The Carolina Panthers’ week at the NFL scouting combine actually began with a nod to free agency.
General manager Marty Hurney released defensive starters Charles Johnson and Kurt Coleman, and the exodus continued Wednesday when franchise rushing leader Jonathan Stewart was cut. The moves created $10 million in salary cap space, leaving the Panthers about $30 million under the current projected cap for 2018.
The Panthers’ plans for free agency and the draft are still taking shape, but here are nine things the Observer learned this week, in coach Ron Rivera’s media availability, an interview with general manager Marty Hurney and conversations with agents and other league sources:
1. The cuts weren’t just for the cap room.
Hurney is making a commitment to get younger and faster, particularly at the offensive skill positions, in an effort to put dynamic, complementary players around quarterback Cam Newton.
Keep that in mind as Hurney maneuvers through free agency and the draft. After the cuts, Carolina’s position needs include safety, receiver, running back, edge rusher, guard and tight end.
2. The Panthers will have a new left guard in 2017.
Some fans hoped the release of three veteran starters this week signaled a clearing of cap space to be used on All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell.
That’s not the case.
Rivera said as much Thursday when he said it was “going to be tough” to keep Norwell, a free agent who became a fixture on the offensive line after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2014.
When Hurney signed Trai Turner to a four-year, $45 million contract in July, it effectively set the market for Norwell and all but assured he’d be making his money elsewhere.
“Andrew being an All-Pro this year, that’s certainly raised the bar and deservedly so,” Rivera said. “Andrew had a terrific year and he’s been nothing but a solid player for us every season.”
3. Norwell’s replacement won’t necessarily be a new guy.
The Panthers have a long list of needs, interior offensive line among them. But the Panthers seem prepared to give Taylor Moton, a second-round pick last year, a crack at Norwell’s guard spot, with Tyler Larsen also an option.
Moton was a reserve tackle (and extra tight end in jumbo packages) as a rookie. But Rivera says he’ll play Moton where he fits best.
“It could be either spot,” Rivera said. “He’s going to have an opportunity to see what he can do for us as we go through OTAs and minicamp and training camp this year.”
Hurney will add depth in the interior line, but it probably won’t be in the form of a big-money free agent or high draft pick.
4. The Panthers want to bring back Star Lotulelei – at the right price.
While the Panthers expect to lose Norwell, they’re hopeful they can re-sign defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who is set to hit free agency for the first time. The Panthers gave defensive tackle Kawann Short a huge contract last year, and they’re not going to break the bank for Lotulelei.
Lotulelei’s value as a space-eater has always exceeded his stats. But even by those standards, Lotulelei (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks) was not productive in 2017 and might find a cool market.
If that’s the case, the Panthers would like to have him back to keep their interior line rotation intact.
“You’d love to be able to keep the pieces in place as far as the D-line’s concerned,” Rivera said. “It’s hard to find the right kind of fit and we know that Star does fit us.”
5. What about Vernon Butler?
The Panthers have received next to no production from 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler, who has 1.5 sacks and 26 tackles combined in his first two seasons. Butler has done little to show he can be an impact player, although Rivera and Hurney liked the way the 6-4, 330-pounder played down the stretch last season.
“His physicality inside and the knowledge of playing the position in there, I thought you saw him improve as the season progressed,” Hurney said. “He certainly has all the ability with the skill sets to be a very good player in there.”
That said, expect Hurney to add depth at the position.
6. Team expects Christian McCaffrey to make adjustments.
The former first-round pick was Carolina’s top-targeted receiver last season, but Rivera indicated that he’d like to see McCaffrey improve as a runner in his second year.
“I think running inside and outside, and understanding the speed of the game,” he said, when asked where McCaffrey must adjust. “It’s a little bit more as opposed to what he was used to. Although he played in a major conference, it’s still about getting used to playing in the NFL level of competition.”
Rivera also wants to bring in a dynamic back who can run downhill to complement McCaffrey’s versatility. Hurney said Cameron-Artis Payne will compete for the spot, but look for the Panthers to add to the position in the draft as well.
7. Expect Carolina to add a veteran receiver.
Both Hurney and Rivera said they’d be open to adding a veteran wide receiver to their current young group, citing Jericho Cotchery, who was a weapon for Newton during Carolina’s 2015 Super Bowl run. Cotchery is now on the Panthers staff.
This would happen in free agency, and would not preclude the Panthers from also signing one of the big names on the market, if they feel that is their best option.
8. There will be competition at defensive back.
Veteran safety Mike Adams, 37 this month, will have a tall task this preseason. Adams must be the leader in a room missing Coleman, and also compete with the young talent the Panthers are preparing to bring in.
Rivera wants a safety who can come in and be a leader right away, which might mean they will add to the position in both free agency and the draft.
“We’re looking for a guy who is going to be able to pick up where Kurt left off as far as leadership,” he said. “That’s going to be very important. We’ve got a group of young guys at corner and we’ve got to be able to have somebody help direct those guys.”
At nickel, Hurney and Rivera are both extremely excited about the return of Corn Elder and Cole Luke, two promising rookies who suffered season-ending injuries. And on the outside, Hurney wants to bring in competition for James Bradberry and Daryl Worley after the two cornerbacks were inconsistent in their second year.
9. Carolina will take it slow with Ed Dickson.
With Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen out half the year with a broken foot, Dickson had his best season (30 catches for 437 yards) since 2011 when he was with the Ravens. Dickson also has the added value of being a skilled blocker.
Dickson is expected to test the market and he could draw interest from a team such as Seattle, where the top two tight ends, Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson, are both free agents.
The Panthers specifically want a strong blocker to complement Olsen, whether it’s Dickson or someone from the outside.