If Panthers minicamp opened today, first-team passing drills would feature Derek Anderson throwing to wide receivers Tavarres King and Jerricho Cotchery. The second team would consist of Matt Blanchard tossing to Marvin McNutt and Tiquan Underwood. Joe Webb would factor in somewhere, either as a quarterback or a receiver, perhaps lobbing the ball high in the air and catching it himself.
Cam Newton is prepping for ankle surgery. He will be back at the start of training camp. All of Newton's familiar wide receivers, from face-of-the-franchise Steve Smith to role player Domenik Hixon, are gone. The ankle procedure will keep Newton off the field for the critical nametag and "Tell us a little about yourself" stage of the offseason. Newton will be healthy enough to watch film and shake hands, but not to establish timing with aging newcomers or depth chart basement dwellers he has rarely thrown to.
The Panthers will draft a receiver or two, of course. But right now, their wide receiver depth chart is a free agent disaster area. Their secondary is not much better, but Mandatory Monday only has room for one calamity at a time.
We think of free agency as a shopping spree. But for every binge, there's a purge. And some of the purges are out-and-out guttings, caused by cap problems, regime changes, or just a misinterpretation of the marketplace.
The Panthers appear to be victims of the third. If you can picture general manager Dave Gettleman at all (he's one of the league's lowest-profile top execs), you can picture him cocking his eyebrows and turning his head at an odd angle with his ear to the telephone. "Really? The Patriots had interest in Brandon Lafell? Who saw that coming?"
Other teams watched as large chunks of their rosters denuded by more natural causes. This week's Mandatory Monday looks at three of the league's biggest crisis units for playoff-hopeful teams. We'll examine what went wrong, look at just how bad the situation is, and try to solve some problems through the draft.
It won't be easy. Rome wasn't built in a day, but it burned down pretty quickly.
Disaster Area: Panthers Wide Receivers
Steve Smith is in Baltimore. Ted Ginn is in Arizona. Domenik Hixon is in Chicago. Brandon LaFell is in New England. Combined, they were the targets of 58% of the Panthers pass attempts and accounted for 53% of the completions and 59% of the yards.
Even those high percentages are somewhat misleading, because so much of the Panthers passing game flowed through tight end Greg Olsen and the running backs. No wide receiver is left on the Panthers roster who caught a pass last year. McNutt is the only receiver on the current roster who was even thrown a regular-season pass by Newton in 2013: it happened once, in Week 17. The Panthers lost their unquestioned leader and top veteran receiver (Smith), their top deep threat and double-duty return man (Ginn), an inconsistent-but-experienced possession receiver who grew up in the system (LaFell), and a try-hard all-purpose player off the bench (Hixon). In other words, they lost the entire corps.
Let's look at who arrived and who is left:
Jerricho Cotchery will turn 32 in June. A go-to receiver for the Jets from 2006-08, he spent two seasons as the Steelers fourth wide receiver before enjoying a strange career renaissance last year. Promoted to the #3 role and given extra duties while tight end Heath Miller was injured, Cotchery had a three-touchdown game against the Patriots (despite the 55-31 final score, it was not garbage-time production) en route to a 46-602-10 stat line.
Cotchery proved that he still has value as a #3 receiver last year, though it is important to note that most of his production came early in the year, when Miller was unavailable and the Steelers offense was rather dysfunctional. As of now, he must be considered the Panthers #1 receiver and de facto replacement for Smith.
Tavarres King is the likely heir apparent to Ginn as the boundary and vertical threat. The leading receiver at Georgia in 2011 and 2012 (though with modest overall numbers), King was drafted by the Broncos in the fifth round last year, battled thigh injuries, and was released in early October. The Panthers picked him up but never activated him. He has deep speed, but this is not the resume of the #2 receiver on a playoff team.
Marvin McNutt has been activated for five games in two NFL seasons. The Eagles' fifth-round pick in 2012, McNutt was super-productive at Iowa and has the skills of a possession receiver, but he was never able to make a dent in the Eagles or Dolphins depth charts. He is LaFell for now.
