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2014 NFL Offseason: Carolina Panthers

Draft Grades, Season Previews, Team Needs, Free Agents



Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 12-4)



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2014 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, TE Mike McNeill, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, S Thomas DeCoud.
Early Draft Picks:
WR Kelvin Benjamin, DE Kony Ealy, G Trai Turner, S Tre Boston, CB Bene Benwikere. Panthers Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR Domenik Hixon, OT Jordan Gross, OT Bruce Campbell, G Geoff Hangartner, G Travelle Wharton, G Jeff Byers, OLB Jordan Senn, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Michael Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell.

2014 Carolina Panthers Offense:
If a poll were created, asking which NFL player is most frustrated with his front office's personnel management, Cam Newton would be at the very top. No one could blame him either. His top three receivers from last season - Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn - are all gone. Because of the prior regime's mismanagement, Carolina couldn't afford to add any decent wideouts in free agency, so the team had to settle for Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, both of whom are tertiary options at best. Kelvin Benjamin was chosen in the first round, but he's a raw, mistake-prone player, whom one team had a mid-round grade on. Benjamin could eventually evolve into a solid No. 1 target, but it'll take time for him to develop.

Having said all of that, Carolina's wideout dilemma is a bit exaggerated. The team's receiving corps is terrible, but it wasn't any good last year either. Steve Smith was atrocious, LaFell struggled to get open, and Ginn was inconsistent as always. There's not much of a dropoff to Cotchery, Avant and Benjamin, and it must be noted that Newton still has Greg Olsen as a dependable intermediate option. Besides, Newton can always use his legs to create big plays for the offense.

Unfortunately for Newton, he'll have to do lots of running because his offensive line is in even worse shape than the receiving corps. Left tackle Jordan Gross and two reserve blockers announced their retirement this offseason. Starting left guard Travelle Wharton, a free agent, is leaning toward walking away as well. That means that the Panthers have just one healthy, effective lineman returning in 2014, center Ryan Kalil. Left guard Amini Silatolu was solid in a couple of starts this past season, but tore his ACL in October.

Right tackle Byron Bell is the other blocker coming back, but he's terrible; he surrendered nine sacks in 2013, and what's scary is that he might have to be on the blind side this upcoming campaign. If it's not Bell, it might be Nate Chandler, who played defensive tackle in college. The other position of concern is right guard. The pedestrian Garry Williams could start there unless third-round rookie Trai Turner wins the job.

Newton won't be the only player hurt by the offensive line's predicted struggles. The running backs won't be able to do much behind a weak front, though it's not like they were highly effective last year anyway. DeAngelo Williams averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2013, but he turned 31 in April. Jonathan Stewart, meanwhile, has played in just 15 games the past couple of seasons. Injuries have sapped him of his skill, so he won't be in the NFL much longer. Carolina will have to look for a new running back soon, but it won't matter until the front line can actually block.





2014 Carolina Panthers Defense:
Along with Cam Newton, Carolina's defensive line was the main reason why the team was able to win the division with a 12-4 record last year. This season, the unit will have to completely carry the squad because of its other deficiencies.

With that in mind, it's great that the Panthers were able to retain Greg Hardy via the franchise tag. Hardy was one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL this past season, registering 15 sacks while playing the run extremely well. He and Charles Johnson (11 sacks) were a terrific tandem in 2013, and they'll be able to take a breather on the sideline, given that the Panthers spent a second-round pick on another defensive end. Kony Ealy, who was considered a first-round talent, will provide solid depth this year and could step into a starting role if Hardy isn't re-signed next spring. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Hardy will be on trial soon for two misdemeanor assault charges, so these legal issues will almost certainly serve as a distraction.

The interior of Carolina's defensive line is also exceptional. Star Lotulelei, who inexplicably dropped in the 2013 NFL Draft, was a dominant run-stuffer while registering three sacks. Second-rounder Kawann Short was even better all around. Both players will undoubtedly improve in their sophomore campaigns, so as hard as it is to believe, the Panthers' front could be even better in 2014 if all goes well with Hardy.

While the defensive line is the key to the stop unit, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis cannot be forgotten. Both linebackers had exceptional 2013 seasons. Davis recently turned 31, but he should still be able to have a couple more strong campaigns. Kuechly, meanwhile, will be one of the league's best linebackers over the next decade. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they don't really have a decent third linebacker to complement Kuechly and Davis. Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein didn't play well when given the chance last year.

