Playing the armchair GM. What do the Panthers have?

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. (Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

 Being a true armchair GM takes a lot of work.  You've got to know the details of your team, and you also have to know what's going to be available in the draft and where you can patch holes in free agency.  Contracts are another issue entirely--they can be confusing and the hidden details often have a dramatic influence on the cap. 

While none of us are going to be as talented or informed as Marty Hurney, that shouldn't stop anyone from speculating on what might be done in the next few months, as the Panthers prepare for the 2010 campaign.  The first thing to do is to take stock of what the Panthers have. 

The goal is talent and depth at every position, and the current team is the foundation on which the next edition will be built.  Some pieces will be scrapped, others shored up, and some may be replaced entirely.  This is a first look at what the Panthers have to work with, from an Armchair GM's perspective.  And it won't necessarily reflect what we want the Panthers to do, but instead what we think they might, or will do.

In the hearts and minds of most fans out there, Jake Delhomme is done as a starting Quarterback, and Matt Moore is the future.  But the saga may not be over for the Ragin Cajun, quarterbacks have come back from bad seasons before.  And John Fox and most of the players still trust Jake.  If he returns and shows his 2008 form, then that's great and there will be a real battle for the starting job.  If he looks more like 2009, he can be a 12 million dollar clipboard holder/assistant Quarterbacks coach for Matt Moore; unless he retires the Panthers will suit him up because they'll be paying him anyway.

Matt Moore doesn't necessarily have great career stats, but he's got the one that counts.  When he's under center, the Panthers have won a lot more than they've lost.  He also piled up an impressive rating in the later part of 2009, and showed that he might just be a quality NFL starter.  There are reports that Fox doesn't like his attitude or approach in practice, but he gets it done on the field and unless he regresses he'll probably be the starter in 2010.

Josh McCown is a forgotten man, and A.J. Feeley has never meant a thing.  Both will probably be let go to test the Free Agency waters, and Hunter Cantwell will be the third quarterback on the depth chart going into the draft.  This year, the quarterbacks class is deep and loaded with potential.  Look for the Panthers to take a chance with one on the first day, as a development prospect to sit and learn over the next couple of years in case Matt Moore doesn't work out as the long term solution.

Priority:  Medium

Running Back
With Williams and Stewart, the Panthers are sitting prettier than most of the league.  Toss in the potential that Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton flashed and they're almost the envy of the league.  Brad Hoover is 33, which is rather old for a Fullback, but Tony Fiametta is going to be in his second year and may be able to take the reins if Hoover has lost a step.  The biggest problem with this group is who you risk putting on the practice squad.

Priority:  Low

Wide Receiver
Steve Smith is 30, Muhsin Muhammad is 36, and no one else really looks to be able to replace either of them.  Smitty will likely remain explosive, but Muhammad's best days are clearly behind him and if he makes the roster it will likely be as a third receiver.  Dwayne Jarrett may get another chance, but only because of what the Panthers have already invested in him, and because of the lack of overall depth at the position.

Free Agency offers some pretty slim pickings.  The biggest names are all old, and you don't replace Moose with a 35 year old.  The draft is shallow at WR, so maybe that's something to look at with the first pick.  If Golden Tate, Brandon LaFell, or Marty Gilyard manages to slip into the middle of the second round, it's probably a foregone conclusion that the Panthers jump. But this position is in such dire straits that the Panthers may attempt a trade before the draft.

Priority:  High

Offensive Line
Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil have pro-bowls on their resumes, and Jeff Otah will likely join them before his career is done.  Travelle Wharton is underrated at guard, and all four are locked up tight for the next few years.  Keydrick Vincent is a free agent, but in 2009 Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzie Bernadeau showed that the Panthers have good depth on the line, and Duke Robinson may be ready to join them.  This unit is solid and deep.

Priority:  Low

Defensive Line
This is where Hurney's going to earn his money in 2010.  Just as in 2009, Julius Peppers is setting the Panthers up for another roller coaster ride as far as his contract is concerned.  Before we look at Peppers though, let's take stock of the rest of the line.

Defensive Tackle was a real trouble spot in 2009.  Frankly, Hurney did an amazing job at getting quality talent for a difficult to fill spot.  Kemo will be back, and Hollis Thomas will probably still be available, but don't be surprised if neither makes the final roster.  For a player as big as Kemo, coming back from a torn achilles tendon may be too much to ask, particularly at age 30.  And Thomas is going to be 36, which is nuts for a nose tackle.  Going into camp, the Panthers will have solid depth at that Tackle position, with Kemo and youngsters Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler.

At the Undertackle position the Panthers still have a healthy, if aging Damionne Lewis.  Corey Irvin showed signs of being a good interior rusher last year in Training Camp, and Nick Hayden performed well in a backup role.  This position looks set for 2010 and beyond.

