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NFL free agency: Carolina Panthers may be making wrong calls

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman's favorite expression – or at least the one the media latched on to during his first year in Charlotte – was hog molly.

A hog molly, as Panthers fans now know, by definition is a big, ugly fish. But in Gettleman's vernacular, it refers to football player, generally a lineman, of great girth.

Gettleman also talked a lot about the salary cap after succeeding Marty Hurney last January, specifically his challenge in keeping the Panthers under it while building a roster that ended the franchise's four-year playoff drought.

Gettleman referred often to the "flat cap" – the incremental increases in the cap during the first two years under the new collective bargaining agreement.

What Gettleman needed – not to mention those players entering free agency – was a hog molly of a cap increase.

Well, they got one this year, a $10 million spike up to a $133 million per team. And based on how the Panthers fared during the first week of free agency, there's some question as to whether they were prepared for it.

When they weren't ushering Steve Smith out of Bank of America Stadium (more on that later), the Panthers were making under-the-radar moves (Derek Anderson, Mike McNeill) and watching the big fish get away.

The Panthers entered free agency needing a left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross and a receiver to step in for the cast-off Smith. To this point they've signed neither, while watching five starters (counting Smith) go elsewhere.

No. 2 wideout Brandon LaFell became the latest starter to bolt, agreeing to a three-year deal with New England on Saturday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The Patriots also made a play for Smith, so Bill Belichick must see something in the Panthers' receiving corps that Gettleman didn't.

Meanwhile, the smoldering remains of the Panthers' receiving depth chart now includes just one player who's caught a pass in an NFL game. That would be Kealoha Pilares, who has two career catches for 42 yards and missed all of last season following knee surgery.

Gettleman seems to be putting a lot of faith in Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt, who almost caught a pass against the Falcons in Week 17.

As for the rest of Carolina's free agency week that wasn't ...

The Panthers were interested in former Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Collins, who signed with Tampa Bay on a five-year deal worth $30 million, with $15 million guaranteed. Collins got a bigger deal than some observers expected. It was too rich for the Panthers, who were $8 million under the cap at the end of last week, according to NFLPA figures.

But the Panthers also missed out on Giants free agent wideout Hakeem Nicks, who it turns out would not have busted their budget.

Nicks mentioned his hometown Panthers among three teams on his wish list. The father of the former Independence High and North Carolina standout at one point posted on Instagram that Nicks was a Panther.

Instead, Nicks got on a plane for Indianapolis and came back with a one-year deal worth $3.5 million with incentives that could push it to $5.5 million. Nicks said the Panthers made him an offer, but it wasn't the right situation in Charlotte. He didn't elaborate.

A league source with knowledge of the situation said the Panthers talked contract parameters with Nicks, but never offered. That might be semantics, or it might mean Gettleman – who knew Nicks well from their time with the Giants – has another receiver he likes more.

Gettleman's approach is the same one he used effectively last year: wait out the market, let prices fall and sign undervalued players to team-friendly deals.

But there are two differences this year: The Panthers are significantly weaker offensively with the departures of Gross and Smith, and the inventory is more picked-over after 70 unrestricted free agents changed teams in the first three days of free agency, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

After losing their top four receivers – count 'em – in a three-day span, the Panthers better hope King or McNutt is the next Victor Cruz. Even with a deep receiving group in this year's draft, the Panthers need at least one or two experienced receivers for Cam Newton to throw to.

Maybe the silence surrounding James Jones' status in recent days is cover for the Green Bay free agent wideout to sign with Carolina. Jones is not a true No. 1 receiver, but he caught 14 touchdown passes in 2012 and turned in a 59-catch, 817-yard season last year.

Stay tuned. This week won't be as emotional for Panthers fans as the Smith saga last week, but it will be equally important.

A few more thoughts on Smith

When a team cuts the best and one of the most popular players in franchise history, PSL owners, sponsors, and media want to know why.

Was Gettleman’s decision to cut Smith related to money? Performance? Was it personal?

I think it was a combination of all three.

Smith hoped to play the 2014 season and retire as a Panther. That was the same mindset Gross had before the Panthers asked him to restructure his contract and take a pay cut last year.

The Panthers also were interested in having Smith restructure his contract, which called for him to receive a $3 million bonus this year – either when the team picked up his option for 2016 (when Smith would have been 37) or as a non-exercise fee if Smith was on the roster on July 1.

I was told the Panthers never formally approached Smith about a restructuring because he had indicated he wouldn’t be agreeable to it.

In the end, the Panthers paid Smith $5 million not to play for them, and he’s collecting $4.5 million in guaranteed money this year from the Ravens, who do in fact want Smith to play for them.

No one’s heard from Gettleman since his combine comments, but he released a five-paragraph statement to explain his position.

“When I took this position I knew that difficult decisions would have to be made along the way. To move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult of all. A decision not to be taken lightly,” Gettleman said. “However, after much thought I feel very strongly it’s the right one.”


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