If you asked Panther fans what the priority of the offseason would be, I think most would have put retaining Greg Hardy at the top of the list. The good news, if there’s any, is that Hardy was franchised and then signed his one year tender. He won’t be going anywhere. While both sides are reportedly trying to work towards a long term deal, he’s currently counting a very expensive ~$13 million against the cap. The lack of cap flexibility because of that financial situation has affected free agency a bit, but mostly the Panthers are just striking out everywhere. Considering the happenings of this offseason, it’s fair to say the Panthers are currently much worse from a roster standpoint than they were in 2013. And while I learned long ago to never judge a roster prior to the completion of training camp, the Panthers have a lot of work to do if they want to contend for another NFC South title and first round bye.
Let’s take a quick look at what has happened:
First, the team was hammered by the loss of Jordan Gross, their elite left tackle protecting Cam Newton’s blindside, as he announced his retirement. The flurry of moves to land the top tier talent at tackle in free agency has come and gone, and the Panthers have yet to address getting a replacement for him. The team did make a run at free agent Anthony Collins but lost out of him to the divisional rival Bucs. The Panthers’ left guard Travelle Wharton is still in limbo, too, as he’s yet to be re-signed. The offensive line, especially the left side, was a real strength for the Panthers in 2013 and the team could possibly be looking at 2014 without either pillar player. That news is even more significant when you consider the fact that the team just announced Cam Newton will be out for 4 months following recent ankle surgery, so protecting him is even more necessary.
Not having Cam Newton for a large part of the season shouldn’t affect 2014 too much, but you have to wonder how that will impact any chemistry with a brand new receiving core. A brand new receiving core is necessary, by the way, because the Panthers released Steve Smith, lost Brandon LaFell to the Patriots and Ted Ginn Jr. to the Cardinals. In losing their top three receivers of 2013, the Panthers’ current roster boasts just one player that’s ever had a career reception. That player is Kealoha Pilares who sat out all of 2013 with an injury and has 2 career receptions to his name. Mind you the Panthers have attempted to lure free agent receivers but have lost out on both targets so far as Hakeem Nicks (Colts) and James Jones (Raiders) went in another direction. Most recently the Panthers hosted Jerricho Cotchery for a visit, but he left without a deal and is said to be deciding between the Panthers and returning to the Steelers. Based on how this offseason has gone, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see him opt out of Carolina as well. Should the Panthers land Cotchery, he’s one receiver, but he’s not a number one receiver. The fact remains either way that the Panthers’ offense is severely depleted and they have done nothing to help Cam Newton by replacing the weapons previously at his disposal.
It gets worse. The Panthers have also lost starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to the Vikings and safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers, both of which played very well in 2013. The lone new free agent the Panthers have landed at this point is aging safety Roman Harper from the rival New Orleans Saints. Harper is 31, missed half of last season with an injury, and even in his prime was always viewed as being a severe liability in coverage. This can’t be looked any other way than a severe downgrade. In fact, the Saints discarded him in favor of emerging youngster Kenny Vaccaro. The Panthers’ other 2013 starting safety, Quitin Mikell, is 34 and he is not expected to return after suffering an injury in the team’s playoff loss to the 49ers. Ouch.
The Panthers did at least retain Hardy and lock up kicker Graham Gano, who had an exceptional season last year missing only three kicks. Besides that, the team’s activity is limited to retaining guys that played an exceedingly small part in the 2013 campaign in QB Derek Anderson, TE Mike McNeill, CB James Dockery and LB Jason Williams. It’s hard to envision any of those players making any impact.
In summary, two weeks into free agency, the Panthers have lost their star quarterback for four months, they lost their Pro Bowl left tackle to retirement, their top three receivers to other teams, three quarters of their defensive backfield and they’ve been unable to convince anyone to join their side with the exception of Roman Harper. Based on how things have gone thus far it’s hard to see the Panthers duplicating the magic they were able to tap into come the fall. As things stand currently they are much worse in terms of talent and they’ll need to make some moves quickly if they don’t want to see their NFC South title defense go the same way it did for the Atlanta Falcons a year ago.