Right now I can’t give a definitive answer to this question. When I made statements that the Panthers would be the first team to repeat as division champs in the volatile NFC South, I did so with the expectation that Steve Smith would be there. I made that claim expecting Gettleman to be able to keep key free agents like Mike Mitchell or Ted Ginn. I can’t blame Gettleman for all of the free agents walking. The Panthers are still in “salary cap hell” from Marty Hurney’s bloated contracts. The Panthers simply do not have the cap space to make big splashes in free agency. It is not like they would anyways as it appears Gettleman prefers to build through the draft.
The Panthers still have around 5 million in free cap space right now, but don’t expect Gettleman to make many more moves, if any. He is wisely saving space to be able to sign free agents during the season should injuries occur. He used the same strategy last year to bring in help on the offensive line, following a rash of injuries. Speaking of the offensive line, that may be one area the Panthers see improvement this season.
Many have forgotten that Amini Silatolu went down early in the season. He was starting to show signs of being a reliable guard and a fierce one at that. Edmund Kugbila was another guy who could come in and be a contributor. We did not get a chance to see Kugbila last season as he dealt with injuries all year. As of right now, it seems the Panthers will more than likely select a tackle in the first round to replace the recently retired Jordan Gross. At the 28th pick the talent is boom-or-bust at the wide receiver position, but the tackles at that point seem a little safer. Plus, Gettleman likes to build his team from the inside out.
Now if a guy like Brandin Cooks is available at 28, you can’t afford to pass on him. The Panthers certainly need a big receiver to operate in the red zone, but this draft is loaded with them. Cooks plays like Steve Smith and is simply electrifying with the ball in his hands. So back to the question at hand, can the Panthers be contenders in 2014? Absolutely.
If Gettleman nails this draft and finds some steals in the later rounds, then this team certainly has what it takes to make the playoffs. The defense is still largely intact with the franchise tag placed on Greg Hardy. They have one of the most intimidating front sevens in all of football. Drafting a solid cornerback, maybe a guy like Stanley Jean-Baptiste, in the later rounds of the draft could put the defense over the top.
Cam Newton should be more mobile than ever following his ankle surgery. He has been dealing with this issue since college and the Panthers have a top notch medical staff. His soreness should be gone and the flexibility of his ankle vastly improved. Cam has the kind of talent to make people around him better. He helped see Ted Ginn have a career year (and would have been better if Ginn had not drop some easy touchdowns). He revitalized Steve Smith’s career in 2011 and his ability to run opens up so many holes for the other players around him.
Have faith Panthers fans, because while free agency looks bleak, the loaded 2014 draft is just around the corner. As fortune would have it the Panthers biggest areas of need are also some of the deepest positions in this year’s draft. Gettleman has been scouting hours and hours every day to make sure he picks the best players in the draft and come May I think many fans will be back on the bandwagon. I personally can’t wait. Keep pounding Panther Nation.