CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While most of the NFL world is focused on "Deflategate" and the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers are focused on building for 2015.

General manager Dave Gettleman and much of the college scouting department are in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera are in the process of evaluating the roster and where improvements can be made.

With that, let’s get to your questions for my Saturday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: Big money? Probably not. There really aren't a lot of great options on top tier left tackles in free agency, and there may be fewer when teams start to re-sign their own. I'd look for the Panthers to look more toward the second-tier guys and draft a potential future left tackle in the first couple of rounds. I'm still not ruling out re-signing Byron Bell to a low number and giving him a chance to compete for the job. No doubt he struggled this season, but to be fair it was his first season as a left tackle. There is room to grow and the coaching staff likes him. I'm not saying he is the answer, but better to have insurance in case you don't find the answer.

@DNewtonESPN: Content? No. As general manager Dave Gettleman said you never can be satisfied with the status quo. The Panthers are comfortable with Bene' Benwikere at cornerback and Tre Boston at free safety. They went 5-1 with them as the starters down the stretch. But I believe if they can find a taller and faster every-down cornerback that would allow them to move Benwikere back to the nickel spot full time they would make that move. It would only make the defense stronger. And as Gettleman admitted, Benwikere doesn't have the elite speed you look for as an every-down corner. But he does have good speed and great football instincts. I still believe cornerback is a viable option if a top one is available in the first round of the draft.

@DNewtonESPN: Yes. Mike Shula will remain the offensive coordinator. As I've said before, it would be tough to judge him during a year in which he had four new wide receivers, a rebuilt offensive line and a quarterback dealing with offseason surgery and in-season injuries. Sometimes continuity is more important than change.

@DNewtonESPN: Ron Rivera pretty much shot down the notion of a coaching change during his final news conference. Speaking specifically of the breakdowns on special teams he talked about injuries to five key special-team players this past season. He also spoke to the need for him and the staff to commit to finding players specifically for those units. The biggest need is a return specialist. The Panthers had one in Ted Ginn Jr., and then let him sign with Arizona last offseason.

@DNewtonESPN: As far as I know he's looking at talent more than age. Having said that, he's looking to upgrade the overall speed of the team and you seldom do that with older players such as Eddie Royal. The Panthers already have a player like Royal in Jerricho Cotchery. To find a real difference-maker at wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin the best avenue likely will be the draft. It's another deep class.

@DNewtonESPN: I couldn't pass on this one. First, I have no idea. He's a big guy with big hands, so I doubt the amount of pressure in the football is an issue. But I will attempt to find out the exact number.

Ex-GM on Pats: Culture of cheating

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The "Deflategate'' controversy in New England resurrected questions former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney had about the Patriots after losing Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Hurney, now the host of a weekday radio talk show on Charlotte's ESPN 730 AM and an ESPN NFL Insider, shared those questions on Thursday regarding Carolina's 32-29 loss to the Patriots on Feb. 1, 2004.

"There isn't a day that goes by since [then] that I haven't questioned ... that there were some things done that might have been beyond the rules that may have given them a three-point advantage,'' Hurney said during his radio show.

"And I can't prove anything, and that's why I'm very angry. And the anger has come back over the last couple of days that commissioner Roger Goodell decided to shred all of the evidence after 'Spygate,' because I think there were a lot of things in there that would bring closure to a lot of people.''

The NFL is investigating why 11 of 12 football used by the Patriots in Sunday's 45-7 win over Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game were underinflated significantly below the league requirements.

"To me this isn't about 'Deflategate', this isn't about anything having to do about any particular game last week,'' Hurney said. "And it certainly isn't fodder to get by the first week before the Super Bowl.

"This is about a culture. Is there a culture of cheating at probably what most people look at as the best franchise in the National Football League?''


(Read full post)


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Derek Anderson apparently has heard enough about deflated footballs.

The Carolina Panthers backup quarterback finally expressed his feelings on the controversy surrounding the New England Patriots and under-deflated footballs during the AFC Championship via Twitter on Thursday.

 

Anderson, who was 2-0 as a starter this past season when Cam Newton was injured, didn’t hesitate to address questions fans had regarding his tweet, either.

 

So far, nothing on “Deflate-Gate’’ from Cam Newton, whose recent tweets have been about style.

