South.
Gettleman said he was proud of how the players and coaches persevered through the adversity to post the first back-to-back playoff berths in team history.
Rivera said the way the Panthers finished makes him optimistic for 2015, and gave him pause when he was asked about any possible staff changes this offseason.
“Those first 12 games, maybe somebody should have tossed me out on my ear because we were 3-8-1,” Rivera said. “But we stuck to the plan, worked hard and found the right combination of players.”