Scott Fowler

Fowler: It’s time to release DeAngelo Williams

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman answered questions from the media for the first time in months Tuesday, and he said repeatedly he would not let his feelings come into play in the 2015 offseason.

“If you’re emotional about your decision, you’re going to really do something stupid,” Gettleman said.

With that in mind, here is an unemotional look at seven things I would do in the next few days and months if I were Gettleman:

1. Release DeAngelo Williams. In many ways, this should be one of the Panthers’ simplest decisions because letting the franchise rushing leader go no longer forces a major salary-cap hit. Williams is 31 and the fourth-best running back on the roster. It’s time.

2. Let Byron Bell go. The Panthers have to have a better offensive line, and that will begin with an upgrade at the most important spot. Pass rushers came crashing down on Cam Newton way too often from the blind side this season. Bell is an unrestricted free agent so this is easy – just don’t bring him back.

3. Sign a tackle – and then draft another. My biggest problem with what Gettleman didn’t do in the 2014 offseason had to do with him trying to get by cheaply at both tackle spots. Not putting a draft choice or some major free-agent money into the position was a mistake that can’t happen again.

I would sign one possible left tackle in free agency and draft another tackle high, either with the No. 25 overall pick the Panthers own or soon afterward. Give Newton more protection, and he will be better.

4. Don’t completely ignore the dollar store. The quote everyone will remember from Gettleman’s news conference Tuesday was this: “Last year we were shopping in the dollar store. This year we’ll be able to move up in class a little bit.”

That’s good news, because the Panthers don’t need any more Jason Avants, Antoine Casons or Tiquan Underwoods. But the Panthers also have to find some bargains. A stop at the dollar store remains a good idea.

Ideally, I’d spend just enough money there to upgrade the mostly awful special-teams coverage and return units.

5. Stay far away from Greg Hardy. In Gettleman’s phrasing, the decision to place a $13.1 million franchise tag on Hardy “blew up” this past season. That’s because of Hardy’s off-field issues, which will be highlighted once again with his domestic violence trial in February.

No matter how that trial goes, the Panthers need to let Hardy become someone else’s problem after it ends. Fool me once – well, you know the rest.

6. Make inroads with Cam. On Dec. 6, when the Panthers were 3-8-1, I wrote a column saying Newton had not proved yet he was worthy of a $100 million contract extension and that the Panthers needed to take a “wait-and-see” approach before signing him to a new contract.

Then Carolina won five straight games (Newton quarterbacked four of them) and lost to Seattle in the NFL’s quarterfinals. Newton looked a lot better in December and January than he did earlier. And as I survey the field of possible free-agent and college quarterbacks out there, it’s very iffy.

There’s little doubt that when Newton is healthy, Carolina is better at quarterback than at least 20 other NFL teams. Gettleman again called Newton a “franchise quarterback” Tuesday, and it sounds like the Panthers will engage in contract negotiations with Newton soon.

I’m OK with that. Sometimes the problems you know about (mechanics, decision-making, consistency) are a whole lot better than the problems you don’t.

Keeping the lines of communication open is a great idea, as is making Newton feel wanted. But you cannot hamstring the entire franchise to sign him, either. The Panthers must be very careful here.

7. Keep more continuity. Late in 2014, the Panthers had 16 new players among the 24 key positions on offense and defense (I am counting the third receiver and the nickel cornerback as starters, too). Only eight players were the same from 2013.

That sounds good in that a lot of that talent was young. But that’s also way too much turnover for a team that won 12 games in 2013.

Gettleman let a lot of good players wave goodbye a year ago (Brandon LaFell, Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell, Ted Ginn Jr.) and also incorrectly fired the best player Carolina ever had. That was wide receiver Steve Smith. Gettleman said Tuesday he still doesn’t regret it and that the move was a “win-win” for Smith and the Panthers.

The wholesale changes shouldn’t need to happen this year, because fewer players’ contracts are up. But Gettleman also needs to ensure more continuity.

Next season things must reverse, and about 16 of those 24 players should be the same in December. With that sort of culture in place, the learning curve will be more gentle, and the Panthers will be less likely to get off to one of those awful starts that have plagued them in three of the past four season.

Coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday the Panthers could take a big step and get to the Super Bowl in 2015. But much of that depends on what Gettleman does in the next four months.

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