Meet No. 2:
Jason Peter, defensive end, first round, No. 14 overall out of Nebraska in 1998: First, Peter was considered undersized (285 pounds) at the time. The Panthers knew that. But what former general manager Marty Hurney and others in the organization insisted they didn't know was that Peter had an addiction to pain mediation and drugs. That came out in 2004, three years after Peter's career allegedly ended because of the neck injury. That is when he discussed his addiction on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." Peter said his addiction began in college when he was given a painkiller to treat a knee injury suffered during his freshman season. He told Gumbel by the time he left Nebraska he was receiving "endless prescriptions" from doctors he would meet at parties. He said that led to harder drugs such as cocaine and Ecstasy while at Carolina. He told "Real Sports" he was taking up to 80 Vicodins a day while with the Panthers. He admittedly got hooked on heroin after football.
Peter was arrested on drunk driving charges while with the Panthers in 1999. Several former teammates admitted after his "Real Sports" interview aired that they knew Peter was abusing drugs while in the NFL.
Peter chronicled his issues in "Hero of the Underground: My Journey Down to Heroin & Back."
He played in 38 games for Carolina, starting 20. He had 7.5 sacks. He was part of one of the worst draft classes in team history as only three of the eight players selected played more than one season in Charlotte.
Next up, No. 1. Can you guess who that is?
The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year has 36.5 sacks over his first three seasons.
Teams have until May 3 to make a decision on whether to exercise the fifth-year option, which is guaranteed for injury only until the final day of the 2014 league year. It becomes guaranteed at the start of the next league year.
For players drafted in the top 10, the value of the fifth-year option is equal to the transition tag for their position during this offseason.
For players drafted with picks 11-32, the value of the fifth-year option is equal to the average of the 25 highest-paid players at their positions, excluding the top three highest players.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draft is out on ESPN Insider today. He picks the top two rounds for each team, and his latest for the Panthers are players whose stock are on the rise.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Meet No. 3:
Rashard Anderson, cornerback, first round, No. 23 overall in 2000 out of Jackson State: Anderson seemingly had a bright future after collecting 59 tackles and an interception playing cornerback and safety his first two seasons. He had nine starts. He had a five-year, $6 million deal that included a $2.83 million signing bonus.
Then came the spring of 2002. Anderson was suspended as a repeat violator of the NFL's substance abuse program. According to published reports, he tested positive for the third time in a four-month period while in the rehab program. That earned him an indefinite suspension.
Anderson finally was reinstated by then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2004. Soon after that, Carolina cut him. Green Bay and New Orleans brought him in for a workout, but neither signed him.
Anderson tried to make a comeback with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, but didn't make the regular-season roster.
The wasted pick and embarrassment over the repeat offenses made Anderson an easy pick for No. 3.
Any guesses on the top two spots?
Jeff Otah, offensive tackle, first round, No. 19 overall, 2008 out of Pittsburgh: Otah was one of two players selected by Carolina in the first round of the 2008 draft. The other was running back Jonathan Stewart, the No. 13 overall pick whose career also has been plagued by injuries to the point he was given consideration for top five draft busts.The Panthers traded their second- and third-round selections in 2008, as well as their first-round pick in 2009, to Philadelphia for the right to select Otah with the 19th pick. It looked like a good move for a while as Otah started 25 games at right tackle in his first two seasons. He was a big part of DeAngelo Williams and Stewart rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2009.
Then came the knee injuries. Otah missed the 2010 season and started only four games in 2011. The Panthers traded him to the New York Jets in 2012 for undisclosed draft picks contingent on him passing a physical. He failed two and was returned to Carolina, which then released him with Byron Bell and Garry Williams waiting in the wings.
Bell is now set to battle for the starting left tackle job vacated by recently-retired Jordan Gross. Williams is among several who will compete to replace Bell on the right side.
When healthy, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Otah was among the best in the NFL. Because he couldn't stay healthy, he became a bust.
To make the pick appear worse, the Eagles traded Carolina's first-round selection in '09 and two lower round picks to Buffalo for tackle Jason Peters, who has been to the Pro Bowl four of the last five years.
