The Carolina Panthers were one of the NFL’s best stories in 2013, winning 11 of 12 games to make the playoffs, establishing a dominant defense, and earning “Riverboat” Ron Rivera a contract extension through 2017.
But as big of a surprise as they were during the regular season, the offseason has been equally head-scratching and hard to take for Panthers fans. The team discarded popular veteran receiver Steve Smith — taking a $3 million cap hit instead of keeping him on the team — and on the surface have had about as bad an offseason as any team in the NFL.
They lost their Pro Bowl left tackle when Jordan Gross retired after 11 seasons. They lost their top three receivers — Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn in free agency, Smith as a cut. They also let two secondary starters leave in free agency — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell — and to top it off, franchise quarterback Cam Newton is now out 3-4 months after opting for surprise ankle surgery last week, two months after suffering the injury in the Panthers’ playoff loss to the 49ers.
Not exactly what the Panthers want as they set out to defend their NFC South crown and establish themselves as an annual contender in the smash-mouth NFC.
Second-year general manager Dave Gettleman, a Dorchester native and longtime scout with the Bills and Giants, has taken heat after making unpopular decisions this offseason. But upon closer examination, there’s solid football and economic reasoning behind most of Gettleman’s moves, and there’s still plenty of reason for optimism in Charlotte.
“When I took this position I knew that difficult decisions would have to be made along the way,” Gettleman, 63, said after releasing Smith last week. “Sometimes it may appear that short-term interests will suffer, and I can assure you we have no interest in taking a step back from our 2013 accomplishments. Nevertheless, like all NFL teams, we are in transition as we try to get into the best position going forward.”
Many of Gettleman’s moves have been made with the salary cap in mind. He inherited a messy cap situation from former GM Marty Hurney, who handcuffed the Panthers to huge dead-money deals for running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, among others. The Panthers entered last offseason well over the salary cap, and this year had about $8 million of space as of Friday.
They also need to clear space to eventually sign their cornerstone players to contract extensions. Newton can sign a new deal this offseason, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly can sign one starting next offseason. Newton’s deal could cost the Panthers upward of $20 million per season, considering the going rate for franchise quarterbacks.
“We’re cap-challenged,” Gettleman said last month at the combine. “Last year we started quite a bit over. We had to do some maneuvering to just get under for the first day of the league year. The progress we’ve made this year is we don’t have to do any of that. But that doesn’t mean we’re sitting here with $35 million under the cap. So if you always go for the immediate, instant gratification, you’re going to get burned.”
The Panthers were able to find the money to franchise-tag defensive end Greg Hardy for more than $13 million, but they saved $6 million in cap space with Smith, and viewed LaFell (New England), Ginn (Arizona), Munnerlyn (Minnesota), and Mitchell (Pittsburgh) as not worth the investment. Instead, they made a couple of decent value signings — safety Roman Harper for two years and $4.5 million, and receiver Jerricho Cotchery for two years. Cotchery, 31, had a resurgent year for the Steelers with 10 touchdowns, including three in a game against the Patriots. He’s not a sexy signing, but at least he gives Newton a solid veteran presence on the outside.
“Picking up Cotchery, that alleviates a lot of fears,” said former NFL safety Eugene Robinson, now the Panthers’ radio analyst. “When you lose the three starters you lost, you’ve got to be able to have somebody that comes up with some name and star power and will actually put in work.”
While Smith, who played 13 seasons for the Panthers, was viewed as the top receiver, tight end Greg Olsen was really the No. 1 option in the passing game, leading the team with 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns. Though the Panthers still need to find a left tackle and another receiver, “they’ll be fine as long as they have the tight end and the running game,” a rival NFC front office executive said. “Think draft — this draft is as deep at receiver as I can remember.”
Newton’s ankle surgery isn’t ideal, but the injury was nagging him as he was taking classes at Auburn this winter, and while Newton won’t perform much in the offseason, the organization believes at least he’ll be 100 percent healthy entering training camp.
And by franchising Hardy, the Panthers now return their entire front seven, which helped them finish No. 2 against the run, No. 6 against the pass, and record 60 sacks.
On paper, the Panthers’ offseason hasn’t looked great, but this is still a team that should make noise in a tough NFC.
“As I’ve talked to Dave about all the different things we’re trying to do, one thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong,” Rivera said. “Our defensive line was very strong for us. So, I’m very optimistic about what we can become as a football team.”
Browner’s suspension result of compromise
The Patriots have a unique situation with new defensive back Brandon Browner, who will serve a four-game, unpaid suspension to start the season, plus play four games without pay as punishment for violating the NFL’s drug policy.
A quick Q&A to clear the air about what Browner can and can’t do this season:
What’s the background of his suspension, and why the unique punishment?
Browner, a cornerback for the Seahawks for the last three years, was suspended indefinitely in November for his third strike against the drug policy. But Browner and his agent threatened a lawsuit against the NFL, revealing that Browner’s earlier strikes came as a result of missing drug tests when he was out of the league and playing in Canada from 2006-07. Earlier this month the NFL and Browner came to a compromise, allowing Browner to play in 2014 but suspending him for four games and docking him an additional four game checks.
Can Browner participate in the offseason workouts and training camp?
Yes. Browner can attend all offseason workouts, practice with his teammates in training camp, and play in the exhibition games.
What happens when the regular season starts?
Browner will not be allowed to play in games or practice with his teammates from the start of the regular season through the end of Week 4. However, he can attend meetings and work out at the team facility during that time, per the club’s discretion. The NFL changed this rule in recent years, allowing offenders of the drug program to be around the facility and have a support system to help overcome their issues.
What happens to Browner’s pay?
