Mobile, Ala. — Carolina Panthers will leave, and others will return., The pressure is on general manager Dave Gettleman to figure out who will be in which group.
This offseason, Gettleman must deal with 21 unrestricted free agents, contract extensions for star players, seven picks in May’s draft and formulating a plan to get the Panthers to the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history.
Gettleman has already said Cam Newton is the franchise quarterback, but what’s the price tag? Steve Smith, the Panthers’ top receiver, is not getting any younger. And Greg Hardy’s record-tying 15 sacks in 2013 drove up his price for a team that, as Gettleman recently reminded everyone multiple times, is salary cap-challenged.
The Observer’s Jonathan Jones sat down with Gettleman for an hour-long interview at the Senior Bowl to discuss a range of topics. In Part 1 of the Observer’s three-part Q&A, Gettleman discusses his plans for some of the team’s top players and its coach, Ron Rivera.
Q. What impressed you the most about Cam Newton this year?
A. The maturity.
Q. Was that really a big thing for you? I assume you heard a lot about that from the outside before you came here.
A. Just step back and put yourself in his shoes: first pick of the draft, you’re seen as the savior, in athletics you’ve had very few failures and then you walk into the NFL, 2-14, coming out of the lockout with no OTAs (Organized Team Activities) with no nothing. The way he accepted leadership, the way he grew, you guys wrote about how he was letting his teammates help him, his improvement in reading the field and going through his progressions. I mean, that (79-yard) touchdown pass to (Brandon) LaFell in Minnesota, that was his last read. So all those things.
Last year when I talked about quarterbacks, I made the statement that at some point in time you have to make plays from the pocket. Every quarterback in the NFL has to make plays from the pocket. Now the next day I’m reading an article, “Cam may be moving on.” I didn’t say that at all, I just said he had to make plays from the pocket.
He did it against San Francisco, New England, New Orleans. He did it over and over again this year. So that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about maturity like you can trust him going out of town. I’m talking about on the field, understanding the game, the game slowing down.
I’ve talked to great players because I’ve been around them and I said a couple of them, that phasethe game slowing down, is that real and accurate? They said yeah. It really is. It gets easy. And I think this is what’s happened for him.
And I’m going to tell you this, he works his fanny off. He is in the facility more than you can imagine. He’s in there Monday nights, Tuesday mornings, Tuesday afternoons, Tuesday evenings. It’s important to him.
Q. I know you don’t talk specifically about contracts …
A. No. That won’t happen (laughs).
Q. With Cam’s rookie deal and the most recent collective bargaining agreement giving rookies much less money than in the past, with guys like Matthew Stafford who came before Cam in the draft getting big second contracts on top of big first contracts, how is that going to complicate matters when it comes time to deal with Cam’s contract?
A. When you’re in negotiations … let me back up. How is it going to affect it? I don’t know. Time will tell. The bottom line is, it’s a new NFL. You don’t have those $5-7 million spikes anymore. It’s not going to happen. Everybody’s learning.
Let me tell you something: Not to pat ourselves on the back but we read the market pretty well. We saw where the market was going, and you saw what we did. Back in the old days you had 325 (unrestricted free agents), right now we’re at almost 500. And you’re going to get, I’m guessing, 75 cap-hit guys, guys that are making too much money for their team. So at some point in time as a player you’re going to make a decision:Do I want to keep doing these one-year deals, not knowing where I’m going to be, dragging my family around in the hopes that I’m going to hit the lottery, or am I going to sign a modest three-year deal so I know where I’m going to be and have a chance to win?
That’s where the rubber meets the road. When that happens, players are going to step back and say I don’t want to be gypsy.
Q. But that’s not Cam.
A. No, that’s not Cam. It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes. The bottom line is, as long as the player wants to be with the team who wants him to be there, you come to an agreement. It’s just a matter of a common ground and getting to a value that both sides can live with.
Q. But you guys are going to be the guinea pig. You’ll be Patient Zero because Cam is the first player taken in the new CBA. Teams will look to you for the precedent.
A. It’s going to be fun. … It’s going to be interesting. There’s going to be a lot of work, a lot of research. A lot of thought is going to go into it. Philosophically, I’m going to start with a fair offer. It’s going to be fair. And then we’ll move from there.
Q. Will it be this offseason for sure?
A. Who knows?
Q. What do you want to do with Greg Hardy – an extension, a franchise tag or let him walk in free agency?
A. He’s part of the puzzle.
Q. Is he a puzzle to you?
A. Not for me.
Q. So it’s an easy call for you?
A. I got to watch 17 games worth of stuff, but he’s obviously a presence. Anybody can see that. It’s part of it. We’ve got to evaluate the whole thing and then come up with a plan.
Q. But he’s part of your plan moving forward?
A. We’ll see.
Q. Do you have a tentative plan, or have you drawn out on a napkin, what life will be like after Steve Smith?
A. I love it. On a napkin. It’s like we’re sitting at a bar. Steve has just had a tremendous career. He’s 34. He’s exceeded the normal career of any wide receiver and he should be very proud of what he’s accomplished and he’s been a great Carolina Panther. Who knows? You don’t know when he’s going to be done.
Q. Well it’s going to be sooner rather than later. You don’t think he can go another 13 years, right?
A. No, I don’t think so. Who knows? I don’t know. Do I think about these things? Of course I do.
Q. Does it trouble you?
A. In 2011 when I was with the Giants, we came out of camp and we had been getting killed all offseason about our wide receiver position. Now if anybody from the Giants tells you they knew all along that Victor Cruz was going to be that good, it wouldn’t be accurate. We thought Victor was talented, and he just needed to play. And we have some young guys that we think are talented, and they need to play. You’re not going to get better on the sideline. You’ve got to get between the white stripes. And we think some of these young guys are talented, we’ve got to find out how good they can be. And that’s part of the process.
Q. Ron Rivera is entering the final year of his four-year deal. With the improvements Ron has made from six to seven to 12 wins and a division title, and you’re a fair guy, is it fair for him to go into this season a lame duck coach, or do you want to extend him?
A. Well again, to answer your question, I said in the press conference, ‘I’ve got ultimate confidence in him.’ And that’s the exact quote. And I still do. So …
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9