The secondary is the obvious weak point of Carolina's stop unit. Three of last year's starters - Captain Munnerlyn, Michael Mitchell and Quintin Mikell - are all gone. The cornerback position, in particular, is a big liability. The projected players at the top of the depth chart are Melvin White, who struggled this past season, and Antone Cason, who isn't any good either. A fifth-round choice was used on Bene Benwikere, so the team will be hoping that he progresses quickly.

Carolina's safety slot is better, but only by default. Robert Lester, an undrafted free agent in 2013, did well there last year, albeit in limited action. The other starting job will come down to Thomas Decoud and Roman Harper, both of whom are rejects from other teams in the division. However, the thinking is that the secondary's deficiencies will be masked by the dominant play of the front seven.







2014 Carolina Panthers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Panthers need to develop a strong homefield advantage. They were 7-2 at home last year, but are just a mediocre 15-18 as hosts in the past four seasons.

Graham Gano signed a 4-year, $12.4 million contract this offseason. It's well deserved, as Gano was 24-of-27 last year, including a whopping 6-of-6 from 50-plus.

The front office spent a late-round pick in 2012 on punter Brad Nortman. He was brutal as a rookie, tying for last in net-punting average. However, he was fifth in net average this past season while ranking in the middle of the pack in terms of attempts placed inside the 20.

Carolina didn't defend punt returns very well, but it excelled when taking the ball back itself, thanks to Ted Ginn. As mentioned, Ginn is gone, so the Panthers will have to find someone new for that role.

The Panthers have a pretty tough schedule. They'll have to deal with the Saints and Falcons twice each, as well as the Packers, Bears, Seahawks, Eagles, Ravens, Steelers and Bengals.



2014 Carolina Panthers Rookies:
Go here for the Panthers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.



2014 Carolina Panthers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):

Quarterbacks
Offensive Line
Secondary
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams
Receivers
Linebackers
Coaching


2014 Carolina Panthers Analysis: There's almost no chance the Panthers are going 12-4 again. They lost way too many key pieces to their roster, particularly on the offensive line and in the secondary. Cam Newton and the defensive front seven will carry the team, but it won't be enough. The front office will have to retool when it has money to spend. As for this season, getting to .500 would be an achievement, considering the tough schedule and departed personnel.

Projection: 5-11 (4th in NFC South)


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Comment...



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NFL Draft Team Grade: C Grade

Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: The Panthers lost a ton of talent this offseason, particularly at wideout and on the offensive line. Some contrarians think they can look at other positions, but the receiving corps and front are in such dire need of help that the front office almost has to address them early and often.

2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Panthers had to obtain multiple receivers and a left tackle. They failed in both matters, which has to be frustrating for the fans. They did, at least, snag one receiver, but he was a reach. Kelvin Benjamin was a consensus second-round prospect, and one team we spoke to even had him in the middle rounds. The 28th pick was too early for him, but Carolina was at least addressing a huge hole.

I don't know what happened after that, but receiver and tackle were ignored. I don't mind the second-round choice of Kony Ealy because he presented such great value at that juncture, but one of the next three selections should have been used on a greater position of need.

Given all that's happened, who's Newton going to throw to, and how will his blind side be protected? Carolina's franchise quarterback can't be happy with what his team did this weekend.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

28. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State: C- Grade
Ugh, over Marqise Lee and the other tackles? One trusted source we spoke to had Kelvin Benjamin slotted as a mid-round pick. He said that Benjamin couldn't run, and that he was very inconsistent with dropped passes. Lee probably would have been the better option, but at least Carolina is filling a huge need. The team almost had to pick a wideout or a left tackle with the 28th pick.

60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: A Grade
What tremendous value. Kony Ealy could have gone as high as No. 16 to Dallas, and I wouldn't have complained too much. It's insane that he dropped all the way to No. 60, and the Panthers obviously recognize that they got a steal because they're not filling a need - at least not an immediate one. Greg Hardy will be hitting free agency next year, and it will be difficult to retain him. Ealy can learn behind him and Charles Johnson and eventually start in 2015.

92. Trai Turner, G, LSU: C+ Grade
I had Trai Turner slotted at the beginning of the third round, so this is decent value for Carolina. I just don't get how the team can pass on a receiver or a left tackle for the second time on Friday. The Panthers have nothing at those positions. Turner fills a lesser need, but who is Cam Newton going to throw to, and who is going to protect his blind side?

128. Tre Boston, S, North Carolina: B Grade
I don't love this pick, but I don't have any issues with it either. Tre Boston fits the range - I had him at the top of the fifth round in my final mock - and he fills a need in the wake of Michael Mitchell defecting for Pittsburgh.

148. Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State: C+ Grade
The Panthers continue to address their secondary; they needed to find another cornerback in the wake of losing Captain Munnerlyn to the Vikings. I'm not sure they needed to trade up for Bene Benwikere though, as I think this is slightly early for him.

204. Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: B Grade
The Panthers have an underwhelming running back corps, so they were bound to take a player at the position at some point. Tyler Gaffney fits the range, so he's a logical choice at this juncture.





Season Summary:
Ron Rivera was on the hottest of hot seats when his team began the season with a disappointing 1-3 record. However, he transformed into Riverboat Ron, a gambling fiend who turned his team around with an 11-1 stretch, culminating with a 17-13 victory over New Orleans in Week 16. Unfortunately, the Panthers were one-and-done in the playoffs.




Offseason Moves:
  • Panthers sign S Thomas DeCoud
  • Panthers sign TE Ed Dickson
  • Panthers re-sign DT Colin Cole
  • Panthers sign WR Jason Avant
  • Panthers sign QB/WR Joe Webb
  • Panthers sign CB Antoine Cason
  • Panthers sign WR Tiquan Underwood
  • Panthers sign WR Jerricho Cotchery
  • Patriots sign WR Brandon LaFell
  • Panthers sign S Roman Harper
  • Ravens sign WR Steve Smith
  • Panthers sign TE Mike McNeill
  • Panthers cut WR Steve Smith
  • Vikings sign CB Captain Munnerlyn
  • Cardinals sign WR/KR Ted Ginn
  • Panthers re-sign QB Derek Anderson
  • Bears sign WR Domenik Hixon
  • Redskins sign OT Bruce Campbell
  • Panthers re-sign CB James Dockery
  • Steelers sign S Michael Mitchell
  • Bears sign OLB Jordan Senn
  • Panthers announce retirement of G Jeff Byers
  • Panthers announce retirement of G Geoff Hangartner
  • Panthers tender OT Byron Bell
  • Panthers re-sign TE Richie Brockel
  • Panthers re-sign OT Gary Williams
  • Panthers re-sign K Graham Gano
  • Panthers announce retirement of Jordan Gross




    Team Needs:
    1. Left Tackle: Jordan Gross has been a great blind-side protector in Carolina for many years, but he has hinted at retirement. If he walks away, Carolina will be stuck with a hole at this position. (Update: Jordan Gross has retired).

    2. Two Wide Receivers: With Steve Smith turning 35 in May and both Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell hitting free agency, the Panthers must find two new receivers. This is a position that could be addressed with the 28th-overall pick. Signed Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant

    3. Two Cornerbacks: The Panthers have a couple of corners with expiring contracts, most notably the talented Captain Munnerlyn. Even if Munnerlyn is retained, Carolina could still use an early-round selection on a corner. Signed Antoine Cason

    4. Defensive End: Greg Hardy is set to become one of the top free agents on the market. He'll definitely be missed if he's allowed to move on to another team. Franchised Greg Hardy

    5. Safety: The front office will also have to deal with the task of re-signing one of the starting safeties, as Quintin Mikell and Michael Mitchell are both set to be free agents. Only one needs to be retained though, given that Robert Lester can step in as a starter. As for Charles Godfrey, he may not be around because of a torn Achilles. Signed Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud



    6. Weakside Linebacker: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are both outstanding, but the Panthers need to find a third linebacker who can be much better than Chase Blackburn.

    7. Right Tackle: Byron Bell surrendered nine sacks in 2013. If the Panthers retain Jordan Gross, he'll be the weakest link up front.

    8. Running Back: The Panthers could use a pass-catching option coming out of the backfield. They have way too much money dedicated to their running backs to do anything here but spend a mid-round pick on one, however.

    9. Kicker: Graham Gano is coming off a great year, but he'll be a free agent come March. Re-signed Graham Gano

    10. Backup Quarterback: Derek Anderson, his magic flask and Jimmy Clausen are all free agents this offseason. Re-signed Derek Anderson; signed Joe Webb


      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.




    2014 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Roman Harper, S, Saints. Age: 31.
      Signed with Panthers (2 years, $4.5 million)

      Roman Harper has been very good in run support over the years, but he has always struggled in coverage, especially lately. Harper, who will be 32 late this upcoming season, is just a very good backup at this point of his career.

