The first big test of Marty Hurney’ssecond tenure as Carolina Panthers GM began this week, with the commencement of the annual NFL free-agency bazaar.
Hurney’s track record during hisfirst tenure, which ran between 2002 and 2012, was a mixed bag overall, and that includes his free-agency classes. In keeping with an organizational philosophy that tends to prize the draft and homegrown talent as the main avenues toward roster building, the Panthers did not make a lot of splashy signings during Hurney’s tenure. Even an unvarnished triumph like the 2003 signing of future Super Bowl starter Jake Delhomme was under the radar in the moment. Making big-time headlines in March is simply not the Panthers’ style.
That stated, the opening salvos offree agency have been marked by significant additions and departures, which may provide important clues about the direction of a franchise that seems inclined to evolve but appears at times to be stuck between stations. With just under $20 million in available cap space, the Panthers were never going to be major players in free agency, even if the appetite for a sudden bender were to hit this typically austere group.
Carolina promptly lost out on two oftheir own free agents, with massive defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and prized guard Andrew Norwell moving on to greener pastures in Buffalo and Jacksonville, respectively. Both players represent significant if not back-breaking losses for a team whose strength has typically been in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Neither loss could be considered unexpected, however, and the Norwell deal in particular, with its $30 million in guaranteed money, was a nonstarter for the organization.
It is one of the league’s worst keptsecrets that the Panthers need help at receiver—sometimes I walk around my neighborhood just screaming it out loud—and Hurney faces this difficulty during an offseason of uncertainty for the position both in free agency and the draft. Ultimately, the Panthers elected to pass on boom-or-bust propositions in Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson and instead traded promising young cornerback Daryl Worley to the Eagles in return for veteran vertical threat Torrey Smith.
That move represents a calculated gamble, if a rational one.Worley is the kind of low-salaried, team-controlled asset that contending organizations typically hoard. In Smith, however, the team receives a proven deep threat whose $5 million salary is roughly a third of what Watkins and Robinson ended up signing for. Still just twenty-nine despite seeming to have been in the league for roughly a hundred years, Smith won’t take games over, but he is precisely the sort of home-run threat on the edge that would have helped enormously at times last season. Hurney’s rebuild of the receiving corps isn’t close to finished yet—or it shouldn’t be—but this represents a useful start.
The Panthers looked to replenishtheir secondary with the signing of former Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Breeland, who starred at Clemson in college, is a rangy, physical corner who has shown flashes of stardom over the course of his four years in the league. A fluid athlete with a nose for the ball, Breeland patrolled the opposite side of the field from former Panthers all-pro Josh Norman over the past couple years, sometimes outplaying him in the process. Though intimations of character red flags have periodically surfaced around Breeland, it’s difficult to separate any legitimate concerns from the overarching psychosis that characterizes the entire Washington football operation. Overall, dedicating roughly $9 million in guaranteed money to a talented twenty-six-year-old presumably entering his prime has the earmarks of a savvy move.
The signing of defensive tackleDontari Poe to replace Lotulelei makes sense on paper as well. An active space eater who plays upward of 70 percent of all snaps, the 346-pound Poe immediately becomes the new anchor for a Panthers line that again figures to be one of the team’s strengths. At twenty-seven, Poe comes off an effective season in Atlanta that followed an impressive and periodically dominating stint in Kansas City. He is young, reasonably priced at roughly $10 million a year over three years, and arguably an upgrade over Lotulelei. As with the Breeland signing, this is a midlevel deal for a solid contributor with gas left in the tank. In other words, a manageable risk with considerable upside.
Finally, in something of a surprise,the Panthers were able to bring back future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers on a one-year deal. At thirty-eight, Peppers isn’t the same player he was even a few years ago, but he still proved highly effective as a pass-rush specialist last season, tying Mario Addison with a team-high eleven sacks. Peppers seemed likely to retire at the end of the 2017 campaign, and coaxing him back is more than a minor coup in a league where you simply can never have enough edge rushers.
Hurney and the Panthers still have plenty of holes to fill,but it’s fair to characterize the league calendar’s first official week as a success. They are arguably improved on defense, and while the loss of Norwell hurts, they possess enough cap space and draft resources to find a suitable replacement. Over the years, these have been the decisions the Panthers have tended to get right. The more challenging part may well come next. Hurney needs to find Cam Newton the sort of explosive weapons that can help the quarterback thrive innew coordinator Norv Turner’s offense. Those have decidedly not been the sort of roster moves thatthe former and current GM has excelled at.