Tiquan Underwood caught 52 passes in the past two seasons, though you might have missed them, because watching the Buccaneers offense was an incredible chore. Long and lean with some deep speed, Underwood took the Rutgers alum NFL tour after coming off the Jaguars bench for two seasons: he spent a few games in New England, then latched on with Greg Schiano. As a career #3 receiver for bad offenses with limited special teams value, Underwood is not the kind of player quality teams project into a regular role. Based solely on experience, he is a contender for a Panthers starting job.
There are others, but you get the idea. How does a team that won its division in 2013 wind up with a bunch of old guys and former fifth-round picks with zero catches atop its depth chart? Cap issues certainly played a role, though this fine essay from the gang at Over the Cap explains just how little the Panthers saved in swapping Smith for Cotchery. Ginn's reported three-year, $10-million contract with the Cardinals was not exactly a gut-buster either: the Panthers could have swung that if they wanted. The Panthers are presumably clearing cap space and freeing actual cash to extend Newton and Greg Hardy, but there was clearly more to the receiver purge than that.
Disenchantment with the overall quality of the departing receivers also played a role. Hixon is an aging, oft-injured role player. LaFell dropped six passes last year, a couple of them in third down situations down the stretch. A starter for two-and-a-half seasons, LaFell has never cracked 50 receptions nor 700 yards, so the Panthers have reason to be disappointed with his development. Smith can be seen as a victim of Moneyball. Ginn is the odd case. Now long removed from his days as a Dolphins draft-day blooper, he is a useful return man and defense stretcher who has learned how to use his speed to get open on comeback routes. He is the kind of player who seems easy to replace until you try to replace him. Still, with speedy King in the wings, the Panthers may have felt that they could get younger at receiver and allow a new nucleus of players to grow up with the more mature Newton.
Even if that was the reasoning, the Panthers look like a team that got blindsided. Newton's surgery is part of the issue: the hardcore "let's get young fast" plan will get off to a sloppy start with the quarterback unavailable. The Panthers expected trade suitors for Smith, hoping for at least a little more than the Ravens got for Anquan Boldin in 2013. They either misread the market for Ginn, Cotchery and James Jones (the former Packers receiver openly expressed interest in playing with Cam Newton; Jones signed with the Raiders for a little more than the Cardinals gave Ginn) or are working from a totally different value model than most teams.
There is no way that the Panthers enter camp with their current receiver depth chart. They are now almost certain to draft a receiver in the first round, and they may dip once or twice more into a deep rookie receiver pool. It is important to note that one reason the Panthers are in this mess is that they have not drafted and developed a decent receiver (besides LaFell, who is not that great) in a decade. Here are their selections since 2004: Keary Colbert, Drew Carter, Dwayne Jarrett, Ryne Robinson, LaFell, Armanti Edwards, David Gettis, Kealoha Pilares (still hanging around the bottom of the roster) and Joe Adams. Given that history, the Panthers cannot assume that some saturation drafting can solve their problems.
But in an effort to repair the Panthers depth chart, I have assembled a little seven-round mock draft for them:
Round One: Best receiver available. If it's Odell Beckham, grab him and don't look back! If it is Penn State's Allen Robinson, that is also pretty swell: Robinson is very polished, can start right away, and can play a variety of roles. If it is Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State, the Panthers must recognize how raw (though gifted) he is and how needy they are. Coming back with another receiver in a middle-high round will be important.
Round Two: If the Panthers drafted Benjamin, they take Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews here. Matthews is bright and polished and can play a more immediate role. If they grabbed a ready-to-play receiver, they could get an offensive lineman (Gabe Jackson of Mississippi State would be an available system fit) or double down at wideout with a nasty talent like Clemson's Martavis Bryant.
Round Three: Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue. The Panthers need help in the secondary, so let's take a receiver break. I love this little guy, who can help on special teams and be useful in nickel-dime packages. Here is a little more about him.
Round Four: De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon. Assuming the Panthers receiving corps needs time to gel no matter who they draft, Thomas gives them an exciting playmaker behind veterans DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart at running back. When all else fails: wishbone, baby! Also, someone needs to replace Ginn on kick and punt returns.
Round Five: A safety. Let's say Ahmad Dixon of Arizona State, a big striker in the running game.
Round Six: Michael Campanaro, WR, Wake Forest: Scrappy little underneath receiver. Looked good as a scrapper in Senior Bowl practices.
