Carolina Panthers: Ron Rivera's Changes To the Roster, and Who He'll Draft

Rick WeaverCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2011

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 23:  Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera of the San Diego Chargers looks on against the Indianapolis Colts during their NFL Game at Qualcomm Stadium on November 23, 2008 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

As everyone in Pantherland now knows, the Panthers' new head coach is the Chargers' former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. 

Rivera signed a league average, four year deal worth just over $11 million. 

So, does it look the Panthers' owner, Jerry Richardson, has finally opened his wallet in order to propel his franchise back into contender status with this new hiring? 

Well, no offense to Mr. Rivera, but Richardson pretty much just traded a John Fox type for another John Fox type who happens to have a much better defense.

Richardson did not even seem to consider going after one of the proven big money candidates who exists in the coaching world; names like Gruden and Cowher were never even uttered.

The Panthers fans seemed to have all heard the team was going to go "offensive" with the choosing of a new head coach. Many believed the offensive minded Brian 'Schotty" Schottenheimer had a good chance to be their man. 

Schottenheimer was however, under contract with the Jets and he is in the middle of a playoff run. The last thing Schottenheimer would ever do, now,  is ask the Jets' GM Mike Tannebaum for the opportunity to trounce off and interview with the Panthers.  

The Panthers had to go ahead and make a somewhat hurried decision, in hiring a head coach, just in order to establish some type of coaching structure and chain of command.

This rushed move was due in some part to the negotiating stance taken by their very own owner, Jerry Richardson, and the possibility of a labor lockout in the coming months. If there was a lockout and if it were resolved, the Panthers' players may not have even have known who their new head coach was going to be until training camp.

There was also the need to get a coach in place in Carolina to prepare for the 2011 draft.  But Rivera will probably not have to worry about pleading his case for drafting and trying to sign Auburn's Nick Fairley. Many believe Fairley has some issues. Fairley's questionable method of play and his overall poor sportsmanship does not bode well for him in Carolina.

The Panthers, to their own detriment, have long had an ill conceived notion about taking only good, "character" guys in the draft or when signing free agents, but there is a bit of hypocrisy involved here. 

Steve Smith, the Panthers all-time leading wide receiver, has twice broken facial bones of different teammates, yet he is still the face of the franchise.

The difference? Steve Smith is a known commodity. He was a member of the pro-bowl following his rookie season and he won the wide receivers highest accolade, the 'triple crown' just a few years later. It looks like performance talks and potential walks when it comes to the Panthers taking a chance on players with a few questions on their resume. 

I guess if you win the biggest award for your position and if you catch winning overtime playoff touchdowns, you get a pass when it comes to Carolina's "squeaky clean" character rule. This stance has crippled the Panthers in recent years. 

When Brett Farve left the Packers and decided to first make his comeback to football, the Jets, according to his Farve's agent, Bus Cook, were not his first choice. Favre's first choice, per Cook,  was the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers chose to leave the Favre saga to someone else and decided it would continue losing games with Jake Delhomme.

Meanwhile the future hall of famer was one play away from a Superbowl appearance in 2009 and posted, arguably, what some have called one of the best seasons of his career.

To further add insult to injury, the Panthers had an easy and very inexpensive chance to sign Michael Vick when he was released from prison, even though Tony Dungy had promised a new and reformed Vick. When it came time for Vick to be allowed to play again, Vick personally made it known he wanted to play for the Panthers, he was not as much as texted by the team telling him "no thanks."

Looking back, it took Vick one full season of playing backup just to get to the point where he would mount a serious comeback, but what will all likely turn out to be just a bit short of a challenge for the league's MVP award this season. 

What did the Panthers do in the same two seasons just as Vick was becoming one of the leading quarterbacks in the NFL? Well, the Panthers went through nine quarterbacks—I did say nine.

Yes, unbelievably the Panthers at one point in time over the 2009 and 2010 seasons had, at different times, nine different quarterbacks to have their names appear on their roster.

To cap it all off the Panthers drafted Jimmy Clausen, with their second round draft pick. Clausen turned out to be ill equipped to handle the NFL version of the blitz and led the Panthers to the worst record in the NFL.

To make matters worse for Rivera, the Panthers have the following players coming in as unrestricted free agents just as Rivera makes his way to his new office: James Anderson OLB, Thomas Davis OLB, Charles Johnson DE, Ryan Kalil C, DeAngelo Williams RB, Richard Marshall CB, Jeff King TE, Matt Moore QB, Derek Landri DT, Dante Rosario TE and kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd.

No matter how you look at it, the Panthers have seven starting, core players they almost have to retain on their roster during free agency and there are four other key players, among the group, who need to get a serious chance at a contract offer from the Panthers.

That is enough work to keep General Manager Marty Hurney busy until September, literally.

Now, if that is not enough, just think of the holes the Panthers have on their current roster in terms of key positions and you will quickly figure out the Panthers are going to have to reload their team starting with their own free agents then they are going to have to go after other free agents on the open market just to stop the bleeding and to be able to put a product on the field the absentee fans will return to see.

The solution of simply drafting A.J. Green, getting Jeff Otah back and allowing Jimmy Clausen to mature as the team faces a schedule that may not look so tough, at first glance, but then you realize the Panthers play a very tough divisional schedule and after last season, there is suddenly only one slouch in the NFC South and they wear blue and white.  As soon as you reconcile how hard the NFC South part if the schedule is going to be, you suddenly realize that all of the other teams the Panthers have to face in 2011 will all be better than the Panthers are.