One of you emailed to say Rice, cut by the Seattle Seahawks in February to save $7.3 million under the salary cap, was at an expensive Charlotte hotel on Saturday night.
That doesn't mean it couldn't happen at some point, although I would consider him signing here a long shot.
On Monday, Rice announced on Twitter that he had been cleared medically five months and one week after having surgery to repair a torn ACL.
According to reports, the Panthers, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Seahawks are interested.
Carolina is a natural landing place because Rice grew up an hour from Charlotte in Gaffney, S.C., and played at the University of South Carolina, 90 minutes from Carolina's Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers also are rebuilding their receiving corps.
But financially, Carolina has the least money to spend among the four teams interested. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Panthers have $2,747,629 left under the salary cap. Seattle has the most room at $15,816,262, followed by the Giants ($4,079,849) and Saints ($3,732,116).
The Panthers already have signed three free agent receivers in Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood who account for $3,675,000 in cap space. They also added tight end Ed Dickson, who will count $635,000 under the 2014 cap.
Rice, despite the injuries, still likely would demand more than any of those, with Cotchery ($1.7 million) counting the most against the cap.
Rice was a Pro Bowl receiver at Minnesota in 2009 when he had a career-best 83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns. Since then he's been plagued by injuries that have limited him to 32 or fewer receptions in three of the past four seasons.
He has played only one full season since '09, catching 50 passes for 748 yards and seven touchdowns for Seattle in 2012.
But when healthy, he can be a weapon.
The Seahawks still seem the most likely landing spot for the seven-year veteran, because they have a need at receiver after free-agent losses and the most money to spend.
Carolina still seems like a long shot.
Newton was the NFL offensive rookie of the year in 2011 and has been to two Pro Bowls. Kuechly was the NFL defensive rookie of the year in 2012 and the NFL defensive player of the year in 2013. Lotulelei started all 16 games as a rookie last season and led the league in run stop percentage among defensive tackles.
You're supposed to hit on your first-round picks. Teams that do often build a foundation that promotes long-term success.
These three definitely were huge in Carolina's 12-4 record this past season.
But every team has its share of first-round busts, and the Panthers certainly have had their share. Some might argue quarterback Kerry Collins, the team's inaugural pick in 1995, was a bust because of his off-the-field issues, even though he led Carolina to the NFC Championship Game in his second season.
Beginning Tuesday, I'll look at Carolina's five worst draft picks. Except for today's pick, each was a first-rounder. But today's choice was the first player the Panthers picked that season.
But for now, let's start with the worst, beginning with No. 5.
- Jimmy Clausen, quarterback, 2nd round, No. 48 overall in 2010: The Panthers drafted Clausen with the hope he could replace Jake Delhomme, easily the greatest quarterback in Carolina history. Many had the Notre Dame star pegged as a first-rounder, but amid speculation that his attitude was a detriment, he fell to the second round. He was considered a steal for the Panthers, who didn't have a first-round pick because in 2009 they traded their 2010 first-round pick to San Francisco to select Florida State defensive end Everette Brown in the second round at No. 43. Brown also became a bust, waived in 2011 after having six sacks in two seasons. That makes the Clausen pick look even worse.
Clausen was thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie after Matt Moore, who had six turnovers in two games, was benched following an 0-2 start. Clausen had three interceptions and fumbled three snaps in his first start. It went downhill from there. In 10 starts, Clausen threw three touchdowns and had nine interceptions. He had a rating of 58.4.
He spent the next two seasons as a backup. He was waived injured after the 2013 training camp. When no team picked him up, he went on Carolina's injured reserve list. He is now a free agent with no sign of being signed.
He has the most to lose since coverages that were focused on Steve Smith, often leaving the middle of the field open, could be shifted to the tight end.
But Olsen isn't concerned -- or if he is he's not showing it.
"I know everyone at one point was kind of panicking," Olsen recently told the Charlotte Observer at a screening of the movie "Draft Day." "Would it have been nice to have those [receivers] back? Of course.
