Continuing my look at the top 10 unrestricted free agents for the Carolina Panthers is a player who added experience and depth to the offensive line last season.

Velasco
Next up: No. 5, OL Fernando Velasco

Reason to re-sign: Just what I said in the introduction, he brings experience and depth to the line. Plus, he can play both guard positions and center. He started seven games last season between left and right guard. You want to hang on to players with that kind of versatility. He's 30, so he has a few more good years left in him.

Reason not to re-sign: Not a lot of good ones, other than the Panthers are looking to upgrade their entire line and the interior seems set with Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, right guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Trai Turner. If you're looking to overhaul the backups, Velasco could be a casualty.

Prediction: I say he'll be back. I keep coming back to added depth and his versatility.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – I normally answer questions here from only Twitter. But I understand there are some non-social media readers win inquiring minds, so I’m going to make an exception and start Saturday's Panthers mailbag with this question received via email because it reflects what I’ve heard from others.

Here’s what Graham asked amid his commentary: “If the Panthers were to re-sign Greg Hardy, our chances of reaching the Super Bowl greatly increase. I understand Jerry Richardson has maintained one of the "cleaner" teams in the league (which I like and respect), but with Greg's case recently dismissed, Jerry owes the fans (and players) the best opportunity to win ... now. For Greg's deal, it simply needs to be team-friendly and incentive based to make Greg prove himself again. Why not?’’

@DNewtonESPN: First, there’s no doubt Hardy would make Carolina better. He would make any team better because he’s an elite pass rusher. As for owner Jerry Richardson trying to maintain a clean image, that has been his goal from the outset. There have been a few bad apples such as Rae Carruth, but that doesn’t change the goal. I’m all for second chances. I get what you’re saying about an incentive-based, team-friendly deal. But this isn’t Hardy’s first mistake. There was the motorcycle accident a few years ago and a couple of minor incidents in college that raised eyebrows. That’s why he was available in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. He still refers to himself as his alter persona, The Kraken, although now it’s OverlordKraken. While there are a lot of things to like about Hardy, from his work ethic off the field to his performance on it, he’s still considered a wild card in terms of his personality. His repeated retweets of every person that recently has suggested the Panthers should bring him back has almost a feel of desperation to it. There’s also the money to consider. The Panthers proved they could be a top 10 defense last season without Hardy. Second-round draft pick Kony Ealy actually played at a higher level as a rookie than Hardy did, so you can expect more from him. The Panthers have more urgent needs at left tackle and signing quarterback Cam Newton to a long-term deal. They also have to play for a long-term deal for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly soon. Even at a discount, there’s a good chance Hardy could meet the incentives you suggested. Then in a year or two the Panthers would be back in the position of deciding whether to give Hardy a huge long-term deal. I get your point and you’re not alone in your thinking. There are some in the organization that feel the same way. You ask why not? I ask why?