During his four-game suspension, the Patriots simply withhold four game checks. During his four games without pay, Browner’s paychecks will be remitted to the league to go toward drug program costs.
What is Browner’s salary and cap number?
As of Friday, Browner’s contract still had not been filed by the NFL Players Association, but according to ESPN Boston, it was a three-year, $16.8 million deal with only $1 million guaranteed. In 2014, Browner reportedly has a $1 million guaranteed salary, offseason workout bonus of $250,000, roster bonus of $500,000 for being on the 53-man roster any day of the season, a bonus of $9,375 for every game he’s on the active roster, and up to $1.25 million in incentives.
Here is how to calculate Browner’s 2014 cap number, as explained to us by former agent JoelCorry, a cap expert for CBSSports.com and National Football Post:
Before the suspension, Browner will count $1.825 million against the cap — $1 million in base salary, $250,000 workout bonus, $500,000 roster bonus, and $75,000 of the roster bonus (since he played in only eight games last year). The incentives won’t hit his cap number until the end of the season.
When the suspension takes effect, the Patriots will receive a cap credit of $235,294 — or 4/17ths of Browner’s base salary — making his cap number about $1.59 million. While Browner won’t earn paychecks for four games, the Patriots must still account for it on the salary cap.
Overall, Browner can play 12 games, earn 9/17ths of his salary, and earn a maximum of $2.64 million in cash in 2014 — $529,411 in base salary, $250,000 workout bonus, $500,000 roster bonus, $112,500 in per-game bonuses, and $1.25 million in incentives.
Talib, Spikes wrong to accuse the Patriots
It’s fashionable to accuse the Patriots of cheating, and news editors were quick to run with last week’s headline, “Spikes and Talib accuse Patriots of falsifying injury reports.” While the Patriots aren’t exactly the most forthcoming team when it comes to injuries, the claims by ex-Patriots Aqib Talib and Brandon Spikes seem more like sour grapes than legitimate gripes.
Talib’s claim at his introductory news conference in Denver was fairly serious, as it accused the Patriots of dirty tactics.
“The injury I had was actually a quad injury,” Talib said. “It was reported as a hip injury, but that’s how they do things.”
Talib didn’t say it, but his comments accuse the Patriots of lying about the nature of his injury so as to create concern about a lingering injury and drive down his value on the free agent market.
Watching a replay of the injury on NFL Game Rewind didn’t add much clarity, but we’re a bit skeptical of Talib’s claim. After all, the Broncos can escape their five-year contract with Talib after each season without much penalty, so he seems like someone trying to protect his business interests and ward off the impression that he has a lingering hip injury that could affect his long-term future in the NFL.
Talib also claimed that he hadn’t suffered a hip injury since his days in Tampa Bay, but he also was listed with a hip injury late in the 2012 season with New England.
Spikes’s situation is less ambiguous. He played all 16 games last season but was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury five days before the playoff game against the Colts. The decision came three days after Spikes was late for meetings because of a snowstorm.
“I heard they put me on IR and stuff like that. That was just a false report,” Spikes, now with the Bills, said in a radio interview in Buffalo. “That’s just how things go there. Almost like what happened with Talib and his hip.”
Except there was nothing “false” about it. Spikes played through a minor injury to his posterior cruciate ligament for most of the season and decided not to have surgery after flying to Los Angeles for a second opinion.
His agent, Gary Uberstine, said in a statement in January that Spikes wanted to keep playing “despite the pain he was experiencing throughout the season,” and Spikes said in his radio interview that “all I needed was rest and rehab.”
Spikes is allowed to be upset that the team placed him on IR, but there is nothing unique about his situation, and the team did nothing wrong. Dozens of players each year are placed on IR, even though they believe they can rehab and return to the lineup, because the team wants to free up roster spots.
Throwing good money away on quarterbacks
The resources the Raiders have invested in the quarterback position over the last seven years are absurd.
They used the No. 1 overall pick and gave $31.5 million guaranteed to JaMarcus Russell, traded a fourth-round pick and gave $7.6 million to Jason Campbell, traded first- and second-round picks for Carson Palmer and paid him $15 million, wasted a third-round pick on Terrelle Pryor and a fourth-round pick on Tyler Wilson (who didn’t even make the team out of camp), and last week traded a sixth-round pick for Matt Schaub and his $10 million base salary.
That’s six quarterbacks, four traded draft picks, three wasted picks, $64.1 million spent — and zero playoff appearances.
Jets’ faith seems to be lacking
Perhaps Geno Smith doesn’t deserve much support in New York after throwing 12 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions in his rookie season, but the Jets are showing zero faith in him by signing Michael Vick to a one-year deal.
Vick isn’t the same player he was in Atlanta, but even at 33, he’s clearly a better quarterback and gives the Jets a better chance to win in 2014 than does Smith.
And New York fans and media will waste little time in clamoring for Vick to play and Smith to head to the bench. Smith was only a second-round pick, so the Jets shouldn’t have to be married to him. But if they have any plans on making him their long-term quarterback, they risk ruining his confidence by bringing in Vick behind him.
Numbers don’t add up on Jackson
The Eagles are actively shopping Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Surely a team will want him, but for Patriots fans dreaming of perhaps a Jackson-Danny Amendola swap, let’s look at reality:
First, the Eagles have to really want to get rid of Jackson’s 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns, because he’ll count $6.5 million against their salary cap if he is traded. Similarly, Amendola will count $4.8 million against the Patriots’ cap if he is traded.
Jackson also has a $10.5 million base salary in 2014, which the Patriots, less than $5 million under the cap, can’t afford. Jackson could always agree to a restructured deal, and the Patriots could always create cap space, but Jackson doesn’t seem like someone willing to play for a discount.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.