To all appearances, the 2013 Carolina Panthers are still a work-in-progress. That's been the case for multiple years now as they continue going through a rebuilding phase which started as soon as Ron Rivera replaced John Fox as head coach. It certainly accelerated with Cam Newton (Offensive Rookie of the Year) as the new franchise QB. It continued with the addition (and emergence) of Luke Kuechly (Defensive Rookie of the Year) at MLB. Then, the GM changeover as Dave Gettleman replaced Marty Hurney really kicked things into a higher gear as he focused on addressing the glaring need at the DT position with not one, but two, impressive rookies in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Yet, despite these notable improvements and long-term additions, the rebuilding effort isn't yet complete.
The most glaring issue Gettleman has yet to address is the offensive line...i.e., the corollary to the hog-mollie philosophy he already brought to the defensive line. It's clear that he has an end-goal in mind. After all, he spent a 4th round pick on the high-risk potential of a small school OL in Edmund Kubila. And, he somewhat surprisingly did a bit of housecleaning as he released long-time Panther Geoff Hangartner...aka, "Piggy"...proof that even a nickname like that doesn't automatically make you a hog-mollie in Gettleman's eyes. Yet, Kubila's hamstring injury has now officially landed him on injured reserve. So, that "project" is going to take another year to pan out for him. In the meantime, Jordan Gross isn't getting any younger. Ryan Kalil is coming off a season which saw his first significant injury. And, Amini Silatolu, Byron Bell, and even Gary Williams are still wrestling with how much they can realistically contribute to the line's overall success.
The stop-gap measure in addressing these problems was to bring free agent Travelle Wharton back into the fold. And, as a veteran, maybe he buys Gettleman time to continue his makeover in the days ahead. Will he make any significant progress in that regard this year? Personally, I'd say it's unlikely. At best, he'll check the waiver wire as other teams jettison offensive linemen they just couldn't keep on their rosters. Most of these players will be low-caliber talent, at best...training camp bodies, low-round draft picks that didn't pan out, and so on.
The ideal situation would be for some team to cut a veteran they can't afford to keep. But then, Gettleman has to assess whether he can afford to bring in such a player to join the Panthers. If he does so, it'll likely be on a one-year contract just to help the team through this season. Kind of like the way Dwan Edwards was brought in at DT not all that long ago. If such a guy distinguishes himself and Gettleman can free up the cap money to keep him, that'd be great. But it's unlikely given the contract extensions Gettleman will be facing after this season (and even during this season as he tries to work out a new deal with Greg Hardy).
So, what other tools might Gettleman reach for to continue rebuilding and molding this team into a playoff and championship contender? He's really only got two more arrows in his quiver. One could address things more immediately (i.e., this season) and the other would be a longer-term strategy that wouldn't pay off until a season or two down the road.
The first would involve trading a future draft pick or a player already on the Panthers roster to another team who has a plethora of OL talent they'd be willing to part with. Carolina's best trade bait would ordinarily have been at the RB position. But, with Jonathan Stewart on the PUP list, as well as Kenjon Barner and Mike Tolbert nursing injuries, we're actually more thin in that area than before (at least for this season). So, the real positions of over-abundant strength on our roster is at LB and, possibly, QB. Jon Beason represents the easiest and most valuable LB we could part with...as Luke Kuechly has supplanted him at both the MLB position and the role of defensive leader. Beason is coming off an injury, however...and has shown himself to be a bit injury-prone at this point in his career.
That said, if he does manage to fully bounce back (a feat which Thomas Davis has already demonstrated is possible), certain teams might seriously take a look at him. If, however, trading a LB doesn't pan out, there's also the possibility we could trade away Jimmy Clausen at QB. Now granted, Clausen hasn't necessarily distinguished himself at the Pro Bowl level of Jon Beason. Still, he's much improved...he's still young with lots of upside...and, in the right system, he might be poised to really shine with the accuracy of his mid-range passing. Even so, Clausen probably isn't going to bring us the greatest OL in return.
At best, we could probably expect a journeyman OL in compensation. Plus, Clausen may have actually surpassed Derek Anderson as our QB2. If so, Rivera and Gettleman may be more loathe to part with him. If neither Beason or Clausen are tradable, there's the potential of using a future draft pick to entice a team to part with a decent OL. However, so far, Gettleman doesn't strike me as the kind of person to do that just to address this need right away. More likely, I suspect he'll hold onto his draft picks so he can use them himself.
And that brings me to the second ace up Gettleman's sleeve: next year's draft. With a potential high-round draft pick (assuming the Panthers don't amass a surprisingly high winning record this year), Dave would be poised to use our future draft picks on some potentially good players. And, given that he's shown himself to be a shrewd judge of talent when it comes to hog-mollies, that might bode really well for us as he addresses the needs on the O-line as his next immediate priority. Granted, Kubila hasn't panned out for him (yet)...but that was a 4th round draft pick where he could afford to gamble a bit.
Plus, you've got to figure Kugbila can use this extra time to better acclimate his game to the NFL anyway...and, we'd basically be getting him back in the mix at the same time he evaluates any new draft picks on the OL. In the meantime, next year's draft actually has a pretty good crop of OL prospects for him and his scouts to evaluate and pursue. He's pretty much going to have to pursue one of them, not just to address the current line's needs, but also as a long-term replacement for Jordan Gross before the veteran LT retires. In addition, he's going to need to address Travelle Wharton, too, as he was brought in only under a 1-year contract. So, I wouldn't be surprsed at all if Gettleman has plans to double-down again on the offensive line in the next draft. And, as a result, I think it may be more likely that Gettleman will be targeting this long-term approach rather than a bunch of stop-gap measures in an attempt to make changes fast for this season.
What does that mean? I think Gettleman will take what he can this year in terms of addressing the O-line depth. But I don't think he's going to overreach in an effort to "win now." He knows he's still in a rebuilding and remodeling phase. This Panthers team is still very much a work-in-progress and Gettleman's not done with it yet. Even if he has to ride out another year where Carolina misses the playoffs, he'll be poised with some high draft picks in each round to start further addressing the team's needs. He may also be looking ahead at replacing the coaching staff to more properly use the pieces he's putting in place. And, he's got lots of ballast for resetting everyone's expectations around this team this year...from the tougher schedule and difficult division...to the injuries...to the "Rome wasn't built in a day" excuse...and even to a potential need for a coaching staff changeover.
Basically, Gettleman still has house money and time in which to complete his vision for remaking this team. And I have no doubt he knows the positions of need already. He's a wise enough general manager to use the tools that are available to him to address the areas of need as he can. Yet, he's also wise enough to know the long-term approach will pay off the greatest dividends for us, and I think that's the prize he's after...and quite frankly, the prize Jerry Richardson is paying him to pursue.
So, in conclusion, I don't see this year as a breakout year for the Panthers. Given the problems they've displayed on offense...and despite the significant improvements on defense and special teams...it seems clear to me that the doom and gloom concerning the offensive line and general offensive woes is a bit premature. Or, maybe a bit too fixated on the here and now. These Carolina Panthers are still a work-in-progress. And Gettleman needs more time and resources to put everything just right to give us our best shot at a sustained rise for our overall franchise. That's what he gets paid to do, and I'm really heartened by how well he addressed the D-line this past off-season. As a result, I'm just as hopeful he'll make similar progress with the O-line as he goes forward.
But that's just my two cents...