@DNewtonESPN: The need is for speed opposite Kelvin Benjamin, who had a solid rookie year. There are a few that might fit the bill, from San Diego's Eddie Royal to San Francisco's Michael Crabtree to Ted Ginn Jr., already on the market after being released by Arizona. Ginn is interesting because he excelled as a returner and receiver for Carolina in 2013. He'd come at a reduced price, too. He's also being courted by the Browns, and the opportunity to play in his hometown where his dad remains the head coach of his high school football team might be too strong of a pull. The good news for Carolina is there are a lot of options in free agency. @DNewtonESPN: There's no cutting Byron Bell here. He becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 10. The Panthers simply informed Bell they would not be interested in re-signing him so he can focus on free agency. @DNewtonESPN: I think the Panthers will consider drafting an offensive tackle in the first round regardless of whether they sign Michael Oher or any other tackle in free agency. I'm not sure Oher is the answer, by the way. He struggled the past two seasons. He's on the open market because he hasn't performed, the same reason the Panthers are letting Byron Bell test free agency. @DNewtonESPN: Josh Norman indeed is trending towards elite cornerback status. Carolina coach Ron Rivera wouldn't go so far as to call him a shutdown corner last season, but he shut down some pretty good receivers (See Atlanta's Julio Jones). He's another young player the Panthers need to tie up long term if he shows last year wasn't a fluke. @DNewtonESPN: The wide receiver out of East Carolina had a productive college career, but he lacks the elite speed the Panthers are seeking in a high-round pick. @DNewtonESPN: I won't say definitively no, but he just doesn't seem like a Dave Gettleman guy to me. @DNewtonESPN: That's a lot of ifs. I'll say this. Regardless of what happens in free agency and the draft, I believe the Panthers will be a contender in the NFC South because they have a better foundation on defense than anybody else in the division. I don't see that as an overnight fix for New Orleans or Atlanta. @DNewtonESPN: I don't see it happening until sometime after this season. Getting a long-term deal for Cam Newton is the more immediate priority. The Panthers still can use the fifth-year option on Kuechly for 2016 if need be, so there's no rush on their part. But I see something getting done before it gets to that. He's proven to be one of the best defensive players in the NFL and Carolina will want to get something done sooner rather than later. @DNewtonESPN: Gettleman has waited a couple of weeks in each of his first two years. First, he didn't have the money for top names. Second, he likes letting the market die down from the initial shopping rush. He might move a little sooner this year with more money to spend, but I wouldn't look for anything the first three or four days.
Continuing my look at the top 10 unrestricted free agents for the Carolina Panthers is a player that has played a big role in stopping the run the past two seasons.

Next up: No. 6, DT Colin Cole

Cole
Reason to re-sign: He’s what general manager Dave Gettleman would call a space-eater. At 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, Cole eats up blocks and allows linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to make plays behind him. That’s an important part of what Carolina does to stop the run. He’s started 23 regular-season games the past two seasons, including 10 this past year. He wants to return and provides solid leadership for a line with two budding stars in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short as part of a four-man rotation. He won’t demand top dollar and likely would take a one-year deal.

Reason not to re-sign: He’ll be 35 in June. That’s getting up there, although in playing years he’s not as old since he was out of the league for almost two and a half years after being released by Seattle in 2011. Lotulelei and Short are experienced enough after two years that they don’t need that type of veteran leadership. The Panthers need to draft or find in free agency young talent to mix into the rotation.

Prediction: I’m leaning toward Carolina keeping him or Dwan Edwards, who will come later in the rankings. It’s hard for me to see them keeping both since the team has to start preparing for the future. The goal of this defense is to stop the run first, and Cole showed last season he’s still effective in what he does.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers currently have $15,110,885 to spend in free agency based on an estimated salary cap of $143 million, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

The number does not include an additional $2 million in cap room when the team officially releases all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams.

That is expected to happen after the new NFL year begins on March 10, at which time the Panthers can designate Williams a post-June 1 cut for the cap savings.

Carolina could open up more room by restructuring the contracts of a few players, specifically defensive end Charles Johnson, scheduled to count $20,020,000 against the cap.

The Panthers also could lower the 2015 cap number ($14,666,666) of quarterback Cam Newton if they reach a long-term deal with the first overall pick of the 2011 draft.

General manager Dave Gettleman said after the season the team won't have to shop in free agency at the "Dollar Store" as it did last year. He also said the team can't shop at Tiffany's, noting an ideal amount of cap room would be $20 million.

Jacksonville has the most cap space ($67,123,201), according to ESPN Stats & Info. The New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders each have more than $50 million to spend.

The Panthers rank 22 in cap space, which is third in the NFC South. Tampa Bay, which has the first pick of the draft, ranks ninth with $34,592,562. New Orleans currently ranks last in the league at a deficit of $22,227,879.

Greg Hardy to seek prompt resolution

February, 26, 2015
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy will seek immediate reinstatement into the NFL, a league source told ESPN.com.

The decision to seek reinstatement came on the heels of a U.S. District Judge ruling on Thursday that an NFL arbitrator "failed to meet his duty" in a child abuse case against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

That opened the possibility that Peterson will be reinstated before his suspension was set to end on April 15.

But NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement Thursday that the morning's Peterson ruling was irrelevant to Hardy's bid for reinstatement.

