For now, the Panthers’ free safety job remains in the hands of Sherrod Martin.
How long he hangs onto depends entirely on him.
The fourth-year safety was put on notice by the signings of free agents Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith, and knows he’s going to have to improve his play to keep the position.
The laid-back Martin tried to not over-emphasize the competition, but the pressure is clearly on.
“When teams sign guys, they sign guys that they feel like can help the team. That’s the most important thing,” Martin said. “As far as my position, it’s about what I do. I’ve just got to come out and (be) me.”
Some blown coverages late in the season last year put him in the coaching staff’s doghouse, and even earned a curt rebuke from owner Jerry Richardson. In a Q and A with the Charlotte Observer last spring, Richardson was asked his opinion of Martin, and replied: “I think he plays safety.”
The front-office moves to create competition spoke even louder, and there’s no doubt his grip is tenuous.
“I think he’s an aggressive young player that’s learned, and learned some valuable lessons,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The best thing that happened to Sherrod last year was he played. And I think we can build on those types of situations.”
When he’s on point, Martin can be a dangerous player. A college corner with special range, he’s also a big hitter. Sometimes, those hits were too big, as he’s been fined repeatedly and was even featured in a league instructional video for illegal hits.
But it was the hits he didn’t make that earned him the wrong kind of notice from coaches. His boom-or-bust style has meant more missed tackles than they’d care for, and the hope is an offseason to work with this staff will polish his technique to the point it’s not a liability.
“A big part of the game that I messed up on last year was tackling,” Martin said. “That’s something I’ve got to improve on. Other than that, just coming out and working. Just constantly getting better and putting myself in better position and just finish plays.”
–The Panthers will wrap up offseason work with a three-day minicamp next week. That will give them a more extended opportunity to look at some competition at several positions, even though it’s non-contact work. The cornerback position is of particular interest. Incumbent Captain Munnerlyn is still working with the starters, but second-year man Brandon Hogan could unseat him in camp.
–Cam Newton missed a day of OTAs last week, but only because of a schedule change. He had committed to an appearance in Atlanta last Friday, and was excused from that day’s practice. Newton’s omnipresence at team functions has been hailed as one of his biggest steps in taking charge of the team.
–The Panthers are closing the spring with a practice open to fans next week. They’ve never done that before, one of the many subtle changes this offseason.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Last week’s MRI on right tackle Jeff Otah’s left knee was precautionary, and team officials said there were no structural problems.
But the fact he’s working with backups in OTAs, coupled with some other offseason moves, point to the fact they’re clearly thinking about life without him.
Otah’s been working with backups behind former undrafted rookie Byron Bell. Otah’s played just four games the last two seasons, and counting on him seems illogical given his track record. They’re going to give him a chance, because when he’s well, he’s a dominant run blocker.
But looking at some of their other moves, it’s clear he might not be a long-term fix anyway.
Left guard Travelle Wharton, long the key to their inside-out run game with his strength and pulling ability, was a salary-cap cut. Former starting right guard Geoff Schwartz could have been easily retained as a restricted free agent, but he balked at playing for less than the $1.26 million tender and signed with Minnesota. Center-guard Mackenzy Bernadeau was likewise allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent.
The common thread was that all three (and Otah as well) are better run blockers than pass blockers. As quarterback Cam Newton continues to develop as a pocket passer, protecting him is more of a priority.
As much as they’d love Otah to return, the fact they’re investing time in Bell (and trade acquisition Bruce Campbell) speaks to the fact they’re thinking about life without him.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“It’s not going to be the same offense. Coach (Rob) Chudzinski, we call him the ‘Mad scientist.’ He’s always creating new ideas. It’s fun, but it’s also tedious. It takes a lot of focus on our part, but we’re all working toward the same goal, so it’s exciting to come in and be able to build on what we were able to do last year.” — Center Ryan Kalil, on the adjustments to the offense which made huge strides last year.