Shortly after Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman was hired last January, he identified three areas where the Panthers needed help – the secondary, the interior of the defensive line and the receiving corps.
Identifying those deficiencies was one thing, addressing them with a restrictive salary cap situation was another.
Through a series of contract restructurings involving some of the team’s most prominent players, a number of shrewd, under-the-radar free agent signings and a couple of defensive tackle draft picks, Gettleman filled in around the core group of players left behind by former GM Marty Hurney.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he’s developed a good relationship with Gettleman, who arrived two years after Hurney hired Rivera.
“Dave’s been very instrumental, obviously,” Rivera said. “Based on the free agency we’ve done, the things that we’ve done as far as getting the salary cap in hand, the draft picks, all that stuff has really come into play.”
While some questioned the lack of big names among the Panthers’ offseason acquisitions, it’s tough to argue with the results: the team’s first division title and first playoff berth in five years.
“He really had a cap mountain to climb,” said former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who consulted on the Panthers’ search. “He really didn’t have a lot of resources.”
The Panthers were approximately $16 million over the cap when Gettleman, who has turned down repeated interview requests, arrived in Charlotte. They now sit about $17 million under it.
Gettleman navigated the cap by cutting three defensive starters – cornerback Chris Gamble, linebacker James Anderson and defensive tackle Ron Edwards – and asking seven veterans to restructure their contracts.
The list of those who restructured included some of the team’s best-known players, including a couple who took significant pay cuts in running back DeAngelo Williams and left tackle Jordan Gross.
Accorsi, who worked with Gettleman in New York when Gettleman was the Giants’ pro personnel director, said those restructuring conversations are never easy.
“That’s a tough job to do,” Accorsi said. “As a general manager, you have to say no and ask them to accept things. They want more. The fact is they have to trust you. You’ve got to have credibility.”
Gettleman addressed the secondary by signing several unrestricted free agents to one-year deals – cornerbacks Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore (released in October) and Captain Munnerlyn (who re-signed) and safety Mike Mitchell.
While the big-money deals last offseason went to quarterbacks, the growing trend around the league is for teams to offer short-term deals to many of the second-tier free agents. Munnerlyn and Mitchell said they initially had three-year offers from the Panthers, with less annual guaranteed money than the players were willing to accept.
Both opted to sign one-year contracts, hoping their play would earn them more lucrative deals this offseason.
“This team is a team. We play as a team, we think as a team. But there is an individual side where you’ve got to try to make some money for yourself,” said Mitchell, tied for the team lead with four interceptions. “I knew if I could come in here and win a starting job around all these awesome players, I’d be in position to make some money for myself.”
With safety Charles Godfrey sidelined since Week 2 after rupturing his Achilles, Munnerlyn is the only player among the Panthers’ top five defensive backs who was with the team last season.
In addition to Mitchell and Florence, the other newcomers are strong safety Quintin Mikell, who signed a one-year deal Sept. 2, and cornerback Melvin White, an undrafted rookie who emerged as a starter at midseason.
Gettleman took a similar approach at receiver. He signed unrestricted free agents Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon to one-year deals each worth less than $1.2 million.
Ginn, who endured three largely forgettable seasons in San Francisco, has given the Panthers the deep threat they lacked, catching a career-high five touchdown passes.
Hixon, one of two former Giants signed by Gettleman, pulled down the game-winning touchdown in a Week 16 victory over New Orleans that gave the Panthers the inside edge on the NFC South title.
Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn, the other ex-Giant on the roster, said what the new additions lacked in sizzle, they made up for in substance.
“They didn’t make the biggest splash in free agency, but they brought in talent at needed positions where they were your lunch-pail guys. They were your go-to-work, blue-collar, get-the-job-done (guys),” Blackburn said. “It may not always be as good as someone else maybe will do it. But it’s always the right job. They’re always where they’re supposed to be.”
In his first draft with the Panthers, Gettleman took defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds. Lotulelei, the 14th overall pick, has started all 16 games and could get some votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Short, the second-round pick from Purdue, has 1.5 sacks, and his 21 quarterback pressures are tied for second on the team.
“When you’re with the Giants you believe in pass rush. That’s No. 1 before you get much further,” Accorsi said. “Those two guys he drafted have made a tremendous difference because when you get pressure in your face, that’s the toughest thing (for a quarterback) to deal with.”
When a spate of injuries sidelined three players who started at guard the first half of the season, the Panthers turned to a couple of former players. Travelle Wharton, who spent 2012 on injured reserve with Cincinnati following a preseason knee injury, signed in August. Geoff Hangartner re-signed in November, three months after he was released by the Panthers during the first week of training camp. Wharton said their knowledge of the offense allowed them to step in quickly: Wharton is the starter at left guard, while Hangartner is the first lineman off the bench.
“Fortunately for (Hangartner) and myself, we didn’t have to learn the whole playbook all over,” Wharton said. “We came back in the season, it was game-planning and learning the plays that we were going to use. We just kind of jumped in.”
It will be another challenging offseason for Gettleman. The Panthers have 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, headed by defensive end Greg Hardy, who tied a franchise record with 15 sacks.
But the first priority will be locking up quarterback Cam Newton with a long-term deal, while trying to free future cap space.
The roster could look a lot different next season, although Mitchell said the front office might be reluctant about breaking up a close-knit, successful team.
“Usually when you win, I feel like the fans, the organization, people want to try to keep that together,” Mitchell said. “If you look at us as a defense, we’re extremely young. I just turned 26 this June. I know we’ve got a lot of young guys on our team. We can keep this thing together for a long time.”
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