"He [Hardy] hasn't been disciplined," McCarthy said. "There is nothing for him to ... seek reinstatement from at this point."

Hardy was placed on the NFL's exempt list in mid-September until his domestic violence case was resolved.

Charges that he assaulted and threatened to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder were dropped on Feb. 9. The district attorney's office said there was no choice because Holder refused to cooperate after reaching a financial settlement with Hardy.

The league then opened its own investigation into whether Hardy violated the league's personal conduct code, saying the 2013 Pro Bowler would remain on the exempt list until that was completed.

Thursday's ruling in the Peterson case raised issues that could work in Hardy's favor.


(Read full post)


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – ESPN draft analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. are on the same page when it comes to who the Carolina Panthers will take with the 25th pick of the NFL draft.

McShay has Carolina selecting Pittsburgh offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings in his latest mock draft. Kiper also had the Panthers taking the 6-foot-4, 313-pound senior in his most recent projection.

The Panthers obviously are looking for a tackle, specifically a left tackle now that it’s clear 2014 starter Byron Bell will not return. Clemmings might be a better fit on the right side, so even if the Panthers draft a tackle in the first round, look for them to sign one in free agency.

They recently had Michael Oher, released by the Tennessee Titans, in for a visit.

I still wouldn’t be surprised to see Carolina take a defensive tackle or a speed wide receiver at No. 25. Florida State defensive lineman Eddie Goldman might be available. Much depends on what happens in free agency.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are interested in a potential homecoming with return specialist Ted Ginn Jr., but the ninth pick of the 2007 draft may have more interest in returning home.

Ginn
Ginn
Ginn was released by Arizona on Monday. The Cleveland Browns reportedly already have been in contact with his agent about bringing him to his hometown where he played at Glenville High for his father, Ted Ginn Sr., before starring at Ohio State.

Ginn Sr. still is the coach at Glenville.

That's a pretty strong tie.

Ginn's tie to Carolina isn't quite so strong. He played one season for the Panthers in 2013 before signing a three-year deal with Arizona. Carolina didn't want to lose Ginn, but couldn't compete in free agency with the three-year, $9.75 million offer by the Cardinals.

Ginn was popular among his teammates, as you can see by this tweet from fullback Mike Tolbert.



The Panthers have more money to spend in free agency this year, although Ginn isn't in a position to demand a high salary. But it likely will come down to more than money with the hometown connection.

Ginn isn't the only kick returner on the market. The Baltimore Ravens released Jacoby Jones, one of two players that ranked in the top 10 in kickoff and punt returns last season.

Jones finished second in the NFL in kickoff returns (30.6 yard average) and had a 108-yard return for a touchdown at Pittsburgh.

Two years ago, Jones helped the Ravens beat San Francisco in the Super Bowl with a 56-yard touchdown catch and a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He struggled as a receiver this past season with only nine catches, his fewest since 2008.

But he might be a more impactful fit for a Carolina team that replaced special teams coach Richard Rodgers after the season because the unit was so dismal.

Carolina didn't have a player ranked in the top 30 in kickoff or punt return yards. Coach Ron Rivera said after the season the team has to commit to players that may only contribute on special teams.

Jones fits that mold.

Ginn returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown last season against the New York Giants, but overall was underwhelming. His 277 punt return yards were the fewest of his career as the primary returner since his rookie season.

His 417 kick return yards were the second fastest of his career. His 19.0 yards a return ranked 26th in the NFL.

The Cardinals avoided paying Ginn $3.25 million by releasing him before March 12.

Ginn had one of his best seasons at Carolina in 2013, catching 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns. He also ranked seventh in punt return yards with 343 and 11th in kickoff return yards with 657.
Continuing my look at the top 10 unrestricted free agents for the Carolina Panthers is a player that spent most of last season on injured reserve.

Blackburn
Next up: No. 7, OLB Chase Blackburn

Reason to re-sign: He’s a good leader and has been a solid special-teams player. More importantly, he doesn’t mind playing special teams. He told me after the season he believes he has a couple of years left, and he’s OK if that means helping special teams improve. Without him and a couple of other key players special teams took a dramatic step backwards last season.