 
Next on my list of top moments that defined the Carolina Panthers in 2014 is the one – actually two – that made history.

And not in a good way for Carolina.

No. 7: Block party

Date and place: Nov. 30, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis.

The moment: There were two moments. With seven minutes left in the first quarter, Minnesota’s Adam Thielen broke free through the middle, blocked Brad Nortman’s punt and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. With 9:35 left in the second quarter, Jasper Brinkley charged up the middle to block another Nortman punt that Everson Griffen recovered and returned 43 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time a team scored on two blocked punts in an NFL game since Sept. 30, 1990. It was the first time in 453 games – since 1986, the longest active streak in the league – that the Vikings returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. The result was a 31-13 Minnesota victory.

Why it was so significant: This symbolized more than anything the breakdowns, especially on special teams, that haunted the Panthers for three-fourths of the season. These mistakes came after a bye week in which coach Ron Rivera had said Carolina needed to win its final five games to make the playoffs – although it turned out four wins was good enough. The result extended the Panthers' losing streak to six games and non-winning streak to seven. It was the low point of the season, and was summed up best by tight end Greg Olsen. "There's really no other way to put it,’’ he said. “Every adjective you can come up with, it's that. Right now, we're not very good."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A priceless moment between the former and current general managers of the Carolina Panthers occurred on Thursday.

Former general manager Marty Hurney, the co-host of a weekday radio show on Charlotte’s ESPN 730 AM, was interviewing by phone current GM Dave Gettleman, in Mobile, Alabama, evaluating talent for Saturday’s Senior Bowl.

At one point during the interview Hurney referred to him leaving Gettleman “jammed up against the salary cap.’’

Hurney was fired in 2012 after a 1-5 start. Gettleman, hired in January of 2013, inherited a team that was more than $16 million over the salary cap.

When the topic turned to quarterback Cam Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft under Hurney’s watch, Gettleman responded: “The guy that left us in a cap mess did a helluva a job [drafting] a quarterback. I believe in Cam. We believe in Cam. Moving forward we want him to be here.’’

It was yet another sign the Panthers plan to sign Newton, entering the last year of his contract, to a long-term contract.

Exactly when that will be? Gettleman didn’t share that with Hurney.

For Hurney’s complete interview with Gettleman:

 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Upon further review, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gives the Carolina Panthers an A-minus for their 2014 draft class.

It is a significant upgrade from the "C" he gave them immediately after the draft.

Benjamin
Kiper Jr. liked that Carolina hit on first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin (No. 28 overall) to replace Steve Smith as its No. 1 receiver. Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He added 11 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason.

As Kiper Jr. correctly noted, Benjamin was inconsistent, particularly in terms of dropped passes. But overall the selection of Benjamin was solid.

Kiper Jr. applauded the selection of San Jose State cornerback Bene' Benwikere in the fifth round, calling him one of the best sleepers in the draft. He also liked the selection of fourth-round pick Tre Boston, a free safety out of North Carolina. He called third-round pick Trai Turner, a guard out of LSU, one of his favorite players in the draft. He also liked the upside of defensive end Kony Ealy, a second-round pick out of Missouri.

Where Kiper Jr. has an issue with the draft class is no tackle was selected to protect quarterback Cam Newton. There is a good reason. There wasn’t a can’t-miss left tackle at No. 28 or beyond.

Also, the Panthers believed Byron Bell or Nate Chandler could play left tackle. Bell won the job, but ultimately didn’t pan out. He ranked next-to-last among tackles rated by Pro Football Focus.

Still, to select a left tackle at No. 28 or beyond would have been a reach.

I’d argue Carolina’s class should get a solid A.

My reasons? Four of the six players -- Benjamin, Turner, Boston, and Benwikere -- started the final six games when Carolina went 5-1. Ealy was a key contributor on the defensive front playing end and tackle.

The only miss was sixth-round draft pick Tyler Gaffney, a running back out of Stanford. He was a miss only in that he suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and was claimed off waivers by New England.

Leaving Gaffney exposed was perhaps the biggest mistake with this class.

