A Season In Review: Evaluating the Carolina Panthers 2013 Free Agent Pick Ups

Hixon made the most of his opportunity against New Orleans with one of the biggest plays of this magical season. - Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As the season rolls to a close, it's a great feeling to say "We're still playing!". The 2013 Carolina Panthers have made a place in the franchise history books, racking up the longest winning streak by a Carolina Panthers team to date, all on the heels of a terrible 1-3 start to the season. The Panthers rose from the ashes, kept pounding as the motto goes, and came out at the top of the league. The 2013 draft had a lot to do with that, but one of the biggest reasons for this drastic turnaround came from the ushering in of the Dave Gettleman era. Gettleman didn't break the bank in free agency, much to the chagrin of many (including myself) at the time. In hindsight, Gettleman brought in some quality talent without having to pay ridiculous free agent contracts. These pick ups, whether they be starters or depth, have a great deal to do with the sustained success of this team, and will play key parts in the playoff race.

Mike Mitchell

Mike Mitchell was a victim of the classic Al Davis "I want this guy and I'm gonna reach for him" mentality in the 2009 NFL draft. He was definitely a talented player coming out of college, but many draft analysts were scratching their heads at the pick. Mitchell was a fast player with good size, but his level of play coming out of college didn't seem to warrant a 2nd round pick. And unfortunately, with the 2nd round pick label comes with a certain expectation. Typically, a second round pick is supposed to be a big contributor (starter or not) their rookie season. Unfortunately for Mitchell, he couldn't live up to it at the time and spent 2009-2012 on and off the bench, eventually hitting the FA market after his rookie contract was up.

Mitchell was signed as an unrestricted free agent with very little up front expectations. We already had Charles Godfrey at Free Safety, and had brought in Mitchell and Robert Lester to compete with DJ Campbell and Colin Jones for the wide open Strong Safety position. Eventually Quintin Mikell was also brought in, who eventually took over the Strong Safety job. But, as every season goes, an opportunity came for him when Charles Godfrey went down for the season. The Panthers lacked a viable Free Safety option behind Godfrey, already thin at the position with Quintin Mikell also nursing an injury early on in the season. Mitchell got his shot and took off running with it.

Mitchell is a better fit for the Strong Safety position, but has been fantastic stepping in at Free Safety due to the limits of the other safeties on roster. Mitchell's logged 4 interceptions, 8 passes defensed, and 3 sacks (all career highs) in his first season as a starter. But wit Mitchell there are other "perks". Mitchell brings along a hard hitting safety presence we haven't seen since Chris Harris, along with a swagger that has given this patchwork secondary a personality, an identity. It appears the entire defense has adopted his confident and competitive nature, and we've seen the tremendous effects of it on our top tier defense. Mitchell was a great signing, and we didn't even know it at the time. He was a low cost, low risk signing that ended up being a key move in sustaining this secondary.

Signing Grade: A Chances of Resigning: 75%

Quintin Mikell

Mikell was the kind of signing the fan base was looking for. After being released from a lucrative contract in St. Louis, word started to pop up on Twitter that Carolina had shown interest in Mikell during the offseason. However, nothing came of it as Gettleman likely didn't want to break the bank. Eventually, the long wait paid off as Mikell was brought in under a low risk one year contract. The season started off a little rocky with Mikell battling injury, but this may be a blessing in disguise as it ushered in the chance for Robert Lester to flash his potential.

Mikell has been a great veteran presence for a young patchwork secondary in my opinion. He hasn't put up the flashy interceptions that fans usually want from their safeties, but he has been a tremendous pass rusher and run stopper. He's often been the trigger man for some big plays on defense, whether it be getting a hand in on Sam Bradford's first pass for St. Louis (which resulted in a pick six by Captain Munnerlyn), making the initial tip on passes that result in interceptions, or getting pass rush and forcing bad decisions by opposing QBs. Mikell's shared time with UDFA Robert Lester, and it's a really great time share. Mikell gets to be the safety that roams near the line of scrimmage which plays to his strengths, while Lester gets to be the safety who makes the plays in passing situations, playing to HIS strengths. It's a great signing by Gettleman, showing that you don't have to jump the gun in free agency to nab a good player.

Signing grade: A Chances of resigning: 50%

Drayton Florence

Florence was a signing I really liked back in March. He was originally signed when we weren't sure if the Panthers could resign Captain Munnerlyn, and the talks of who would be our starting corners were all over the place. In the end, Munnerlyn was resigned, which inevitably sucked up one starting spot. Florence brought a veteran presence to this team, but in the long term scheme of things he really didn't fit that well. The Panthers released Florence in favor of younger corners like DJ Moore, James Dockery, and UDFA Melvin White (which was a real shocker at the time). However, Florence was brought back the second week of the season due to injuries to DJ Moore and other players battling injury. Josh Thomas and Josh Norman both didn't work out as starters for this year, so the Panthers needed an effective third corner for nickel situations.

Florence is exactly what we paid for. He's not going to blow up the stat sheet with turnovers or passes defensed, he's not anything special in run support, and he's not getting any younger. But what we DO have is a veteran presence on the field. He's done a better job than most of our defensive backs in coverage, and hasn't been the victim of any game changing miscues. He's consistent, he's reliable, and he's something a young patchwork secondary needs. I see very little chance of him coming back next season, but having reliable depth for the playoffs is always a must, especially with some of the high flying offenses of the NFC.