At Defensive End the Panthers know what they have in Charles Johnson, Everett Brown, Hilee Taylor, and Tyler Brayton.  This group is solid, with three who are capable of starting and giving a lot of quality minutes.  If the Panthers need another top DE there are a few good ones available in Free Agency.  By and large, the free agents out there who can come in and take over a starting job are on the old side, so this would just postpone the need rather than resolve it.  In the draft this is also a weak class, with a lot of raw potential but no game-changers.

So that leaves the Panthers with a difficult choice.  Julius Peppers is a game-changer, but is he really worth the $20 million it will cost to franchise him?  It's hard to make an argument that any player outside a star Quarterback is worth that kind of money.  But if the Panthers don't offer that to him, then they're going to have to persuade him to sign a long-term contract worth at least $15 million per year.  And if he doesn't, they'll be faced with the prospect of letting him walk away for nothing.  Peppers is a tremendous asset, of that there's no doubt.  And in general, you don't just let your assets walk away.

From Peppers' perspective, his worst case scenario is probably a contract with at least $30 million guaranteed, and possibly more.  Last year he wanted to leave, this year he sounds open to staying.  But if it's through the franchise, then he may not have a paycheck in 2011, or he'll have one that's greatly reduced, assuming the Owners succeed in lowering the salary cap.  If he plans on playing for four or five more years it's in his interest to get a long-term contract done this year.

Right now it looks like Peppers is sitting pretty, but it's really the Panthers who are in the driver's seat.  They have the next move, which will either to franchise him, offer him a contract, or to engineer a sign-and-trade with another team.  The latter option is probably unlikely, given that they haven't contacted Peppers' agent, but it's still something that could emerge as the offseason progresses.

Outside of their LDE position though, this part of the defense is well set.

Priority, High and Low, depending on what they do with Peppers.

Jon Beason and Thomas Davis will make any unit look good, particularly on a Tampa-2 defense that favors the WLB like Carolina's.  Na'il Diggs is getting older, but Dan Connor and James Anderson both played well in 2009, and one could make a case to start in 2010.  Landon Johnson has been a disappointment, but is a serviceable backup in the Chris Draft mold.  This position may merit a draft pick or a middle-tier free agent to boost it's depth, but overall it's solid.

Priority:  Low

Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are solid starters, while Captain Munnerlyn, Dante Wesley, and C.J. Wilson provide quality depth.  Wesley is a Free Agent, but he'll likely be re-signed to a decent contract that will keep him in Carolina.  The Panthers remain solid at this position, and if they draft a cornerback it will be more with an eye to special teams than defense.  

Priority:  Low

Until Sherrod Martin moved from Cornerback to Free Safety when Charles Godfrey got hurt, this was viewed as a thin position.  His play erased those concerns, and the Panthers are set at the Free Safety position for years to come.  At Strong Safety, however, they have Quinton Teal backing up Chris Harris.  If Harris gets hurt, as he did in 2009, that represents a big drop-off in talent and leadership.  The Panthers will likely sniff around the Free Agent market here, as the draft is top-loaded and otherwise weak at the safety position.

Priority:  Medium

Special Teams
J.J. Jansen did a good job at Long Snapper, and Jason Baker is a solid punter.  But the Panthers need to ask themselves, how long can John Kasay continue to be effective, and is Rhyss Lloyd still worth the roster spot?  There are some good kickers on the FA market, so a lot depends on what Kasay says about his ability to contribute.

The coverage and return units remain near the bottom of the league in effectiveness.  Some say this is due to bad coaching, others will claim that the Panthers are simply too loaded at the top of the roster to stock special teams with good talent.  They have a new coach, but if the talent idea has any merit, they need an infusion.

Priority:  Medium

Salary Cap
Jake Delhomme is set to make 12 million, Peppers could get 20 or 15, and the Panthers have several other players who contribute to a tight fit in the salary cap.  Fortunately, there is none in 2010.  That doesn't mean that the money will be there though, that depends on how Owner Jerry Richardson feels about his team.  He may tell Hurney to start preparing for a 20% reduction in 2011, or he might give him a blank check to sign all the talent needed to bring home a championship.  And if he does break the bank, it's still up to Hurney to find the talent in a pretty bad year as far as Free Agency is concerned.

Priority:  Unknown

So there you have it.  When you think about what Hurney has to get done this year, and what he has to work with, you get a clear list of priorities.  The Peppers situation will dictate a lot of what happens next, as will Richardson's attitude towards spending.  But regardless of those issues, the Panthers must address their Wide Receiver position, and if Peppers leaves they'll have a giant hole to fill at Defensive End.  Can those two be satisfied with a sign-and-trade?  Can the Panthers afford to let a resource walk and try and sign a veteran backup?  We'll know a lot more in a few weeks, when they have to make their decision on the franchise tag.

Until then, have fun speculating. :)
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