Four members of Carolina’s draft class went in the first round in a recent Sports Illustrated re-draft. The magazine had Benjamin going No. 18 to the New York Jets, Benwikere No. 21 to Green Bay, Ealy No. 25 to San Diego, and Boston No. 26 to Philadelphia.

Carolina was given Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews.

Four first-round picks is pretty strong.

Here’s a complete look at Carolina’s 2014 draft class:

Click here Insider for Kiper Jr.'s complete re-grading of the draft.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams posted the following message on Twitter a few hours after landing in Charlotte following a Jan. 10 loss to Seattle in an NFC divisional playoff game:


I have no idea what will happen to Williams, either.

While part of me believes it's time for Carolina to move on and release the 31-year-old running back with one year left on his contract, there are sound reasons for keeping Williams, the team's all-time leading rusher.

He is not perceived to be a locker room distraction. He still is a viable backup now that Jonathan Stewart has emerged as the clear No. 1 back, although the $6.3 million that Williams would count against the 2015 cap is hard to justify.

Perhaps this can be resolved by a renegotiation. Or perhaps the Panthers simply will want to move forward and start developing a younger back behind Stewart.

I can't say what Williams is thinking any more than I could for the Panthers. That's because Williams did only two interviews in the locker room in 2014. By having fullback Mike Tolbert ask him questions, Williams at times made a mockery of the rules that require NFL players to be available to the media once per week.

Was it his last year playing for the Panthers? Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said at his season-ending news conference he needed to talk to Williams. He called him a "pro's pro."

Williams left the stadium on Jan. 11 without talking to reporters. What we know about what he's thinking has come from social media, such as this tweet on Jan. 13:


Williams is big on social media. He uses it to promote breast cancer awareness.

He's also wary. "Ultimately, social media is a way to let people in, but if you're not careful, there can be serious consequences," he wrote this month in the "The Cauldron," a sports website that sometimes allows athletes to share stories.

Williams emphasized that, "as a portal, the connection runs both ways," and that some people go too far. He cited a social-media interaction after his costly fumble in the 2013 season opener: "One misguided person took the opportunity to get personal. He wrote, 'Hey, DeAngelo, I hope you don’t fumble that daughter of yours like you fumbled the game away!'"

Again, I don't know what ultimately the Panthers will do with Williams. But the best way to get his reaction will likely be via social media. Or maybe not.
Next on my list of top moments that defined the Carolina Panthers in 2014 is the first of several plays in one game that made it painfully obvious more speed was needed in the secondary.
  • Nelson
    No 8: Rodgers to Nelson
  • Date and place: October 19, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisc.
  • The moment: It happened on Green Bay’s first possession of a 38-17 rout over Carolina. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the snap from his own 41-yard line and found wide receiver Jordy Nelson for a 59-yard touchdown pass. Cornerback Antoine Cason let Nelson get past him easily on the right side. Strong safety Roman Harper barely made a wave at Nelson as he raced past him for the end zone. It was one of several plays in a first half in which Rodgers dissected Carolina for 15 completions on 17 attempts for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Why it was so significant: That was the game in which Carolina’s coaching staff realized it had to add more speed to the secondary to stand a chance. A few days later, nickel cornerback Charles Godfrey was released. Godfrey missed three tackles against the Packers a week after being victimized repeatedly against Cincinnati. Cason was released five weeks later and free safety Thomas DeCoud lost his starting job. The changes ultimately led to Carolina starting two rookies – cornerback Bene’ Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston – the final four games and two playoff games because they offered more speed and athletic ability. The Panthers went 5-1 during that stretch.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano can’t comment on what a deflated football might mean to a quarterback, but he did share this experience from a Jan. 3 playoff victory over Arizona.

Gano wrote on Twitter that he asked the official if he could check the PSI (pounds per square inch) after the initial check because the ball felt flat. He said the official told him he could not.

“I guess you can’t blame the official for that," Gano wrote on Twitter. “Rules are rules. Maybe the league will make some changes this offseason. Sucks kicking a flat ball tho."

Gano went on to say the officials check the PSI indoors.

“This is frustrating bc the ball loses some pressure in the old weather," he wrote on Twitter.

The temperature at kickoff against Arizona was 51 degrees, the same as it was at kickoff when New England played Indianapolis in Sunday’s AFC Championship that has become known as “Deflate-Gate."