"But I think we’ve signed a lot of guys that can fill a lot of those roles. We’re putting it together. It’s hard to judge a team in March. When the season gets closer, that will be a better example of what our team is.”
The Panthers released Smith, their all-time leading receiver, in March. They lost their next three wide receivers, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon, to free agency.
That left them without a receiver on the roster that caught a pass last season.
They have since signed Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay), but none of those receivers has put up statistics close to what Smith did during his career. None are considered a No. 1 receiver. Most were a second, third or even fourth option last season.
Again, Olsen isn't concerned even though he now will become a central piece in game plans to stop the Carolina passing attack. If anything he's optimistic because the team signed Baltimore free agent tight end Ed Dickson, opening up the possibility of more two-tight-end sets.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw for a career-high 4,051 yards as a rookie in 2011 with Olsen and Jeremy Shockey running a lot of two-tight-end sets. They combined for 82 catches for 995 yards and nine touchdowns.
"There is a plan," Olsen said. "We have to trust in that. Mr. Gettleman's done an awesome job since he’s gotten here in a short time putting pieces in place to fill holes. And doing so with guys other people maybe overlooked. Last year, a lot of the guys that came in were in that type of situation and were huge parts of our team.”
NFL teams haven't had trouble spending money in free agency.
As of Sunday, 255 players have been signed or re-signed off the unrestricted free-agent list, leaving about 150 players still looking for jobs. With $336.1 million of cap room remaining, more deals will get done, most of them one-year contracts at minimum salary.
But don't expect a rash of huge contract extensions anytime soon. Current market conditions aren't favorable for long-term deals.
Few elite players will make it to the open market soon. The first issue is the fifth-year option for first-rounders taken in the 2011 draft, the first year under the new collective bargaining agreement. Draft choices signed four-year contracts, but teams were given the ability to execute a fifth-year option at less than franchise value.
Top-10 draft picks can be optioned at the transition number at their position. Players taken at spots 11 through 32 are tendered at the average salary of the third through 25th players at their position.
As it turns out, the 2011 draft was great. Twelve of the top 16 picks have been to the Pro Bowl at least once. The draft was so good that the easy thing for teams to do is take the fifth-year option and deal with the situation next year. Between 20 and 23 players are expected to get the option year tag, which is guaranteed for injury only in 2015.
Sorry, got caught up in The Masters.
But just because the best golfers in the world are battling three hours away from Charlotte, N.C., doesn't mean I can't answer questions about the Carolina Panthers.
It has been a busy week with the signing of free-agent wide receiver Jason Avant and tight end Ed Dickson, and the re-signing of defensive tackle Colin Cole.
But there are still plenty of questions as the roster takes shape. Let's get right to my Saturday mailbag:
"The confidence I have in myself, I look good in any color," said Smith, the guest of NHRA star Antron Brown during the 4-Wide Nationals. "I look good in purple, so I'll be fine."
Smith was released by the Carolina Panthers, his home for his first 13 NFL seasons, in March. Twenty-four hours later, he signed with the Ravens.
The Panthers went on to lose Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon -- their next three wide receivers behind Smith in 2013 -- in free agency.
General manager Dave Gettleman has taken a lot of heat, first for releasing Carolina's all-time leading receiver and then for not keeping others from a corps that helped the Panthers to a 12-4 record.
He's brought in Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant, all second, third or fourth options from other teams. That hasn't justified the other moves to the masses.
Smith isn't concerned.
"What I think about what's going on is I concern myself with what's going on in Baltimore and I no longer concern myself with what's going on with the Carolina Panthers," Smith said. "But I concern myself with what's going on in Charlotte, N.C.
"I do my football camp here. But I no longer have the luxury to be a part of that [team], so I don't concern myself with it. Not that I'm upset. Not that I'm mad. It's just the fact of the business."
Smith has taken the high road since his release. He plans to keep his home in Charlotte and enjoy days like this one that he shared with his son, Boston. He hopes to one day retire as a Carolina player.
