Steve Smith. Ted Ginn. Mike Mitchell. Brandon LaFell. Captain Munnerlyn: all names that had been a frequent sight on the big screen and in the team store. All names that fans across the country were just beginning to learn following an incredible performance on primetime television and an even more incredible rebound from a 1-3 start to an NFC South championship. All gone within weeks of each other after no attempt was made to resign them (Smith was actually cut for reasons that are still unclear). Throw the retirement of Jordan Gross into the mix, and things weren't looking too good for the Panthers. Two gaping holes in the secondary, the loss of a key offensive lineman, and a receiving corps stripped to the bone. Indeed, even Domenik Hixon, who caught the game-winning Week 16 touchdown to beat the Saints and essentially win the division, was allowed to walk away. Thus, for a little over a week the team's receivers were Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons, RJ Webb, and Brenton Bersin, all of whom have combined for five catches in their respective careers. But hey, at least one of those was a touchdown!
However, it wasn't long before the staff was replenished. Jerricho Cotchery was signed on March 20, and Tiquan Underwood was brought in the following day. Cotchery, a 31-year-old veteran who played for Pittsburgh for three years after spending seven with the Jets, is a decent acquisition (he had 602 receiving yards and ten touchdowns last year) but by no means a number one guy, especially not for a division winner. Underwood, a 27-year-old who is playing for his fourth team in six years (Jaguars, Patriots, and Buccaneers), strikes me as more of a reserve player, with just over 1,000 career receiving yards and six touchdowns.
During March, the Panthers also brought in Roman Harper, a safety who had played for the Saints since being drafted by them in 2006. He is a talented player (he's been to two Pro Bowls) but definitely one you'd rather be playing with than against, as he has been called out several times for dirty hits, including one on Steve Smith back in 2011. Harper was also implicated in the Bountygate scandal, but due to a lack of evidence he was never punished. The thing that concerns me most is not whether he can adequately replace Mike Mitchell (his career stats of 14 forced fumbles, 7 interceptions and 17 sacks point to yes), but how this will impact the locker room. Ron Rivera will need to make sure that any issues with Harper are resolved well before the season begins.
April proved to be the best month for the Panthers in terms of free agency, as they brought in two solid additions to the offense in Jason Avant (WR) and Ed Dickson (TE). Avant, who was drafted by the Eagles in 2006 and played for them for eight years, seems like the closest thing the Panthers have to a star receiver, at least for now. He's no Steve Smith (can anybody truly replace Smitty?) but he can do big things when he's on top of his game (in 2009, 32 of his 37 third down receptions resulted in a first down). What the Panthers need to do now is draft a few receivers from one of the deepest classes ever to complement the new veteran presence. I could see a guy like Kelvin Benjamin, who is projected to go late first round (the Panthers have the 28th pick), potentially working alongside and learning from Avant and Cotchery. However, whether the Panthers should use their first pick to land a top-tier receiver or a game-ready lineman is another story entirely.
Ed Dickson could easily be the best pickup of an otherwise historically terrible offseason. Dickson, who was drafted by the Ravens in 2010 and caught two passes for 37 yards in their Super Bowl win, is a good blocker and could give the Panthers one of the deadliest tight end staffs in the NFC. At 26 years old, he's still got a lot of life left in him, and brings championship experience to a team that hasn't been that far since its starting quarterback was in middle school.
The last notable addition to the Panthers roster was made on April 11 in the form of Thomas DeCoud. Once again, the team picked up a good quality safety from a division rival (Atlanta this time). Unlike Harper, DeCoud has never played dirty, and should mesh well with the new locker room. A 2012 Pro Bowler, he has 14 career interceptions and 375 tackles. Combined with Harper, he will give the Panthers more or less what they had before in terms of safeties, but whether or not these two can hold the fort on secondary without a high caliber cornerback remains one of the team's biggest question marks.
In conclusion, while this was probably the worst offseason the Panthers have ever had in terms of losses, they did a decent job signing guys to fill those holes during the free agency. Whether the Panthers can repeat as NFC South champions and return to the playoffs is likely going to depend on what they do in May with the draft and any trades they might make. While there are still a few areas that need patching up, if the Panthers play their cards right, this team should be just as thrilling to watch as it was last year.
Check back here at thecharlottesportsblog.com for all future NFL Draft prospect porfiles and analysis on the Panthers’ 2014-15 season scheadule that should be released tomorrow.