Gano reminded he can’t relate to what may or may not have happened with the New England footballs that the Colts believe to be underinflated, an issue the league is investigating.



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ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton says Carolina faces a decision on whether to release franchise rushing leader DeAngelo Williams, who will turn 32 in April and played just six games in 2014.
Next on my list of top moments that defined the Carolina Panthers in 2014 is a play that showed just how close this team was to turning the corner during the third of a seven-game winless streak.

It also was a game that began the defensive turnaround, although the defense ultimately failed to secure the win.
  • No 9: Wilson to Wilson
  • Date and place: Oct. 26, Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina
  • The moment: The Panthers hadn’t trailed the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks for 59 minutes and seven seconds.That’s when Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson found backup tight end Luke Wilson over the middle for a 23-yard touchdown pass that was just off the fingertips of rookie safety Tre Boston. Seattle won 13-9.
  • Why it was so significant: It was the first game after a 38-17 loss at Green Bay in which coach Ron Rivera said the defense finally moved on to the reality 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy was not returning from the commissioner’s exempt list this season. It also was the first of 11 straight starts by cornerback Josh Norman, whose ability to shut down receivers on his side was the first step in the overhaul of the secondary. But that Boston was on the field at a crucial time was what made this most significant. It was the first acknowledgment by the Panthers that they needed more speed in the secondary, particularly at free safety. Five games later, Boston replaced veteran Thomas DeCoud completely. The Panthers went on to win their final four games. That Boston wasn’t shaken by that moment, or the staff wasn’t shaken to the point it gave up on the fourth-round pick whose progression had been slowed by a sports hernia, was key. That Boston didn’t make the play that day wasn’t as significant as how well the defense played with more speed in the secondary.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have drafted only two players evaluated at the Senior Bowl during Dave Gettleman’s first two seasons as general manager.

They didn’t draft a player in 2014 who participated in the annual all-star game in Mobile, Alabama, where Gettleman and members of the college scouting department are this week looking at some of the nation's top college seniors entering the draft.

Short
They selected two – defensive tackle Kawann Short (second round) and running back Kenjon Barner (sixth round) – in 2013.

Short has figured heavily into Carolina’s four-man rotation at tackle the past two seasons. He has five sacks, 3.5 in 2014.

Barner was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles this past summer. He was cut and eventually re-signed to the Eagles’ practice squad.

Among the positions Gettleman and company are evaluating this week are wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback.

“It’s going to be strong at wide receiver again,’’ Gettleman recently said of the 2015 draft class “It looks like it’s going to be strong at offensive tackle again. It looks there's going to be some depth at defensive end, pass rushers.

“You know how I feel about pass rushers. But really, the first process is free agency. We’ve got to see what’s there. That’s the first place you look.’’
Over the next 10 weekdays I’ll take a look at what in my opinion were the top moments that defined the Carolina Panthers in 2014.

Feel free to agree or disagree with me here or on Twitter at @DNewtonESPN. Feel free to suggest what you might choose instead.

There were plenty of moments to pick from in what was a most unusual season that began with starting quarterback Cam Newton missing the opener with fractured ribs and ended with a loss to defending Super Bowl champion Seattle in an NFC divisional playoff game.

Not all the moments will be specific plays, but they specifically shaped the course of the season. On to the moments:
  • No. 10: The return
  • Date and place: October 12, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati.
  • The moment: Adam Jones returns a kickoff 97 yards to the Carolina 3-yard line moments after the Panthers had taken a 31-24 lead on a Newton to Greg Olsen touchdown with 4:58 remaining in regulation.
  • Why it was so significant: This moment stands out for several reasons. It was the first of many breakdowns on special teams that led to several losses this season. It also led to a tying touchdown in a game that eventually ended in a 37-37 overtime tie. That tie was crucial at the end of the regular season as it gave the Panthers (7-8-1) a half-game edge over New Orleans (7-9) for the NFC South title. But the return came at a moment when the Panthers had taken control with a well-orchestrated 12-play, 80-yard drive on the road. Had they gone on and won that game in regulation instead of being lucky to escape with an overtime tie they would have been 4-2 with a big road win at the start of a killer five-game stretch. Instead, they lost their next six to fall to 3-8-1 before a late-season turnaround. The return, in my opinion, symbolized just how fragile this team was.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Brandon LaFell was right on all counts.

