Carolina Panthers: Fact or Fiction with the Latest News Ahead of Free Agency
The Carolina Panthers have some important choices to make this offseason, particularly in the form of difficult personnel decisions. They have already taken care of stud pass-rusher Greg Hardy by slapping him with the franchise tag, via NFL.com, and will now need to address their other roster needs as soon as possible.
One of their most notable holes is at wide receiver, but that may have been leapfrogged by the need for a starting-caliber tackle to replace Jordan Gross.
The 11-year vet announced his retirement last week, via NFL.com, leaving Carolina in desperate need of a new blocker, which they may hold in a higher regard than a new receiver.
Aside from that, there has recently been some talk in the Charlotte Observer of the potential departure of Steve Smith—not to retirement like Gross, but in a cap-saving move that would allow the Panthers some more wiggle room in free agency.
These are just some of the issues Carolina must resolve before the season's start, and we will see them succeed or fail soon enough.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference
Given His Play in 2013, A.J. Klein Has Earned a Starting Role
A.J. Klein showed a lot of promise last season when he filled in for Chase Blackburn and may have parlayed that audition into a starting role. Klein was Carolina's fifth-round choice in last year's draft but played much like their star linebacker and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Kuechly.
He was even called Luke Kuechly 2.0 by head coach Ron Rivera.
Klein proved his worth as a special teamer and fill-in for Blackburn last year, and he will more than likely start for the Panthers in 2014. He's a young, athletically gifted linebacker who possesses instincts similar to the man he's been compared to.
In reference to last year, he said, according to Panthers.com, "I bought into my role. And then when the opportunity came for me to play on defense, I think I capitalized on it. I showed the head man and all the coaches here that I can play. Those are definitely some positive notes for me to build on next year."
He will have plenty of opportunities to earn his way into the starting rotation between training camp and preseason, and he will be an intriguing player to watch.
Carolina Will Use the 28th Overall Pick on a Wide Receiver
The Panthers defense was one of the best in the league last year, but their offense has some catching up to do before they're a balanced team.
They did take some serious steps forward behind Cam Newton last year, but it's clear they need to get him some weapons. Having Smith and Greg Olsen are great, but Newton needs more around him to flourish within the offensive system.
In looking at what will be more important to address in the draft, the Panthers would be wise to take care of their O-line needs early. This is a solid class of linemen, and some fantastic receivers could dip into in the second round.
They got through last year without a true No. 2 receiver but had a Pro Bowl left tackle blocking Newton's blind side. They need a competent blocker (at the very least) to prevent Newton's growth from being stunted by a barrage of sacks.
A number of receivers could line up and contribute across from Smith right away, but only a few linemen in this draft could start from Day 1, leaving the latter as the most important.
Captain Munnerlyn Has Played His Last Game as a Panther
As I mentioned earlier, cap restrictions will vastly limit what Carolina can afford to do this offseason, and losing Captain Munnerlyn could be a reality. He returned to the team on a cheap, one-year contract in 2013, but he won't be willing to do that again this time around.
He was arguably the best player in the secondary last season, and losing him would hurt, although not as badly as losing Hardy would have been. Out of all the team's needs, the secondary is down the list behind grabbing a starting-caliber receiver and offensive lineman.
It's evident that Munnerlyn wants a long-term deal to get done, but he knows he's just getting older with each passing season and may not want to wait another year to get one from Carolina.
The Panthers might not even want to re-sign him after 2014, and especially given the fact that he could get injured, he doesn't want any chance of hurting his stock as a free agent.
Getting a deal done that both parties will be happy with isn't likely, which means that Munnerlyn could be on his way out of Charlotte.
Steve Smith May Not Be with the Team in 2014
For all his years of quality play along with his patience through adverse times and losing seasons, you'd think Steve Smith would be an indispensable commodity at this point, but Carolina sees it differently.
General manager Dave Gettleman recently shared some comments regarding Smith that left the receiver's fate with the team in question.
"We're going through the whole process," Gettleman said, according to Yahoo!. "Steve's had a great career. He really has. None of us are here forever."
Ron Rivera went on to add that he's also unsure of Smith's future with the team, mentioning that it's "all about the evaluations."
Well, that's comforting.
It's worth noting that Smith had a very solid year in 2013 and showed that he still has a good amount of gas in the tank. He's been a big part of Cam Newton's growth over the past few seasons and has done a lot of good for Carolina along the way.
The Panthers will be limited this offseason due to cap restraints and are likely mulling the idea of letting Smith go in order to free up some space since he carries a hefty price—he will make $7 million in 2014. Despite that being a large amount for a declining 33-year-old, it's hard to see Carolina letting Mr. "Ice up, son" walk.
They don't have the money to find a worthy replacement in free agency and won't trust a rookie to come in right away and be "the guy" for them. Keeping No. 89 is the best thing for this team.
Now, Carolina could try to get him to restructure his deal as they have with others in order to free up space, but as of right now, it looks like Smith will be $7 million richer in 2014.
With Jordan Gross' Retirement, Tackle Becomes a Bigger Need Than Receiver
Last week, the Panthers received the unfortunate news that longtime starter Jordan Gross is retiring, which leaves a gaping hole on the left side of the offensive line. Carolina had a few other needs at key positions, although the general consensus was that getting another receiver was of utmost importance.
Frankly, it is still important but not as much as getting a new tackle.
They were able to inch their way through last season without much talent behind Smith but wouldn't have been nearly as effective with running or passing the ball without Gross. I mentioned on an earlier slide that this is a deep class of receivers, which is highlighted by big, physical pass-catchers along with smaller, speedier ones.
Carolina should aim to nab a talented lineman in the first round and then draft a receiver in the second.
Two names to keep an eye on are Allen Robinson and Davante Adams—they're big, athletic receivers with potential. Sitting behind Smith for the remainder of his career will be a great learning experience for them and will bring them up to speed in the offense much more quickly.
Overall, the Panthers are just not as limited option-wise when it comes to receiver, which means that they have the luxury of waiting to select one. Offensive tackle is the biggest need on this team, and I'm sure they'll address it early.