Hakeem Nicks is a guy who we've talked about a lot here on CSR. He has ties to North Carolina, he's expressed interest in playing here, and he's a talented player at a position of great need for the Panthers. In fact, his down year in 2013 may actually allow for Carolina to offer him the cap friendly kind of deal that fits Gettleman's modus operandi. And it wouldn't be out of the question.
Nicks would immediately upgrade the receiver position, which is set as of now to only have Steve Smith, Marvin McNutt, and Tavarres King returning. Smith is the only viable starter of the group, and has been crutched for years by the glaring lack of a threat on the opposite end. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn may return, but the big key here is finding Steve Smith's replacement. In the short term, this gives Carolina two options that will legitimately scare defensive coordinators. Smith has the ability to get open and move the chains, but his height and age are certainly not helpful. Nicks is a nice complement to Smith, with his great height and catch radius. In the long term, a signing like this gives Carolina more time to find a legitimate replacement for Smith without taking a chance on a receiver in the later parts of the first round. It gives Carolina time to truly find their guy, and Ricky Proehl is just the guy to do it.
From the looks of it, Pitta may not be returning to Baltimore next year. He looks to be asking for more than they can give, and his asking price alone may drive him away from Carolina. But, a signing like Pitta or another guy with legitimate receiving talent is another easy and effective way to give Cam Newton more weapons, so we may see Gettleman look at some tight ends to complement Greg Olsen. Last season, Olsen was the only tight end for defensive coordinators to even flinch at. Even if Hartsock returns (and I pray he does) Carolina should take a look at a tight end who can do a little of both blocking and receiving.
Pitta would give Carolina a tandem of two legitimate tight ends, a formula the New England Patriots used very well on their most recent Super Bowl run. The Eagles have capitalized on having a talented Brent Celek to pair with their new toy in Zach Ertz. The Bengals paired Jermaine Gresham with Tyler Eifert. The NFL is definitely becoming a passing league, but that doesn't necessarily mean a team's best offensive grouping has to be at the wide receiver position. Both Greg Olsen and Dennis Pitta are effective in the slot, out wide, and coming out of the traditional tight end 3 point stance at the line. Pitta's a better blocker, but both could be used in varying sets to throw off defensive formations. We all know Cam Newton loves his tight ends, and his tendency to be a little off on some throws is less of a problem when you throw to big targets. I'd love to see Pitta here, but I'd be happy if Carolina tried to grab anyone with a legitimate talent at catching the football.
Michael Oher/Jared Veldheer
With Jordan Gross possible departure and Byron Bell's consistent struggles, it's tough to imagine Carolina doesn't target an offensive tackle or two in free agency. Bruce Campbell may be gone as well, and I really hope we never see a time where Nate Chandler and Byron Bell are book ending our offensive line.
There's quite a few talent's that will be available here in 2014, including the likes of Branden Albert, Anthony Collins, and many more. I like Jared Veldheer from Oakland, and Michael Oher may be a better fit as a right tackle here in Carolina (especially if Gross returns). There isn't much that needs to be said here, Carolina needs to find at least one viable replacement this year. Even if Gross returns, Bell can't be a long term option. He just... can't.
The biggest question mark of Carolina's resignings is Greg Hardy. He tied the franchise record for most sacks in a season and made his first Pro Bowl. He's trending upward and will likely command a lot of money if he hits the open market. But, the one thing we have going for us in Carolina is decent evidence that Charles Johnson had a lot to do with this explosive season. Don't get me wrong, Hardy is a phenomenal player, but he was noticeably ineffective when Johnson was injured. If we are forced to allow him to walk, a player like Michael Johnson may be a decent replacement.
Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short are almost certainly going to be the other 3 starters along the defensive line. Star's amazing interior presence and Johnson's proven ability makes it difficult for opposing offenses to game plan for them. A player like Michael Johnson, who is a much better pass rusher than run stopper, will thrive in this set up. They won't often face double blocks, and most offensive lines will be more concerned with the other 3 rushers. Johnson put up 11.5 sacks in 2012 before having a down year in 2013. He could really do well in a system like this one. Many might be skeptical due to his lack of production in Cincinnati, who also has a respectable d-line. But the lack of Geno Atkins definitely adversely affected the pass rush, and I think he'd do well here. I'd also like to see Carolina take a look at Justin Tuck, who also thrives when being kicked inside to under tackle. Whether Hardy is resigned or not, having multiple good pass rushers on one line is a great asset. Building on this strength will not hurt this team. The Giants showed pass rush can alleviate a lot of weaknesses in a defense.
Sam Shields/Asante Samuel/Walter Thurmond
It's no secret, we've been banging the table about it since the end of 2012; Carolina needs to work out a long term option at cornerback. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence are primed to become free agents, while Josh Norman and Josh Thomas are likely out the door as well. Munnerlyn may return, but he's not fit to be the number one outside corner. He's best fit as a joker player and nickel corner.
I like Sam Shields as an option. He's a young corner with great speed and turnover abilities. In a secondary that made it's mark forcing turnovers, Sam Shields or a guy like Asante Samuel would be more properly utilized in a primarily zone scheme. Both fell victim to teams with sub-par pass rushes, but would likely see more success with a team that just put up a very good pass rushing season. Most secondary players will benefit from a good pass rush, but opportunistic ones are even better at capitalizing. I also like Walter Thurmond because he gives Carolina a player who can jam at the line. The biggest weakness of our team has been playing against rhythmic offenses that get the ball out quick, mainly because we don't have a physical presence at the line. I imagine Carolina will take a heavy look at the draft for cornerbacks, but these are just some guys I like for the defense we run.
Well Panthers fans, there are a lot of free agents I didn't touch on. Who do you think we should go after? And who could be more realistic options?