But for now his football focus is all on Baltimore. Smith, 34, wouldn't even comment on Carolina coach Ron Rivera recently saying he needed to "tone things down" in his practice and workout routine or risk wearing himself down.
"I'm focusing on April 21st," Smith said. "April 21st I'll be in Baltimore doing our workouts. What's in the past is in the past. At the end of the day, you go to the kitchen, you get a washcloth, you pick up the spilled milk and move on.
"That's what I'm doing, moving on."
Smith still keeps in close contact with some of his former teammates. He, LaFell, Ginn and Hixon get together and occasionally have "group texts."
"Who your current employer is does not change the friendship or camaraderie we've built," Smith said. "Just because we collect checks from different organizations doesn't mean we cut each other off."
While Smith wouldn't talk about what Carolina has done to replace its wide receivers, he was interested in Brown's response when I asked if he could play wide receiver for the Panthers.
"They don't need my skill set," Brown said with Smith leering on with a big smile.
Brown let Smith warm his 10,000 horsepower engine up between qualifying runs, albeit the car was off the ground so the wheels couldn't move.
Smith had no desire to make a run down the track.
"Antron will also bill me and he will know I will be able to pay for it and so I think I might buy him a new car, and I'm not trying to go down that road," Smith said. "As athletes, sometimes we can come across and say I can do it. I can't do it. You can try, but you can't.
"You can't do what these men and women have been doing and perfecting since they were young kids. So you can't just wake up out of bed and think you're going to be a driver ... . And I also believe drivers are athletes."
Smith could pay for one of Brown's car because the Ravens gave him a three-year deal worth $11 million. He also received $5 million from the Panthers this season in guaranteed money and deferred bonuses.
But Smith wasn't interested in driving on this day. He was just interested in being a dad and seeing how another athlete does his job.
"This is who I am," he said. "I've got the opportunity to experience another athlete's world, and it happens to be home. This is my home ... . This is in my backyard. This is my community. This is my town.
"But it's no longer my team."
By that I mean the decision to release Carolina's all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and let the next three wide receivers sign elsewhere.
Here's what he said Thursday on the NFL Network's NFL.AM.
"Like, I'm still in shock. Not only did we lose him, but Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell and [Domenik] Hixon."
Asked if losing the receivers put more pressure on him and the rest of the backs, Williams responded, "No, it puts more pressure on our front office because you make these moves, getting rid of four receivers, you've got to bring in guys."
Williams' questions about general manager Dave Gettleman's moves are legitimate. But when you look at the overall picture of what the Panthers have done, it's not as bad as it looked a month ago.
Even a week ago.
The additions this week of Philadelphia free-agent receiver Jason Avant, Baltimore tight end Ed Dickson and Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud were enough for me to raise my early free-agency grade from a D to a C.
None of the nine players signed will blow you away. But if you remember, none of the players signed a year ago blew you away and look at how that turned out.
You also can't overlook a few things:
- Carolina put the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy to keep him. That took up $13.1 million of the team's cap space, but it was an important and necessary move.
- The Panthers remain strapped under the salary cap due to a league-high $19,965,241 in dead money.
- The team has $13,935,000 committed to running backs Williams ($6 million), Jonathan Stewart ($4,585,000) and Mike Tolbert ($3,350,000) from contracts given by previous management that has the team cap strapped.
- The retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross made things seem worse because that created another high-profile position to fill.
Gettleman said before free agency began that there would be tough decisions to make. With 21 free agents, the Panthers were bound to lose a lot of players from last year's 12-4 team. Only a few played big roles and were expendable.
The Panthers GM also said he was looking to get the cap healthy, which probably meant some one-year deals for the league minimum -- or close to it. Four of the nine players signed got one-year deals. The other five got two-year deals, and all were structured to be cap friendly in the future.
The eight players signed before DeCoud on Thursday night will count only $7,825,625 under the 2014 cap. DeCoud's two-year deal that could reach $3.75 million will up the amount to closer to $9 million.
But Smith alone was going to count $7 million.
