Panthers take different approach in free agency

This offseason has seemingly been a game of one-upping signings between playoff teams in desperate search of pushing themselves over the proverbial hump. In Charlotte, though, the biggest free-agency signing was the one-year resigning of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

But how did the Panthers get to a place where their biggest offseason moves have been cutting James Anderson and Chris Gamble? How did a team that went just 7-9 a year ago end up $16 million above the cap? 

Marty Hurney. 

The general manager who the Panthers let go six games in, but whom they signed to an extension after going 2-14 in 2010, has left the franchise mired in miserable contracts that will take a couple years for new general manager David Gettleman to mitigate and expunge. Perhaps no general manager in the league was a more egregious example of recklessly throwing out money to retain potential free agents than Hurney, all the while working for an owner that was screaming of the financial iniquities of the previous collective bargaining agreement. 

There was the five-year, $36.5 million deal for Thomas Davis, who gruesomely tore his ACL the season prior. Then there was the five-year, $50-million deal for John Beason, which was followed by a six-year, $72 million deal for Charles Johnson, a player with just 20 sacks in the four seasons leading up to the deal. Even more maddening for Panthers fans was the Johnson deal came only a year after letting Julius Peppers — one of the league’s most dominant defensive players at the time — go because they wouldn’t pony up financially.  

Nothing was logical about that offseason, though. Nothing screamed rebuild around the existing talent that 2-14 season, but then again little Hurney did was logical. This is the same general manager who gave Jake Delhomme a contract extension after a six-interception performance in an NFC Championship game. Now, he’s left the Panthers with more deals in need of restructuring than any other team in the league. 

And that’s not even mentioning the train wreck in the backfield, where Jonathan Stewart signed a five-year, $36.5 million deal a year ago, and DeAngelo Williams was signed to a six-year, $43 million deal. Keep in mind Stewart and Williams have combined for three 1,000-plus yard seasons in 12 seasons in a league in which 16 running backs ran for more than 1,000 a season ago.

For those keeping track, that’s $237 million in long-term deals tied up in five players that have a combined zero Pro Bowls since those deals were signed.

Were it not for Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly in back-to-back drafts, both building blocks on their respective sides of the ball, it’s hard to imagine a general manager inheriting a more hapless cap situation despite the Panthers finishing 2012 ranked 10th and 12th on defense and offense, respectively. 

What we have seen out of Gettleman so far in an extremely limited sample size has been the opposite of Hurney: measured deals and a reasoned addressing of needs without an imprudent desire to retain free agents. 

Beason’s return from injury and the reemergence of Davis in 2012 meant Anderson was expendable, so Gettleman made the necessary move of releasing him.

Same with Chris Gamble, whose injury last season allowed rookie Josh Norman to show he’ll likely be a starter in Charlotte for as long as he’s there. 

Then, Gettleman moved quickly to address the most pressing need with all three of his first unrestricted free-agent signings – defensive backs Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore and Mike Mitchell – addressing an immediate need in the secondary. Neither Florence nor Moore are stars, but both provide depth after the Panthers were forced to release Chris Gamble to get closer to the $122 million salary cap. Mitchell was a backup in Oakland, but the Panthers were miserable at strong safety last season, and it’s hard to imagine he’s not an upgrade over Haruki Nakamura, who is still giving Panthers fans nightmares over his infamous blown assignment in Atlanta. 

The move that should pay immediate dividends, though, is the signing of Ted Ginn. The Panthers ranked 29th in the NFL in return yards a season ago and Ginn’s one-year deal immediately addresses the punt and kick returning game.

The former Ohio State standout could also fill in as the No. 3 receiver for Louis Murphy, who left a week ago. 

Gettleman’s biggest challenge, though, is likely going to come in figuring out what to do at defensive tackle. The Panthers already released Ron Edwards and it appears they’ll be unable to come to a deal with Dwan Edwards, who is seeking a multi-year deal. So Gettleman will have his hands full in patching up the middle of the Panthers’ defense on the cheap.

Having Greg Hardy and Johnson on the edges likely alleviates some of the concern because of the attention they attract on the outside, and this is a draft heavy on defensive tackles. They could go defensive tackle with the 14th pick, but they’re also in need of an impact wide receiver and an offensive guard that can step in right away in a draft in which they possess just five picks (no third- or seventh-round picks). 

There are definitive holes to fill in the draft and the remainder of free agency if the Panthers want to compete in the NFC South, but if early returns are any indication, Gettleman will find a cheaper — and more logical — way of doing so than the Panthers have seen previously.

And regardless of the lack of noise or big free-agency signings, Panthers fans have to consider this offseason cleanup a win so far.