Round Seven: Jeff Matthews, QB, Cornell. The Panthers need someone besides Anderson and this Blanchard character to throw passes in minicamp, and Webb is not an ideal choice because, geez, Joe Webb, geez. Matthews runs and throws just well enough to impersonate Newton in shorts in late May. He can then give Blanchard some competition for the #3 job.
Even with a draft like that, the Panthers will enter training camp with serious questions at wide receiver. But the draft above can make sure they don't enter the 2015 draft with even more questions.
Disaster Area: Dallas Cowboys Defensive Line
We have been asking the question for years: when will Jerry Jones' spending come back to haunt him? The answer turned out to be "mid-March, 2014," but that was not 100 percent clear in January and February. Jones is a master of voodoo economics, so $20+ million in cap overages looked like type of thing he could make disappear by paying Tony Romo in deferred gold bullion or something.
But as soon as the new league year opened, the Cowboys released DeMarcus Ware, the first truly deep cut Jones has had to make since he entered the Jason Garrett wishful thinking era. The Ware release was only slightly surprising -- as the countdown to cap compliance continued, it became clear that Jones could not limbo all of his favorites under the bar and still have enough cash to sign draft picks -- but there was a second shocker to come. The Redskins made a Godfather Snyder offer to Jason Hatcher, the veteran defensive tackle who adjusted to the team's switch to a 4-3 system better than anyone on the defense.
Even with Ware gone, the Cowboys could not maneuver into position to bargain with Hatcher, so they lost him. Ware and Hatcher accounted for half of the Cowboys' 34 sacks last year. Ware was the Cowboys' best defender (possibly their best player) from 2007-12; Hatcher may have been their best player last year.
The Cowboys allowed 6,645 yards last season, the third-highest total in history, so they were in no position to let defensive talent slip away. They spent the year transitioning from the 3-4 defense they used for years to Monte Kiffin's vintage Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 relies on pass rush and stout run defense from the four down linemen: blitzes are rare, and safeties often play deep. Kiffin and Tony Dungy achieved success because they employed defensive linemen like Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp, then Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis for Dungy. Though Ware was out-of-position, he and Hatcher at least provided a theoretical approximation of a classic pair of Tampa 2 linemen.
Who are the Cowboys starters on the offensive line as of now?
Henry Melton signed an incentive-loaded one-year deal to replace Hatcher. Melton reached the Pro Bowl with a six-sack effort in 2012, and his ACL tear early in the 2013 season was one of the tipping points for the Bears run defense: soon after he was gone, guys like Zac Stacy started to look like Earl Campbell.
Melton is a natural Tampa 2 defensive tackle. But he is coming off a major injury, and he is also involved in an ugly lawsuit. Melton allegedly bit a Chili's employee near the kidneys while being escorted from the bar last December. Yes, he allegedly bit a man near the kidneys. At Chili's. Sometimes, I type the word "allegedly" not to cover my liability, but preserve my sanity.
George Selvie is now the Cowboys top pass rusher. A former seventh-round pick who knocked around the Jaguars, Rams and Panthers benches, Selvie started 16 games for the Cowboys last season and notched seven sacks. The Cowboys wisely rotated the 245-poundish Selvie with Everette Brown and other defenders. Brown was released in February, so the Cowboys must find a platoon partner for Selvie.
Nick Hayden started 16 games last season, recording 25 solo tackles and recovering a fumble for a touchdown against the Vikings but generating zero sacks. The nose defender in a Kiffin scheme absorbs many double teams and makes few tackles, but zero sacks are still zero sacks. Like Selvie, Hayden is a knock-around guy who served tours as a role player for the Bengals and Panthers. Unlike Selvie, Hayden failed to distinguish himself last year.
Jeremy Mincey recorded eight sacks for the Jaguars in 2011. You may recall that the 2011 Jaguars looked like they were in the process of turning the corner, so following that season, former general manager Gene Smith went crazy, overpaying for free agents like Laurent Robinson and Aaron Ross, drafting punters, and so forth. Mincey's $27.2-million contract can be considered part of that meltdown. A rotation defender in 2011, Mincey wore down quickly as an every-down player in 2012. The Jaguars suspended him for violating team rules in 2013, then released him. The Broncos picked him up during their pass-rusher injury plague but he only appeared in one game. For all of this, Mincey received a two-year deal from the Cowboys. On paper, he is the guy expected to replace DeMarcus Ware. THIS IS THE PRICE OF REVOLVING DEBT AMERICA, LOOK UPON IT AND DESPAIR.
