Come on CSR! Come on!!! Yesterday I came in search of healthy, reliable conversation about the Panthers' off-season and by God you would have thought we were the Cleveland Browns or Jacksonville Jaguars with all the gloom and doom I saw. The obscene to the hilarious was all mentioned yesterday from: We have to resign Hardy while losing a majority of the 8 starting unrestricted free agents to we have to tag Hardy for 12 million and trade him to the Raiders to we have to cut Steve Smith and Jordan Gross. On that last one I will stand by the truth that everyone is expendable and replaceable...also we could draft a rookie receiver in this year's draft beyond the second round that could have comparable production to what Smith has put out in the past season. A contextual, prospective view of James Dator's post What it would cost to retain Hardy was a showing of the prospective of what the franchise would lose if it went after Hardy in full force this off season, Dator's post was not a prophecy of gloom and doom for our franchise that would have to lose a good portion of it's players to keep Hardy. With these things being said I want to tell all of you two things; 1. What I believe will be the most positive situation for Gettleman and Co. to go about the 2014 off-season with no regards to mock drafts because I do not believe we are at a point to analyze the draft situation until we know who is on our roster. 2. The sky isn't falling, we're just not used to being this close to it.
Off-season item #1-The Greg Hardy situation
The indefinite answer to what will happen this off-season for the Panthers revolves around how the Greg Hardy situation is dealt with. Whatever the Panthers' staff chooses to do here will determine the outcome of this off-season, the next, and possibly even the 2016 off-season. We have all seen the numbers, we all know the tag will be either 12.5-12.9M, and we understand that Hardy had 16 sacks last year and made us all laugh with his Hogwarts comment verses the Saints...why rehash what everyone else knows and keeps regurgitating because no one can stomach the answer that has to come? Here, I'll say it: we let Hardy walk. No tag and trades, no tag and keep for a year, and no dishing out the cash. We are, and I use this term somewhat liberally, a "Moneyball" team (I cannot express how much I hate that cliche but there is no substitute). We can't afford Hardy, in fact we can barely afford to franchise tag him as James showed in his post. If we can't franchise tag Hardy we surely can't afford to tag and trade him like some of us are dreaming of. We let Hardy walk, we wish him the best of luck, and we move on with a third rounder in the 2015 draft at no extra cost to us.
Some will ask: "Who do we get to replace him?!" The answer is simple they are already in Panthers uniforms. Let me ask this what has been the biggest improvement position-wise on our defense? The defensive tackle position. We don't have to have a Greg Hardy-ish replacement because we have strength in numbers. After their great rookie year performances Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will be getting more snaps and more opportunities to become a premium pass-rushing force from the inside (more on their increased roles in 2014 later). Also we have competent backups in Mario Addison, Frank Alexander, and Wes Horton where if one can't rise to the occasion all three can match the production of Hardy (None of them were too far off from a 5 sack season last year and that is without increased playing time). The advantage these guys have over Hardy when he first started is all of the other positions on the defensive line are not only solid, but on their way to being elite status. We are set on DE's and pass rushers even before the draft and that is what makes allowing Hardy walk completely OK (The compensatory pick is just the cherry on top). I hate it just as much as the next guy, but we have to remember everyone is replaceable and with the future implications of Kuechly, Newton, Star, Short, and other's contracts resigning Hardy would do more harm than good.
Off-season item #2- Veteran restructures and cuts
With the Hardy situation taken care of there has to be further assessment of our veterans and what we need to do to clear up more cap space.
Charles Godfrey- Coming off of a season-ending injury Godfrey is an excellent candidate for a contract restructure. Personally I would like for the Panthers to be able to come in agreement with Godfrey on a restructure or an out and out pay-cut because he is a solid safety and having him and Mike Mitchell in the safety slots would be a noticeable improvement over Mitchell and Mikell/Mitchell and Lester. If Godfrey refuses to negotiate then the Panthers should cut him to allow more room in the cap and on the roster.
Mike Mitchell- With Mitchell there has to be a priority on resigning, this young safety came out last year and I think he will only get better with time. I would much rather have Mitchell than Godfrey or Mikell if we were forced to choose between the three safeties.
Quintin Mikell- Having veteran depth that is solid at best when called upon is a luxury. Mikell excelled last year with all things considered, but he is slowing down and doesn't offer as much as a young second or third tier free agent or mid-round draft pick can. No way we keep him this off-season.
Graham Gano- Quick question; who remembers Olindo Mare? Thought so; re-sign Gano, good kickers are harder to come by than most think.
Colin Cole- At 33 and not much production he is a must cut, no questions asked.
Dwan Edwards- Ditto on Edwards, same as Cole. These releases allow Short and Star to step into bigger roles and have bigger production. I believe both will rise to the occasion and help eliminate any voids left by Hardy's absence.
Ted Ginn- I'm going to have to disagree with James on this one, Ginn will not command that much more in the free agency market and I believe he will stick with Carolina because they gave him a chance. I wouldn't put Ginn in the "must re-sign" category but he is just outside that bubble.
Brandon Lafell- Remember the glory days of the 2010 Panthers' draft class (May of 2010 and minus Greg Hardy of course)? It kind of mirrors Lafell a lot of hype and hope going in, but after time settles in it just doesn't quite cut it. Lafell has been a serviceable option at Wide Receiver, but he hasn't made that next step in becoming a solid starter at the position. When push comes to shove Ted Ginn showed more promise in one season than Lafell has shown in his stint with Carolina, he is a cut.
Captain Munnerlyn- A fan favorite and somewhat of the persona of the "Legion of Whom" secondary. This off-season Captain is re-sign candidate only if he doesn't command too much money. If he begins to demand more than what he is (i.e. a nickel-corner) then I think it is ok to let him walk like last year. He may come back, but probably not this time.
Domenik Hixon- There are better options for cheaper, cut.
Travelle Wharton- I go back and forth on Wharton but deep down I know that there are better for cheaper.
Steve Smith- A lot has been said about Smitty...I'm going to say this does his contract match his production? No. Was it meant to? I don't think so. Over the last decade has there ever been anyone who has been more of the face of the Panthers franchise other than Steve Smith? No. Smith is a team player and I guarantee you he will do whatever it takes to get back into the Super Bowl in these next two years. He knows he's on the tail-end of his career and I think he knows his legacy is worth more than money. I know the guard is changing, but it hasn't quite changed yet. I see Smith almost as a good, but old hunting dog. He may not be as good as he once was, but when you need him he is reliable and he will make you glad you kept him around. If Smith hadn't been injured in the 49er's game I think the outcome would have been quite a bit different. Smith's experience is invaluable...everyone is expendable and replaceable, but some you owe something to. The Panthers owe Steve Smith a Super Bowl and I believe it will happen before he hangs up the cleats.
Jordan Gross- I don't quite put Gross in the same category as Smith because Gross is still at the top of his game. There is no way we don't resign him...in fact we need to move mountains to re-sign him! He is the epitome of a must re-sign free agent.
Jonathan Stewart- Haha there's no getting rid of this one!
Off-season item #3-The Nicks situation
It's not going to happen, I want it to, but it won't. I wouldn't be surprised to see us make a play for second-tier receivers like last year, but we have too many other priorities and strategies playing out to go after a big fish. Remember we are "cap challenged."
There it is guys. I want you to remember we are so much closer to the top than we are the bottom and we have leadership in place that knows how to navigate through the storms. Just hang on Panthers fans, I'm not going to lie there are going to be some bumps along the way, but we are on freaking cloud nine. We have such a solidified core we can not only contend for but go just as far as we did this year!