The Panthers also filled needs. They replaced safety Mike Mitchell, who had done little until this past season, with two-time Pro Bowler Roman Harper. DeCoud gives them insurance if Charles Godfrey isn't fully recovered from an Achilles injury, or if they decide to part with his $7.1 cap hit.
Carolina replaced four receivers who averaged just under 10 catches combined a game in 2013 with three -- Jerricho Cotchery, Avant and Tiquan Underwood -- who averaged 7.25 combined.
The Panthers also added Dickson, who will afford them the opportunity to run two tight end sets with Greg Olsen like the one quarterback Cam Newton had in 2011.
Newton threw for a career-best 4,051 yards that season. He had only 3,379 this past season.
Will there be adjustments? Yes. But there were adjustments last season as well.
Williams expressed a concern that Newton, who underwent ankle surgery last month, won't be able to work with his new receivers until training camp. He said he didn't want to see nine defensive players in the box "week in and week out because we're working on our timing."
But Newton would have been working on his timing had Carolina brought in DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks and Eric Decker. He's heading into his fourth season. He'll adjust.
So while Williams is concerned -- or even shocked -- it's not as doom and gloom as it appeared a few weeks ago.
It's not an A class or a sexy class. But it's not an F, and more needs will be filled in the draft.
Here's a complete look at Carolina's free-agency moves:
Jerricho Cotchery, wide receiver
2014 salary cap: $1,700,000
Comment: He's not a No. 1 receiver, but he's dependable and will bring good leadership to the receiving unit. And he caught 10 touchdowns a year ago.
Roman Harper, safety
Contract: Two-year deal worth $4.5 million with $1.5 million signing bonus
2014 salary cap: $1,440,625
Comment: He was a salary-cap casualty, not washed up. Saints coach Sean Payton said at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando that the two-time Pro Bowl selection has a few more good years left in him. That's all Carolina wants.
Thomas DeCoud, safety
Contract: Two-year deal worth up to $3.75 million with a $500,000 signing bonus.
2014 salary cap: Not known at time of publication.
Comment: Not only does he give the Panthers a player with experience in the NFC South, he gives them the luxury -- as said above -- to release Godfrey and free up $5.1 million of his $7.1 salary cap hit with a June 1 designation.
Jason Avant, wide receiver
2014 salary cap: $1,050,000
Comment: You lose Brandon LaFell, you gain Avant. There's really not a big difference. And Avant may drop fewer passes.
Tiquan Underwood, wide receiver
Contract: Two-year deal worth $2.1 million
2014 salary cap: $925,000
Comment: You really think Ted Ginn Jr., was better? Ginn went from two catches in 2012 for San Francisco to 36 last season for Carolina. Underwood is ahead of the game. He had 24 last season for lowly Tampa Bay.
Contract: One-year deal, worth $730,000
2014 salary cap: $730,000
Comment: If the Panthers get 30 to 50 catches out of him they've got a steal. He had 25 last season for struggling Baltimore. He had 54 in 2011.
Mike McNeil, tight end
Contract: Two-year deal
2014 salary cap: $710,000
Comment: A solid blocker who fills a need.
Antoine Cason, cornerback
Contract: One-year deal worth $635,000
2014 salary cap: $635,000
Comment: An upgrade in height (6-0) from Captain Munnerlyn (5-8). Played well at San Diego before going to Arizona last season and getting lost in the shuffle. Knows the system and will have one of the league's top front sevens as a cushion.
Joe Webb, quarterback
Contract: One-year deal worth $635,000
2014 salary cap: $635,000
Comment: An athletic quarterback who can give the offense more Cam Newton-like looks while Newton recovers from ankle surgery.
The deal is worth up to $3.75 million with incentives, sources tell ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. DeCoud will get a $500,000 signing bonus.
DeCoud, 29, was a Pro Bowler for the Falcons in 2012. He started all but two games for Atlanta over the past six seasons, intercepting 14 passes while recording 507 tackles.
"Thomas provides a veteran in the secondary who is familiar with the NFC South and has been a very solid player," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. "We are pleased to add him to a safety group that has good experience and production."