Reason not to re-sign: He’s 31 and started only nine games the past two seasons due to injuries. He played in only six games last season before going on injured reserve with a knee injury. The Panthers have two young players, A.J. Klein and Adarius Glanton, which played well after Blackburn went down.

Prediction: This one will be interesting. General manager Dave Gettleman loves Blackburn. Both were with the New York Giants together. Blackburn is an asset on special teams, and Gettleman said the team is recommitting to keeping players just for special teams. It simply could be a numbers game at linebacker. Right now the numbers don’t look good for a return.
Brenton Bersin and Brian FolkertsMelissa Melvin-Rodriguez/Carolina PanthersBrenton Bersin (left) and Brian Folkerts donated their long hair to a charity that provides wigs for children.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Wesley Thornburg lost all of her hair two years ago when she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments after a relapse of acute lymphoid leukemia.

Thanks to a friend with a collection of wigs, she had options while her hair grew out.

Thanks to Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin and offensive lineman Brian Folkerts, other children will have the same options.

Bersin hadn’t had a haircut since August 2012, when one of his buddies in college shaved his head. Folkerts hadn’t had one since his junior year in college four years ago, when one of his friends gave him a buzz cut.

But both were more than willing to get one on Wednesday to benefit Wigs for Kids, an organization that provides free hair replacement systems for children who have lost their hair due to medical-related issues.

[+] EnlargeBrian Folkerts
Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/Carolina PanthersOffensive lineman Brian Folkerts with his honorary stylist, 9-year-old Jeramiah Karriker.
The ceremonial cuts, where “clipping is allowed," took place in the Panthers' locker room at Bank of America Stadium. Thornburg, 18, was the honorary stylist for Bersin and Jeramiah Karriker, 9, was for Folkerts.

Thornburg said it best what their donations will mean to other kids by relating what a wig meant to her.

“When you’re a teenager, hair is a pretty big thing for a girl," she said.

Carrie Keuten, the events coordinator at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital where Thornburg and Karriker have been patients, said hair donations such as these are “extremely vital."

“First of all, I know both these kids and they’ve been through a lot ... a lot in their young years," she said. “I’ve seen them with hair, I’ve seen them without hair and now I’ve seen them with hair again. For their self- confidence, for their self-esteem, to see a radiant smile ... we all feel complete with our hair.

“They’re beautiful with or without it. But [hair] can define them in personal ways that none of us can actually experience unless we’ve actually been in their shoes.’"

Folkerts and Bersin had their hair styled after the initial cuts. Folkerts went for the 2015 look of New England wide receiver Julian Edelman. Bersin went for the “Sunshine" look, otherwise known as the character Ronnie Bass in the movie “Remember The Titans."

Both thought about getting their hair cut this past summer. Both are glad they waited for a more worthwhile event.

Folkerts said he might have gotten his hair cut even sooner but felt he had to keep it growing after former tackle Jordan Gross nicknamed him “Caveman."

The beard, however, he’s keeping.

“I’m going to have to grow the beard out to balance it out," he said with a laugh.

Bersin admitted he was “stressed" about getting the cut, particularly when people began laughing after the initial clips. But after seeing the final product he – as well as his girlfriend – approved.

“Maybe a little girl can have hair now," Bersin said. “And I can grow it out and get it cut [for this] again."

Report: Michael Oher visits Panthers

February, 25, 2015
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Offensive tackle Michael Oher recently visited the Carolina Panthers, according to The Baltimore Sun’s Aaron Wilson.

Oher
Oher, 28, recently was released by the Tennessee Titans after spending the last five games of the 2014 season on injured reserve with a toe injury. The 23rd pick of the 2009 draft spent his first five NFL seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Panthers are looking to replace left tackle Byron Bell, an unrestricted free agent who will not be re-signed. Oher, whose life was chronicled in the movie “The Blind Side," could be an option.

