(Preface: I wrote this before Zach Strief re-signed with the Saints but did not get a chance to finalize and post. He signed a 5 year, $20 million deal, meaning that he was almost ballpark for the Panthers.). He was the guy that I wanted the Panthers to target next.) While I badly want WRs so that Cam Newton can get better stats and the offense can be more explosive as much as the next guy, for me the biggest offseason priority for the Panthers was to turn Byron Bell from being one of the worst starting RTs in the NFL to one of the better (OK, one of the average) backup OLs in the NFL, as Bell can back up both OT spots and can also play OG (as a matter of fact I suspect that Bell may actually be a better OG than an OT).
Had the Panthers retained Jordan Gross, turning Byron Bell into the offensive line's "6th man" would have been easy. The Panthers could have taken any number of guys in the first 2 rounds that would beat him out and take his spot. But with Gross leaving and Gettleman bungling the Alex Collins signing (though to be fair, the Bucs are rumored to have overpaid for Collins) then the Panthers are pretty much going to have to use their #1 draft pick on the left tackle of today (not the future) which means that Cyrus Kouandjio (if he drops) or Zack Martin will be the pick. And I am fine with that. Newton is a mobile QB, meaning that pass protection at the LT spot isn't as important for him as it is for a dropback QB. The Panthers' offense would benefit more from having a superior run-blocker at LT than a pure pass protector.
The problem, however, is that using the #1 pick on an LT still leaves Byron Bell on the other side. Now Gettleman did double up on DTs last year, and if he were to double up on OTs this year, it would not be a bad deal, since OT is one of the strongest areas of the draft. The problem is that it would mean the Panthers' starting rookies at both tackle positions. Sorry, but the Panthers would sooner stick with Bell than resort to that, because defenses would exploit the inexperience on the edges with every stunt and blitz package that you can imagine. Another thing: the Panthers obviously have a higher estimation of Bell than the fans and media do. Rivera always speaks of him highly, and Gettleman gave him a second round tender, meaning that you aren't going to see a 3rd or 4th rounder come in and take his spot unless the guy clearly outplays Bell. It appears that the thinking is that a huge part of Bell's problems at RT has been the swinging gates at RG (Hangartner in 2011 and 2012, then Nate Chandler/Chris Scott in 2013).
So this means that the only chance that the Panthers have of getting Bell out of the starting lineup (which again clearly appears to be a much bigger priority for the fans than for the front office or coaching staff) is to sign a quality veteran OT in free agency. And this is why I am not totally furious at Gettleman for letting Hakeem Nicks go inflate Andrew Luck's stats and have every analyst in the NFL talk about how Luck is so much better than Newton as a result. (I am more furious at his not standing up to the coaching staff and taking DaRick Rogers last year, who would have been great value with tremendous upside in the 6th round. Nicks, Rogers, Ty Hilton and Reggie Wayne catching passes for Luck to go with two great TEs in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Must be nice.) If Gettleman preferred to use his limited cap space to make a final run at a decent OT, then it was the right move.
And it looks like Saints Zach Strief is the last decent OT left on the free agent market. It looks like Strief really wants to return to the Saints, as he didn't even visit with the Dolphins, who badly wanted him, so it won't be easy. In what was supposed to be a deep free agent OT class, Strief is the only one who was listed in ProFootballTalk's top 100 free agents who didn't sign in the first week (and even there, had Strief accepted the Dolphins' overtures instead of waiting on the Saints, he would have been signed last week). Strief isn't exactly IN their top 100; he was honorable mention incidentally. And to get a better illustration of Strief's ability: PFT had Strief ranked behind Travelle Wharton, who clearly benefited between playing between a pair of Pro Bowlers in Kalil and Gross last year. And he is only a couple of spots ahead of QB draft busts Chad Henne and "I frequently oversleep and miss team meetings and conditioning sessions" Josh Freeman. So ... yeah.
The Panthers need to scour the free agent market to see if they can find one good starting run-blocking RT left. That is likely the best hope remaining for turning Byron Bell into a backup and providing real help for the offense this season. And yes, it would also give the Panthers another pick to dedicate towards the WR or CB position in the draft. I have not lost sight of that either.