The Cowboys also signed Terrell McClain, yet another former Panthers linemen who played the interior line for about 20 snaps per game for the Texans last year. The Texans are revamping all elements of their front seven not named Watt, so they did not bother tendering McClain as a restricted free agent. McClain feels he can start for the Cowboys. His resume is not much different than Hayden's, and with Melton rehabbing his knee and biting kidneys, anything is possible.
As the Cowboys front four now stands, the team has two choices: a) blitz far more often than Kiffin and lieutenant Rod Marinelli would prefer; or b) resign themselves to settling for about 25 sacks in 2014. Considering that the Cowboys nearly broke records for defensive futility despite a pretty good inside-out pass rush in 2013, it is scary to think what might happen when Selvie is the only guy opponents feel the need to regularly double team.
So let's get the Cowboys some defensive linemen! Instead of going seven rounds, let's concentrate on the top three. Jerry Jones stops paying attention to the draft on Friday night, so we might as well, too.
Round One: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Pitt. Donald is undersized for a defensive tackle, but Hayden and McClain provide credible beef at the nose, allowing Donald to play the three-tech position. Donald can rotate with and push Melton early on; if Melton does not regain 2012 form, the Cowboys can cut bait. On passing downs, Donald and Melton can play the two tackle positions so the Cowboys do not have to pretend that any of their 300-pound ex-Panthers are true pass rushers.
Round Two: Kareem Martin, North Carolina. Martin's job will not be to generate sacks. He will rotate behind Selvie and Mincey, keeping them fresh so they can generate sacks. Martin is a "specimen" type with so-so pass rush potential, but the Cowboys run defense needs as much help as their pass rush, and Martin is a big guy with potential.
Round Three: Chris Smith, defensive end, Arkansas. One of my Senior Bowl favorites: an ornery end who bull-rushes blockers 50 pounds heavier than he is. Smith provides Mincey insurance and is feisty enough as a run defender to rotate with Selvie, giving the Cowboys a variety of options on the line. Because right now, they don't have many options.
In later rounds, the Cowboys can deal with their secondary, find a guard and work on all of the other problem positions that are going to keep cropping up until Jones climbs out from beneath the weight of his bad contracts and worse drafts. The trick is to not replace those bad contracts and worse drafts with even more bad contracts and worse drafts. Melton's deal becomes a four-year contract if the Cowboys pick up an option. Mincey cost the team just $2 million in guarantees and would be a bargain at half the price. The Cowboys may have been better off swearing off free agency completely this year and just drafting the players listed above. If saving money really is the name of the game, Jones should make a complete commitment.
Disaster Area: Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Line
Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz combined for 28 starts on an offensive line that helped its team win 11 games last year. Albert made the Pro Bowl. Asamoah, a former starter, missed part of last season with a calf injury and wound up splitting his job with Schwartz, a journeyman who started for the Panthers a few seasons ago.
Albert signed with the Dolphins. Asamoah is in Atlanta. Schwartz signed with the Giants. Like the Panthers with their receivers, the Chiefs may not have been all that enamored with the linemen they let go. Everyone knew the Dolphins were going to pay top dollar for Albert. The Falcons (where former Chiefs exec Scott Pioli now holds considerable influence) had Asamoah signed and sealed long before free agency actually started, but we were too polite to mention it. These were last-administration players, and it made little sense to pay them over-market prices.
The losses would not feel so extreme if the Chiefs were not so young and thin on the offensive line, and if they were not in the playoff picture. With two starters and a top reserve gone, the Chiefs offensive line now looks like this:
Eric Fisher, first pick in the 2013 draft, will get every opportunity to slide from right to left tackle. The Chiefs knew they were getting a developmental player in Fisher, and it showed when he took the field. As of the playoff loss to the Colts, Fisher still did not look like he was ready to switch sides; he was barely getting by at right tackle. Fisher has incredible potential, and Andy Reid has incredible patience and a solid track record with young linemen, so Fisher should turn into an adequate starter at a tackle position at some point, if not by opening day.