LaFell said during the offseason that the reason he signed with New England instead of returning for a fifth season with the Carolina Panthers was because he had a chance to play with a "Hall of Fame" quarterback in Tom Brady.

LaFell
No slight on Cam Newton, but Brady is headed for his sixth Super Bowl with his 20th playoff win after Sunday’s dismantling of Indianapolis in the AFC title game. Newton has a 1-2 postseason record and never has advanced past the divisional round.

LaFell said he went to New England because he "felt it was a better chance to come up here and get more balls."

LaFell set career highs this season in receptions (74), receiving yards (953), and touchdowns (7). His best season at Carolina in 2013 resulted in 49 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns.

LaFell said he went to New England because it was a better opportunity to win. "Nothing against those guys [at Carolina]. It’s a great organization and those guys are going to win, but it’s proven up here, man," he said.

Check.

The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl with a 14-4 record. The Panthers had to win their final four regular-season games and a first-round playoff game to finish 8-9-1.

LaFell also signed with New England because the Patriots offered a three-year deal worth $9 million. Not quite where the salary-cap strapped Panthers wanted to go last offseason during their "Dollar Store" shopping.

LaFell received a lot of grief for some of his comments when he left, like he was taking shots at his former team. In reality, he simply was stating the facts.

The season has proven him right on all counts.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Led by defensive end Charles Johnson at $20,020,000, the Carolina Panthers currently have 10 players who will count $3 million or more under the salary cap in 2015.

Three are on defense, led by Johnson. Six are on offense, led by quarterback Cam Newton at $14,666,666. One is on special teams, place-kicker Graham Gano at $3.1 million.

To put this in perspective, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have 14 players set to make $3 million or more. That number is sure to grow when quarterback Russell Wilson gets a new deal.

Seven of Carolina’s top 10 were drafted by the team, with Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly still on their rookie deals.

These rankings could change with free agent signings and the restructuring of contracts. But for now, here’s a complete breakdown of Carolina’s current top-10 players under the salary cap in 2015:


Comment: He had his six-year deal restructured in each of the past two offseasons to reduce the cap hit, and there’s no reason to think the Panthers won’t attempt another. Last year, $7.8 million of his base salary was converted to a signing bonus. With two more years left on his deal, he doesn’t have a lot of incentive to renegotiate, but he likely would to help the team.


Comment: This is the average of the top-10 quarterbacks the first pick of the 2011 draft was guaranteed when Carolina picked up his fifth-year option. The number could be reduced somewhat if a long-term deal is reached before the season, but for a two-time Pro Bowler with two straight playoff appearances, the figure is a bargain.


Comment: His deal was renegotiated in February, and it wouldn’t surprise if that happens again, although the number isn’t so daunting this year. He has one more year left after this season, so there’s potential to renegotiate and add another year or two.


Comment: Entering the final year of his deal, Davis also had his contract restructured last season to ease the cap hit. This might be a good time to renegotiate and lessen this year’s cap while adding another year or two for a player who wants to retire a Panther.


Comment: He also restructured in 2014, with a voidable year added in 2017. His value skyrocketed over the final six games as he was one of the league’s top rushers. If he continues to put up those numbers in 2015, the current number is reasonable.


Comment: He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season, so there could be incentive to renegotiate and extend if the money is there. Few players were more valuable than Olsen, who led the team in receptions and made his first Pro Bowl.


Comment: With Stewart earning the right to be the starter in 2015, releasing Williams is a strong possibility. It would save the team $2 million under the cap. If not a release, look for a serious renegotiation to reduce this number.


Comment: His rookie deal is a bargain considering he led the NFL in tackles this season a year after winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Heading into his last season, the Panthers could use the fifth-year option and lock him up for 2016 as well. But the goal is to get a long-term deal done.


Comment: He’s heading into the last year of his deal. While the number appears high, consider the Panthers were 7-3 with him this season, 1-6-1 without him.


Comment: He didn’t have his best season after signing a four-year deal last offseason, but when you have a kicker you’re confident in, it’s hard to say he’s overpaid.

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