The long, excruciating wait known as the off season is upon us. Just like the other teams in the league, Carolina will be busy breaking down scouting reports, attending the combine and pro days, making roster moves and determining which players can turn the franchise into a playoff competitor. Just like everyone else in the football world, I am analyzing the draft class and free agents that could be targeted by the Panthers over the next few months. After the jump, I will take a look at possible moves the Panthers front office will make to build the 2012 team.
Welcome to the off season.....
Roster Cuts/Contract Restructuring
Carolina has the benefit of having secured their top players and are in no danger of losing a key playmaker to free agency. However, the money to spend is tight. The biggest area of concern is the health of OLB Thomas Davis' knee. He started last year on a promising note but went down soon after defensive captain Jon Beason was lost in Week 1. Davis has stated he wants to remain a Panther and the general perception around the fan base wants him to stay as well. The Panthers worked out an extension for Davis but given the fact he is an injury risk, his contract may need to be adjusted to help free up money and not locked into a salary cap liability. As of now, Davis' contact is for five years at $36.5M. I have seen the dangers of committing a lot of cash into an injury prone player and it does not bode well for the team in terms of signing top free agents to fill their needs. Essentially, there is no money to be spent. This brings me to the roster cuts. There are three players that stand out who are getting paid more than what their production suggests. Jimmy Clausen is tied up with a four year deal worth $6.3M. Armanti Edwards has a four year deal worth $2.5M. Jason Baker is in the last year of a six year contract worth $9.1M. These three need to be cut because there is no reason why $8.8M needs to be tied up in two guys with limited field time (especially Clausen, who did not dress for much of the season). Baker should be let go and the Panthers fill his spot via the draft. I have seen a lot of mock drafts taking UGA punter Drew Butler in the last round. That move makes sense because you attain a quality special teams player at a low price. Then there are the free agents. I won't list them, but here is a link to view them. Out of the list of twelve, Carolina will probably re-sign five or six of them. Those players are Derek Anderson, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Richie Brockel, Dan Connor, Geoff Schwartz and/or Jeremy Shockey. Out of this group, I think Shockey and Anderson may command the most money. There is one more person to consider...Jonathan Stewart. He becomes a free agent in 2013 and the front office has to decide whether or not to sign him to an extension or use him as trade bait. The only way I see him being dealt is if the Panthers try to acquire a third round pick or a late second. Since Stewart is an instrumental part of the offense, the idea of him being traded seems distant at best. The Panthers will give him a new deal, hopefully before the new season begins.
How the Panthers draft could very well depend on their roster moves and the free agents they are able to sign. There are three areas I believe the Panthers will look into addressing with veterans prior to the draft in April. Both the defensive line and the secondary have gaps in them which will most likely be filled with free agents. However, the money available will determine if a run at these guys is in the cards.
Robert Mathis (DE) - Indianapolis looks to be on the verge of rebuilding and its not clear whether a guy who is use to winning would want to be part of a rebuilding project. He would give Carolina an interesting rotation that already includes Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.
Antonio Garay (NT) - This guy played in Ron Rivera's system in San Diego and could solidify the interior, while giving the Panthers an optimal 3-4 scheme with speed on the outside. The only concern here is whether or not Jerry Richardson will be comfortable signing a player who likes to make an artistic spectacle of head.
Cortland Finnegan (CB) - The secondary needs help and probably moreso at cornerback. Finnegan would allow Captain Munnerlyn to return to the nickel corner position and provide Chris Gamble a potent partner in stopping the passing game. Finnegan is a wild card to land in Carolina, but a player I think will garner much attention will most likely be...
Carlos Rogers (CB) - Its hard to say whether or not the 49ers will re-sign Rogers to a long term deal, especially since they have another option that is both young and affordable. Carolina made a run at him last year so I wouldn't be surprised if they did again over the next several weeks. Either way, adding one of these guys to the roster instantly improves the secondary.
Dennis Dixon (QB) - The Panthers need a backup QB with a similar skill set to Cam Newton. The list of free agent QBs who meet this criteria is short, very short. Dixon is mobile but he lacks the talent possessed by Newton. His career numbers are truly those of a backup: 35/59 402 yards 1TD/2INTs, 10 rushes for 56 yards and 1 TD.
Josh Johnson (QB) - Johnson is a familiar face as Carolina saw him in the first meeting against Tampa Bay last season. Like Dixon and his teammate Josh Freeman, he is a mobile quarterback. He has size too which would make his acquisition that more interesting. His career numbers are better than Dixon's, but he needs to be more polished: 96/177 1,042 yards 5 TDs/10 INTs, 37 rushes for 254 yards.
What Carolina does not address in free agency they should address in the draft. Many players have been mocked to the Panthers on both sides of the ball, but the one common theme remains the same: its usually a lineman. On offense, OT Jonathan Martin and OG David DeCastro have been slotted as potential picks if Carolina decides to go in that direction. Defensively, there are several players from different positions the Panthers could pick first. On the line, there are defensive tackles Devon Still and Michael Brockers. Defensive end Melvin Ingram is a potential pick, but I doubt Carolina would take him inside the top ten. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is an interesting selection given his recent off field exploits. It will be interesting to see how much his stock will recover even though he was found innocent of all charges. He will need to impress the most at both the combine and at his pro day. Carolina has made it a habit to select the best player available (BPA) and if I had to rank their needs, it would be defensive line, secondary and offensive line in that order. The combine and pro days will be crucial to a prospect's chances of being a top ten pick so all of these guys need to bring their "A" game.
There is a lot to be done between now and the start of training camp. In my opinion, I feel Carolina's roster will remain mostly intact, but hopefully with some strong additions. The Panthers proved they can score often and a lot with the guys they have on offense so the biggest area of concern is the defense. However, Newton needs to improve and cut back on turning the ball over. He needs to win games in which he throws an interception and learn to move on when he does give away the ball. Special teams needs to improve in the kicking game and returning. The defense needs to improve their tackling and prevent huge gains othe secondary needs to neutralize opposing wide receivers and not give up the big play. Overall, I look forward to the off season and am ready to see how much this team improves in 2012.