    2. Jerricho Cotchery, WR, Steelers. Age: 32. -- Signed with Panthers
    3. Thomas DeCoud, S, Falcons. Age: 29. -- Signed with Panthers (2 years)
    4. Ed Dickson, TE, Ravens. Age: 27. -- Signed with Panthers (1 year)
    5. Antoine Cason, CB, Cardinals. Age: 28. -- Signed with Panthers (1 year)
    6. Jason Avant, WR, Eagles. Age: 31. -- Signed with Panthers (1 year)
    7. Mike McNeill (RFA), TE, Rams. Age: 26. -- Signed with Panthers
    8. Joe Webb, QB/WR, Vikings. Age: 27. -- Signed with Panthers



    Carolina Panthers Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers. Age: 26.
      Franchised by Panthers

      One of the best defensive ends in the NFL, Greg Hardy tallied 15 sacks while being a monstrous run-stuffer in 2013. Hardy will be getting a huge contract sometime soon, as he'll be just 26 in July.

    2. Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Panthers. Age: 26.
      Signed with Vikings (3 years)

      Captain Munnerlyn wasn't even starting at the beginning of the 2012 season, yet he's turned into a terrific corner for the Panthers. He'll only be 26 in April.

    3. Jordan Gross, OT, Panthers. Age: 34.
      Announced retirement

      Jordan Gross has discussed retirement; he even told the media he isn't sure if he's returning next year. If he comes back, he'll still be a superior blind-side protector. He surrendered six sacks in 2013.

    4. Travelle Wharton, G, Panthers. Age: 33.
      Travelle Wharton was just a backup in the first month of the season, but he eventually took over the starting left guard position and was a monstrous blocker. He'll be 33 right after the 2014 NFL Draft.

    5. Michael Mitchell, S, Panthers. Age: 27.
      Signed with Steelers

      Everyone laughed at Al Davis when he selected Michael Mitchell in the second round, but Mitchell was pretty decent in coverage this past year.

    6. Quintin Mikell, S, Panthers. Age: 34.
      Quintin Mikell has been solid at strong safety for Carolina this season, but given that he'll be 34 in mid-September, the Panthers will have to find a new player at that position sometime soon.

    7. Graham Gano, K, Panthers. Age: 27.
      Re-signed with Panthers (4 years, $12 million)

      Graham Gano is coming off his best year. He finished 24-of-27, including a perfect 6-of-6 from 50-plus.

    8. Ted Ginn, WR/KR, Panthers. Age: 29.
      Signed with Cardinals (3 years)

      Any write-up of Ted Ginn would be useless. Instead, click here to read about how much Ted Ginn hates me.

    9. Byron Bell (RFA), OT, Panthers. Age: 25.
      Tendered by Panthers

      Byron Bell has been a serviceable right tackle for the Panthers the past few years, but they could stand to find an upgrade at this spot.

    10. Drayton Florence, CB, Panthers. Age: 33.
      Drayton Florence has extreme highs and lows. He had an awful 2012 campaign, but stepped in as a starter late in the year for Carolina and played well.

    11. Steve Smith, WR, Panthers. Age: 35.
      Signed with Ravens

      Steve Smith is easily a 1.5-star player at this point in his career, but I'll give him a write-up because he's a big name. Simply put, Smith is done. He'll turn 35 this spring, and he has lost his speed. He had just 745 receiving yards in 2013, failing to top 69 yards in any contest. He can also be a distraction in the locker room.

    12. Brandon LaFell, WR, Panthers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Patriots (3 years, $11 million)
    13. Ben Hartsock, TE, Panthers. Age: 34.
    14. Chris Scott, G, Panthers. Age: 27.
    15. Jeff Byers (RFA), G, Panthers. Age: 28. -- Announced retirement
    16. Colin Cole, DT, Panthers. Age: 34. -- Re-signed with Panthers
    17. Garry Williams, OT, Panthers. Age: 28. -- Re-signed with Panthers (1 year)
    18. Richie Brockel (RFA), TE, Panthers. Age: 28. -- Re-signed with Panthers (2 years)
    19. Domenik Hixon, WR, Panthers. Age: 29. -- Signed with Bears
    20. Derek Anderson, QB, Panthers. Age: 31. -- Re-signed with Panthers
    21. Geoff Hangartner, G, Panthers. Age: 32. -- Announced retirement
    22. Jason Williams, OLB, Panthers. Age: 28. -- Re-signed with Panthers
    23. Dan Connor, ILB, Panthers. Age: 28.
    24. Bruce Campbell, OT, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Redskins
    25. James Dockery (RFA), CB, Panthers. Age: 25. -- Re-signed with Panthers
    26. Jordan Senn, OLB, Panthers. Age: 30. -- Signed with Bears (1 year)
    27. Jimmy Clausen, QB, Panthers. Age: 26.


    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
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