In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons, Cardinals, Ravens and Bills.
These "round up the team-by-team offseason news" articles follow a comfortable, predictable rhythm. There's a hot new player to hype, a weakness to fret over, a new coach or rookie with make-or-break potential, and a general sense that terrible teams deserve the "maybe they turned things around" treatment while strong teams earn congratulations for remaining strong. Spring, after all, is the season of optimism.
Then the Panthers come along and drop the beat. Their offseason gains were minimal, their losses somewhere between substantial and cataclysmic. The third-best team in the NFC by most measures last year saw the Seahawks and Niners jockeying for position and decided to cruise into pit lane instead of stepping on the gas. They are poised to start 2014 at least a lap behind.
The Panthers still have one of the best defensive front sevens in the NFL and a deep corps of veteran running backs, but every other unit has lost key personnel in the offseason, with virtually no reinforcements ready to contribute in 2014. A lot rests on Cam Newton, but as this edition of OTAs reveals, the Panthers could not even manage to make a full commitment to their franchise quarterback.
Biggest Move: "Locking Up" Cam and Hardy
For the Panthers, even the "good" moves get the quotation marks treatment. The team exercised its fifth year option on Cam Newton and franchised defensive end Greg Hardy, ensuring that their first and third most important players (with linebacker Luke Kuechly wedged between) will be under contract for 2014 and, in Newton's case, 2015.
It's the next best thing to actually locking either or both players in with a long-term deal. When it comes to the 2014 Panthers offseason, the next best thing is the best thing you are going to get.
There is logic to proceeding with caution for both players. Newton silenced a lot of doubters in 2013, but there are still questions about his on-field decision making and coping skills when things go wrong. Hardy is facing a domestic assault arraignment at the end of the month, and league discipline is possible. Yet these are two of the most promising players under age 26 in the entire NFL, the kind of young stars that successful teams (Seahawks, 49ers) sign to long-term pacts despite any whispers or questions.
The Panthers are not in terrible cap shape beyond 2014, despite a loopy deal or two (Jonathan Stewart) that they would probably like to take back. The big 2015 cap-eater is Newton's fifth-year option, which they could have prorated with a new deal. It would have taken minimal cap virtuosity to hammer out long-term deals for either player. The Panthers just chose not to do it.
Newton and Hardy (barring legal issues) will be in uniform 2014, so the news is not grim. But the Panthers sent a message with their short-term fixes: we doubt what we are supposed to be sure of. Either that, or their current front office is overmatched just handling the basics. That's a heck of a thing to accuse Dave Gettleman and his staff of. If only there was other evidence.
Biggest Gamble: Turning the receiver corps into Ellis Island
Give the Panthers your tired receivers, your old receivers, your practice-squad rejects and second-rate has-beens yearning to breathe free!
The wretched refuse of 90-man rosters and third strings all across the NFL has washed up in Charlotte seeking new opportunities. There's 32-year old Jerricho Cotchery, who caught 33 passes in two seasons as a fourth wideout for the Steelers before he became a desperation starter last year and had a handful of curve killer games (7-96-3 against the Patriots, for example) for a team that was weapon-desperate. There's 31-year old Jason Avant, pressed into starting duty for the Eagles last season, who posted his lowest totals since 2008 despite the extra playing time in one of the league's most productive offenses. Listed as the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers on the Panthers, Cotchery or Avant would make a great No. 5 receiver and preseason color commentator on a true contender.
But wait, there's more! Tiquan Underwood was a perma-prospect who bounced from Jacksonville to New England before finally impressing the clear-headed offensive talent evaluator Greg Schiano at Tampa Bay. Underwood is yet another 2013 emergency starter whose stat line is not bad (24-440-4) but is padded heavily by a big fluky effort, a 5-93-1 stat line in a blowout beating by the Saints in the season finale. Marvin McNutt bounced from the Eagles to Dolphins practice squads before settling in Carolina. There is someone named Toney Clemons, a 2012 seventh round pick who had brief stints in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and San Diego, lurking in steerage.
No, we haven't forgotten first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, who has the size-speed-athleticism profile of a Calvin Johnson/Jimmy Graham hybrid. But Benjamin was by far the rawest of the top prospects in the 2014 draft class. His routes are rudimentary, he doesn't know what to do when his quarterback is scrambling (a big issue with Newton pulling the trigger), and he drops passes in bunches. On a team with a veteran like, I dunno, STEVE SMITH, Benjamin could be a matchup headache who learned on the job from a master craftsman. In Carolina, he's the one guy opponents will worry about shutting down, if he does not shut himself down with mistakes. Worst of all, there is only one of him: whereas teams like the Steelers and Jets (and the Seahawks and Niners of course) were stockpiling quality midrange prospects in the fourth round of this year's receiver goldmine, the Panthers were grabbing third-string safeties, because there is just no way you can jam a putty knife between Tavarres King and Kealoha Pilares on a depth chart.
(My aunt has been doing Kealoha Pilares at the local yoga studio for weeks. It does wonders for her balance and blood pressure, and she loves the Don Ho soundtrack.)
This is the NFL's worst receiving corps. It will keep the Panthers out of the playoffs. It will stunt Newton's development and give red meat to the "not a winner" chorus. And there is no reason at all it had to be this way.
Biggest Question: Why?
No Internet writer composes a woodshed beating like this without bracing for long explanations from the diehard fans of how thoroughly wrong (and stupid) he or she is. Well, my comment thread and Inbox are open. Explain why the receiving corps, as well as portions of the secondary and offensive line, were gutted. Explain a draft strategy that brings Kony Ealy in the second round: If the explanation is they want to replace Hardy next year because he wants too much money, that is great, enjoy going 7-9 forever.
Any one Panthers decision, taking in isolation, is justifiable. Steve Smith was old and expensive, the other outgoing receivers were role players, Hardy has legal issues and sky-high financial dreams, you can't stop Jordan Gross from retiring (and apparently cannot sign or draft a replacement, leaving converted defender Nate Chandler as the most likely protector of Cam Newton's blindside), and on and on and on. If you can assemble all of the moves into a coherent strategy for getting the Panthers past the Seahawks and Niners, or forging a long-term contender, or anything else besides flailing, heck, you might be the 21st century's first great social philosopher.
The 2014 offseason appears to be the product of an owner who resents spending money on today's tattoo-clad spoiled athletes and a general manager who is totally overmatched for the job. This is not about Dave Gettleman picking rounds four through seven via Skype so he can attend his kid's graduation, though Jalen Saunders or Martavis Bryant would have gone part of the way toward silencing skeptics. It's about making so many baffling decisions from the end of the season through mid-May that the fourth-to-seventh rounds suddenly became critical.
In the NFC South, the Falcons clearly chose to retool, the Bucs are overhauling everything and the Saints are mounting up for one or two final Drew Brees charges. The Panthers appear to just be letting the 2014 season happen to them.
The Panthers will drop to 5-11, the Bucs will rise to 11-5 and the daytime sock puppets will blame Cam Newton.