According to Wilson, Oher is healthy now. But Oher is coming off a rough season in which he ranked as the No. 75 tackle out of 84 players graded by Pro Football Focus. Bell was 83rd.

Even if the Panthers signed a player such as Oher, they still would be in the market for a tackle with the No. 25 pick of the draft.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman obviously is not afraid to make the tough decisions.

In the span of a year he has decided to release the team’s all-time leading receiver (Steve Smith) and rusher (DeAngelo Williams). He has opted to dump two popular players at the expense of his own popularity, not that he cares about being popular.

Gettleman is a football guy.

[+] EnlargeDave Gettleman
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsPanthers GM Dave Gettleman has made some unpopular decisions, but the team also has made the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
He’s also a businessman.

You need both to succeed in the NFL, particularly in an era when managing the salary cap is as important as evaluating talent. Gettleman has done well at both.

In two years Gettleman has taken the Panthers from $16 million over the cap to an expected $15 million under the cap heading into free agency that begins on March 10. He has had two successful drafts, particularly his second in which four of the six players selected were starting at the end of the 2014 season.

Has he rubbed a few people the wrong way? Definitely. Smith said he was “stabbed in the back’’ after being released.

Former left tackle Jordan Gross admittedly he didn’t like Gettleman much initially after being asked to restructure his contract to ultimately make 2013 his last season. But as he got to know Gettleman, he admittedly grew to like him.

Gettleman probably will make a few more enemies if the Panthers don’t re-sign defensive end Greg Hardy, and they aren’t expected to. He might tick off a few in his own locker room who have lobbied to keep Hardy since his domestic violence charges were dropped.

That Gettleman told reporters at the combine he hasn’t spoken to Hardy since the 2013 Pro Bowl selection was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list in September and has little contact with Hardy’s agent is telling.

Hardy shouldn’t be surprised by anything Gettleman does based on what he told me last year during a trip to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

“When I went there as a rookie, that's all everybody told me about, that it's a real family organization because that's how Jerry Richardson runs it,’’ he said at the time. “Gettleman coming in with a money-first attitude ticked everybody off, man.

“So he kind of changed the face of the organization to 'It is a business, and once business is settled we can be a family.’]’

Again, Gettleman doesn’t make decisions to be popular. He doesn’t make decisions based on emotion or loyalty. He makes them for the long-term success of the organization. He makes them to win.

It’s hard to argue with his results.

The Panthers have made the playoffs in consecutive years since Gettleman arrived, and that's a first time in team history.

Not all of the success can be credited to Gettleman. Key players such as quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were drafted by former general manager Marty Hurney.

But Gettleman has put the team in position to keep those players without mortgaging the future. He has done so by making tough decisions .

“As I’ve stated many times, all decisions I make will be in the long-term best interest of the Carolina Panthers,’’ Gettleman said last year after releasing Smith. “Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view.

"... When Mr. Richardson hired me, I promised him that my goal would be to leave the Panthers in a better position than when I came. All my efforts are in that vein.’’

Ed Dickson one of a few free-agent decisions for Panthers

February, 25, 2015
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ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton discusses Ed Dickson and other free-agent decisions.
Continuing my look at the top 10 unrestricted free agents for the Carolina Panthers is a player who already has been told he will not be re-signed in 2015.

Next up: No. 8, left tackle Byron Bell

Bell
Reason to re-sign: Bell would have ranked higher on this list, but since the Panthers have told him he won’t be re-signed he dropped a few spots. One could have argued to keep Bell and give him a chance to compete for depth at right tackle, where he started before being moved to the left side this past season. Even though coach Ron Rivera said Bell did some "nice things" last season, it apparently wasn’t enough.

Reason not to re-sign: He pretty much was a disaster as the starting left tackle in 2014. He frequently was beaten by the bull rush and was only adequate in run blocking. Pro Football Focus rated him next to last among the more than 80 tackles graded. You don’t need that when trying to protect your quarterback’s blind side.

Prediction: No way to miss this one since the decision has been made. He won’t be back.
video

Former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney explains why the Panthers have to wait until the new league year begins March 10 to designate running back DeAngelo Williams as a post-June 1 cut.

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