Donald Stephenson, a former third-round pick, started some games in Albert's absence last year. He is currently listed as the starting left tackle. Stephenson was terrible in the Week 12 Chargers game, and Alex Smith bailed him out several times late in the year by scrambling away from his defender. Stephenson looks like a great left tackle until he starts playing: the man is huge, and pretty nimble, but unless he cuts down mistakes (he's also a penalty machine), he's a liability.
Free agent Jeff Linkenbach arrives as at least a temporary starter at right guard. Linkenbach made the Colts as an undrafted depth lineman late in the Peyton Manning era, then stuck around for four seasons as a super sub. Linkenbach made five starts last season during the Colts great lineman juggle, then suffered a quad injury. He is really more of a replacement for Schwartz, a designated "first lineman off the bench," than Asamoah.
Rodney Hudson earned a promotion to the starting lineup last year and played well. His backup is Eric Kush, a 2013 draftee from California University of Pennsylvania. Reid is a master of finding centers in strange places, so this is not a problem position.
Jeff Allen beat Schwartz for the starting job at left guard in 2013 training camp and battled on-and-off injuries to have an adequate season. Like Stephenson, he was a late-era Scott Pioli early-round draftee on the line with athletic potential. Also like Stephenson, Allen benefited from Smith's ability to scramble away from pressure and turn a blown block into a positive play. Like many Chiefs starters, Allen looked better at the start of the season than the end, and it is important to note that offensive linemen generally look better when nursing a 24-7 lead against an opponent whose third string quarterback can barely get out of his own end zone than when playing catch-up against the Broncos.
This is not a playoff-caliber offensive line. With Ware and Von Miller attacking from either side, the Broncos will eat these youngsters and prospects alive. The Raiders' over-the-hill squad may also rediscover its youth against a bunch of kids still tapping their potential. And there is zero depth, though drafting a guard can turn Linkenbach into instant depth at four positions.
So we know what we have to do to fix the Chiefs offensive line: draft a guard and a tackle. "Oh no," cries Andy Reid, "don't make me draft offensive linemen, I just hate to do that!" Reid loves to do that. His early-round track record is pretty terrible (Winston Justice, Danny Watkins), but Reid is very good at finding the likes of Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce later in drafts.
So this Chiefs mock draft will start by solving the team's wide receiver problem. Then, after we skip the second round because of the Alex Smith trade, we will find some guards and tackles to who can help relatively quickly. Linkenbach and, to a lesser extent, Richardson can make sure there are no immediate emergencies on the offensive line while youngsters develop.
Round One: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State. The Chiefs need pure speed, badly.
Round Three: Brandon Thomas, guard, Clemson: Thomas played tackle for the Tigers, but he projects inside to guard. He blocks very well on the move and in space: perfect for a team that wants to run lots of screens and spring Jamaal Charles on the second level.
Round Four: Cameron Fleming, tackle, Stanford. Fleming is a big, drive-blocking right tackle prospect. He and Fisher can be Reid's Tre Thomas-Jon Runyan surrogates.
Round Five: Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State. A seam stretcher and one of my favorite Day Three types. Like Cooks, he can increase the Chiefs' overall offensive speed.
Round Six: Some versatile 3-4 defensive line type. Let's say Princeton's Caraun Reid, a high-character type with brains (and some beef) who can slide all around and eat up blockers in those crazy Bob Sutton contraptions.
Round Seven: Matt Armstrong, center, Grand Valley State. I have no idea. This just seems like the kind of guy Reid would select.
Unlike the Panthers and Cowboys, the Chiefs can clean up their disaster relatively quickly. Some of their unknowns, like Fisher and Allen, still have tons of upside. Their free agent acquisition can help them off the bench. And Reid knows how to develop offensive linemen. Training camp and the start of 2014 could still be pretty rocky, however, and you will notice that we did not have time to draft a quarterback of the future in the scenario above.
That's the problem with letting free agency turn a unit into a disaster area. You spend so much time and effort cleaning up the mess that it's inevitable that you will end up with another one.