Signing Grade: B- Chances of resigning: 25%

Travelle Wharton

Wharton was a familiar face to most Panthers fans, having departed from Carolina to Cincinnati for a year. He suffered a torn ACL and didn't see the field for them however, and was looking for work most of the offseason. The Panthers brought him in once for a visit, but elected not to sign him. Honestly, it made sense. Why sign a now 32 year old guard when we had guys like Garry Williams and Amini Silatolu in the wings? Well, that all changed shortly before the start of the regular season. Garry Williams had went down with an injury (who was slotted to start), while other guards were battling injury. Carolina brought Wharton in on August 26th, where he eventually returned to form as our starting Left Guard (after an injury to Silatolu of course).

I always called Travelle Wharton "Old Reliable" before he departed for Cincinnati. He was always very versatile, having played both Guard positions and even stepping in at the Tackle position during his career. Wherever you put him, you get consistency. He's truly returned to form in his old spot between Kalil and Gross, and I'm sure Cam Newton truly appreciates his presence.

Signing Grade: B Chances of resigning: 50%

Ted Ginn

Wow. How about that Ted Ginn?

Ted Ginn was brought in by Gettleman to compete for the receiver positions, while also providing us with a PROVEN kick returning weapon. We had so many of Hurney's draft experiments on roster in Armanti Edwards, Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams, and more. Ginn had come from a 49ers team that used him almost exclusively as a kick returner for 3 years, and the predictions of what role he would play varied greatly. Some of us saw him as only a kick returner, some of us saw him as a possible 3rd or 4th receiver, and some of us had him not making the roster at all. Well, Ginn made the roster over a lot of the (yes, I'm going to say it) failed wide receiver projects from the Hurney era. And boy are we glad to have him.

Ginn's been an excellent third receiver. He's scored four touchdowns, and has been a key component in the Carolina passing game. He's given us a weapon that can blow the top off the defense, and he's worked very hard to become a viable receiving threat. He's never going to be a complete receiver, as evidenced by some of his frustrating drops and difficulty in getting open at times. But when he gets the ball in space he is a DANGEROUS player. He's also done a great job refining his footwork and route running skills. Ginn is a dangerous receiver for stop routes now due to his deep threat potential.

Ginn truly embodies the classic Carolina Panthers mold. He was a cast off that nobody wanted save for a kick returning option. Well, he got his chance here in Carolina to be more than just a kick returner. And he's taken off with the opportunity. He's not going to be our number two receiver (save for injuries) in the future, but he's a great player to keep around as depth. He's got some great play making ability and possesses the drive to get better. He's become the player that he was supposed to be coming out of college. He should never have been chosen so high by Miami his rookie season, but we've reaped the rewards for his services.

Signing Grade: A+ Chances of resigning: 75%

Domenik Hixon

Hixon was a polarizing pickup that created quite the debate here on CSR. Hixon appeared to be Gettleman's hand picked man for the number 3 receiver job. It made sense when you think about it. Gettleman had to be familiar with Hixon, having been a part of the Giants organization while Hixon spent his time there. Hixon stepped in and contributed for the Giants during both of their Super Bowl efforts, and was a quality veteran presence on a young team. He wasn't supplanting Steve Smith, and (while the debate was there) he wasn't going to supplant Brandon LaFell either. But he was brought in to compete. Until Ginn took over, of course. Hixon mostly rode the bench the beginning of the year, nursing injuries and seeing his snaps taken by Ted Ginn. Hixon really hadn't been called on, until New Orleans. With Steve Smith gone, someone needed to step up and contribute for the receiving corp. And thankfully, our two free agent pickups answered the call. Ginn brought in a 37 yard gain on the final drive, while Hixon sealed the game with a clutch touchdown reception with 20 ticks left.

Hixon isn't going to be a huge role player when this team is healthy. He's hit his ceiling as a player goes, and doesn't present much of a threat to opposing defenses. However, what Hixon does bring to the table is a veteran presence who has "been here before". He's been to the playoffs, he's made the clutch catches. He knows how to handle it. And Hixon will likely be called on again with Steve Smith recovering from his knee sprain. It's good to know we have a reliable back up for these situations.

Signing Grade: B Chances of resigning: 25%

There are plenty of other pickups that were made that can be graded as well. Colin Cole has been a decent option rotating in at defensive tackle. He's not someone you want starting, but he's certainly found a role where his contribution can be felt. Star Lotulelei hasn't needed to play the entire game, and Cole has also done a good job coming in on our heavy defensive line package (having Star and Cole both in). Chase Blackburn has been good enough to allow the Panthers to send Jon Beason to a team where he can succeed and play his natural position. Blackburn hasn't been anything special but he hasn't been a liability. He hasn't needed to be a big contributor with the Panthers often operating with two linebackers in nickel packages. He and Cole likely won't be key players on this defense any time soon, but it's signing like these that make the difference between winning and losing some games. Depth is extremely important, and veteran depth is the best kind of depth to have. AJ Klein has a future in Carolina, but having Blackburn around while he develops is a nice situation to be in.

I applaud Dave Gettleman's work so far. It's not always easy to see how good a signing is until you look at it in retrospect, but I think it's safe to say he's done a great job in his first season as GM.

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