UPDATE: the Panthers just signed Jerrico Cotchery.
The chances of the Panthers' signing a veteran WR that will make an impact are minimal. So, the Panthers will not have a WR that will make defenses respect their downfield, intermediate or yards after the catch passing game next year unless they get very lucky - Keenan Allen or Ty Hilton type lucky - in the draft. I still say that the Panthers could do themselves a lot of good by signing Doug Baldwin from Seattle in return for a 2nd round pick, but let us assume that they go in another direction.
Here is the deal: so long as the Panthers can acquire 2 or 3 capable WRs from a combination of what is left in free agency and the draft, they will still be able to move the ball and put points on the board if Greg Olsen is their main WR threat. Now it won't be as simple as that. I have stated several times that Olsen is not a big time, Pro Bowl franchise TE like Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez were in the previous decade and Jimmy Graham is now (and Vernon Davis would be if he had someone to get him the ball, Rob Gronkowski would be if he could stay healthy, and Aaron Hernandez would be if he were not a psychopathic thug) but he is a cut below.
Still, he can carry the main load in the passing game if the Panthers either A) acquire another receiving TE or B) get WRs that complement his game. Now unfortunately A) is not going to happen, at least not this year. The Panthers have too many other needs, and there is no one cheap available. But B) is possible even in the draft. If the Panthers get one (or possibly two) WRs that are vertical threats that can make plays down the field or are capable of doing damage in the intermediate game. That would free up the middle of the field for Olsen to work.
Olsen's biggest problem has been that there was no WR that defenses feared except Steve Smith (and last year they really did not fear Smith that much). That allowed defenses to pay a lot of attention to Olsen without giving anything up, because the other WRs did not take advantage of the added attention being given to the TE.
So, let us say that the Panthers grab a Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews or Allen Robinson in the 1st round (or Kelvin Benjamin). The 2nd round would HAVE to go to the best OT on the board, if not for this year then for next year. The third round? Donte Moncrief, Devin Street, Bruce Ellington or Jared Abbrederis. (And grab Trey Burton, a TE prospect that I really like who was ruined by the Florida Gators coaches, in the 5th round.) Sure, any of them could develop into legit #1 and #2 WRs in a year or 3. But for next season, their goal would be to create space for Olsen to work and make plays when Olsen is not open.
Let us say that the guys are Cooks and Moncrief. Not a fan of Cooks really, but he ran a 4.33 40 yard dash. So, if he turns upfield, defenses are going to follow him. Let us say that based on that, he starts across from Jerricho Cotchery, Sidney Rice, Kenny Britt, Jacoby Ford, or whoever else is available on this list (which to my surprise contains some guys that could actually help the Panthers at WR, TE and OT still). Abbrederis is the third guy, his role - along with the veteran WR who would have the #1 role - would be to run relatively short routes, the 7-10 yard deals. So you have a fast guy going deep, 1 or 2 capable WRs who can catch the ball and get yards after the catch doing the short stuff, and that leaves Olsen to do what he does best, which is get 15-25 yards down the field. Other than obligatory shots to Cooks (or Odell Beckham) downfield and some dink and dunk stuff to keep the defenses honest, Olsen is the hot read. When Olsen is covered, the veteran WR - say Cotchery - is the checkdown short. If Cotchery is not open, then go to Tolbert/Williams/Stewart in the backfield.
Too high risk for you? All right. Get Allen Robinson or Jordan Matthews in the first. That way, you have two possession WRs and implement a ball-control strategy. Olsen is still the hot read, the veteran WR (this would require an actual veteran, not just a guy coming off his first contract that isn't really experienced like Kenny Britt) like Sidney Rice is still the second WR, but both guys pretty much run the same routes or the same depth in their routes on opposite ends of the field. That plus the running game would be a ball control, work your way down the field philosophy. (Incidentally, being able to add a 2nd TE into the mix, whether Trey Burton or a cheap veteran, would make this even better.) You would still be able to get a speedster or a vertical threat later in the draft, i.e. Martavis Bryant or Ellington, to come in as backups in the Ted Ginn, Jr. role to try to stretch the field every now and then.
Realize that Gettleman's free agency strategy may actually facilitate this. In free agency, offensive players cost more money than defensive players. If an offensive player and a defensive player have the same ability, the same impact on the game from their perspective positions, the offensive player is going to get paid more in free agency. So, with limited cap space available, there is a much better chance of getting better defensive backs to fill out the secondary than getting WRs. Take for instance the Roman Harper signing. The guy is 31 years old and went to 2 Pro Bowls. He gets a 2 year, $4.5 million deal that everybody hates. Contrast this with James Jones. The guy has never been a starter, has clearly benefited from a very stat-friendly system in Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers misses half the season and they still throw the ball 570 times where the Panthers only threw it 473 times) but he gets 3 years and $11 million. Better still: Brandon LaFell. 3 years, $9 million. So, imagine if the Panthers were to add Antoine Cason and Terrell Thomas. Their defensive needs would be set and they would be able to absolutely load up on offense in the draft.
Surrounding complementary pieces to make Olsen the featured guy in the passing game just might be the best route to success this offseason after all. That is, if the Panthers can find at least one more OT.