But all is not lost for Panthers' fans just yet as this is the almost the same exact situation the 1-15 Rams found themselves in just one year ago.  After the 2010 Draft and following some work in free agency the Rams had suddenly shored up their quarterback position, with rookie Sam Bradford, and from there the Rams only missed the playoffs after losing their last game of the season to Seattle.

As in St. Louis last season, the most glaring need in Carolina is at the quarterback position. No matter how you slice it Clausen is not the "man" to lead the Panthers into 2011. He may well be fine as a third string reserve, there to learn the game, but he is no NFL starter. 

I will hand it to Clausen, in the last game of the season, Clausen did, in fact, for one and one half quarters look like a professional football player. He made a few tough throws and did not hold the ball as ridiculously long as he did in every single game that he played this past season. But one quarter of decent play does not mitigate all of the entire games of poor play.

Since Andrew Luck took one look at the mess that was the way the 2010 Panthers were handled and declared he was staying in school, the Panthers have no real quarterback options in the draft. 

There are some who would love to believe that because Cam Newton looks good on the highlight reels that he  now deserves to be the first round pick of the Panthers (the Panthers could probably trade back in the  draft and take Newton, if they thought he would bring them a winning team), but there would likely be the same issues there were present with Jimmy Clausen, facing the Panthers, if they made that move to get Newton.

Now, if a team wants to take the time to groom Newton and turn him into a true NFL quarterback that is different story or if a team wants to wallow through a season, much as the 2009 Buc's did while they let Josh Freeman get his hands around the professional game, which is fine as well, but the Panthers do not have that kind of time.

There will be names that pop up during free agency, assuming there is football in 2011, but the Panthers will have to step up and open the wallet. 

Will Richardson do it this time? That is the million dollar question. 

The Panthers' need at quarterback seems to possibly have its cure in the Philadepiha football family. Whether Richardson will wake up and smell the coffee and realize that a Lombardi trophy will cost him well over $130 million is still no guarantee, but it is a start. 

Of the $130 million plus, if Richardson was serious about winning, Mike Vick could cost him $20 million a year. The odds are the Eagles will place the franchise tag on Vick and move forward. It is highly unlikely Vick will leave Philadelphia anytime soon, but there are more options.

The real chance for a quarterback is Vick's somewhat questionable co-hort, Kevin Kolb.  Kolb may be the one the Panthers fall in love with, but he is going to come with huge trade cost.

The problem in a nutshell is, the Eagles want two first round picks for the rights to Kolb  and Kolb is still needed in Philadelphia due to the amount of one game injuries Vick has found himself being part of since becoming an Eagle. Maybe Reid should trade for a solid tackle and be realistic about his requirements for the on-again-off-again style of play Kolb has been involved in over the past few seasons.

There is also the fact the Eagles have just one real running back; the Panthers have three.  Who knows, maybe a guy like Goodson and a future top draft pick may entice the Eagles to trade Kolb.

Finally, there is the former Eagle, Donovan McNabb, who is now in Washington and having a rough go of it while finding himself stuck at odds with a coach who looks as if the game may have passed him by a few years after he left Denver.  The current state of affairs in Washington is one where there is a stubborn coach dealing with group of guys who do not respond well to humiliation and threats of being benched.  A few of the guys in Shanahan's dog house may deserve all they get; namely a 350 pound defensive lineman who wants to argue whether he belongs in a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive scheme.

McNabb on the other hand is a proven winner and still has good football left to play. Whether Richardson would take a chance and pay the older McNabb, who did happen to suffer from some poor play last season in Washington, may just be a topic for later discussion. 

However, if history is an indicator of things that could happen in Carolina, one just needs to remember how Jake Delhomme got a contract extension in the midst of an entire football breakdown. So, it would seem that paying for a quality guy, like McNabb, should be an easy thing for Jerry Richardson to stomach,  that is, if he can just remember how he actually wound up paying Delhomme to play in Cleveland in 2010. In a strange twist of fate Delhomme was, in effect, partially paid by the Panthers, to be part of a team that wound up beating Richardson's very own Panthers.

Even if the chance to get one the aforementioned quarterbacks fails, there are still serviceable quarterbacks out there. Even though the remaining quarterbacks are pretty much backups and journeymen there are still a few who could help the Panthers out in a lot of ways. There are a few who have some real game experience and who have won games under adverse conditions; names like Drew Stanton and Brad Gradkowski are just a few of the guys who will be available this season, but Kolb still remains at the top of the contender list for a team like the Carolina Panthers.

One thing I can tell you is that Steve Smith will be nowhere near the Panthers' training camp if the team decides that Jimmy Clausen is their man for 2011. Jerry Richardson has already named the quarterback position as the one position where his team has to get better.

Will he stick to that now that the answer will not be Andrew Luck? Only time will tell. 

So, this entire offseason, for every team, is in limbo now, but few teams have as scattered of a mess as the Panthers have seemed to put together for their new coach to mull over.  With money, a reasonable new CBA, very solid coordinators in place and some key free agent additions and quality draft picks, there may just be a chance for the Panthers to challenge for the NFC South title again in the coming seasons. 

In the past, there always seemed to have been obvious, easy answers to get the Panthers over the hump. However, this season there are no easy ways out. Those easy, obvious answers that were always shot down in the past have to be looked at as no-brainers and acted on this go-round and the money has to be spent unlike never before to get this team in any kind of shape for winning.

The real issue of rebuilding a team has to be the primary concern in Carolina.

But all is not lost, if the Panthers do go belly up again this season, there is a good chance they could draft Luck in 2012.


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