NFC South: Carolina Panthers

The $87 million renovation of Bank of America Stadium continues, but a more significant reconstruction begins Monday deep in the bowels of the place the Carolina Panthers call home.

Yes, the offseason workout program is here.

Godfrey
Newton
Newton
It's not mandatory, but the Panthers expect most if not all of their players to participate. That includes quarterback Cam Newton, who is recovering from offseason surgery on his left ankle that is expected to keep him out of on-field drills until training camp begins in late July.

Newton won't be around for the whole offseason program because he's taking classes at Auburn, but he will have a presence.

The first phase of the program will last two weeks. It is focused on strength and conditioning as well as rehab. Perhaps more importantly, it will allow a free-agency class that includes a new group of wide receivers to replace the top four from last season to integrate with returning players.

The team released all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and let Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon go to other teams in free agency. They have been replaced by Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay). They will be implemented into a group of young receivers -- Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons and Brenton Bersin -- who will finally get a chance to prove themselves.

The chemistry they develop in the film and workout room will be the first step in building the chemistry they will ultimately have on the field.

Phase 2 of the program is a three-week period that allows on-field workouts with individual player instruction and drills. No live contact or team offense vs. defense drills are permitted.

Phase 3 won't begin until late May after Memorial Day weekend. It is a four-week period in which the team can conduct a total of 10 days of organized practice. There is no live contact, but 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills are permitted.

Among the more significant lingering questions is the health of free safety Charles Godfrey, who continues to rehab the Achilles injury that sidelined him the final 14 games of last season.

The Panthers still have to decide whether they will keep Godfrey or release him with a June 1 designation to save $5.1 million under the salary cap. They can't make that decision until Godfrey is cleared medically. The team signed former Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud as insurance in free agency.

This also will be a key time in determining who will back up Newton in 2014. Veteran Derek Anderson, re-signed to a two-year deal during the offseason, should have no trouble holding down the second spot.

But the Panthers also want to take a good look at Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb.

The last part of the program is a mandatory minicamp June 17-19. Then it's a short break before things begin for real with training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
The Carolina Panthers have the 28th pick in the 2014 NFL draft after finishing last season with a 12-4 record. Their primary needs remain offensive tackle and wide receiver after free agency, with tackle holding a slight edge.

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

Many of you have asked if the Carolina Panthers have interest in free agent wide receiver Sidney Rice now that he's been medically cleared to begin football drills.

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.

Rice
Here is what I know. According to a source, Rice was not in town for an official visit with the Panthers. As of Tuesday morning, no official visit was scheduled.

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.
If anybody should be worried about all the offseason moves the Carolina Panthers have made at wide receiver, it should be tight end Greg Olsen.

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.”
CONCORD, N.C. -- Steve Smith didn't look particularly comfortable climbing behind the wheel of a top fuel dragster at zMax Speedway on Friday, but the Baltimore Ravens wide receiver is very comfortable with his new NFL team.

"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."
The Carolina Panthers have the 28th pick of the 2014 NFL draft after finishing 12-4 this past season. They have a big need at offensive tackle and wide receiver, but general manager Dave Gettleman insists he'll take the best player available.

Todd McShay's Mock Draft 4.0 is out , and you might be surprised who he has going to Carolina.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

The NFL draft is just under a month away and representatives from the Carolina Panthers are all over the country checking out prospects.

Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl alone has tweeted pictures of stadiums at Indiana, Vanderbilt, Ball State, Wyoming, Fresno State, Southern Cal and Oregon State since March 31.

The Panthers had representatives at LSU's pro day on Wednesday to evaluate wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., among others.

I can't tell you everywhere the Panthers have been, but I compiled a list of players reportedly brought to Charlotte, N.C., for a visit, scheduled for a visit or scheduled for a private workout.

Beckham
You don't see Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee tackle Ja'Wuan James or Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on the list, but that doesn't mean Carolina isn't interested and hasn't set up something.

It's no surprise there are a lot of wide receivers and offensive tackles on this list. Both are need positions. There also are a couple of athletic quarterbacks here, which is interesting with Cam Newton coming off ankle surgery and three other quarterbacks on the roster.

Most of the draft analysts predict Carolina will take an offensive tackle or wide receiver with the 28th overall pick. General manager Dave Gettleman insists they'll take the best player available.

Here's a preview of some the Panthers are looking at for the May 8-10 draft:

Wide Receivers

Cooks
Brandin Cooks (5-foot-9, 189) Oregon State: This was the early popular pick by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. to wind up in Carolina. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver this past season. He set single-season Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 yards. He is nicknamed "Sonic Boom" and reminds many of Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver who recently was released.

Projected round: 1

Robert Herron (5-9, 193) Wyoming: Had a team-best nine touchdown catches this past season. Had 72 catches for 937 yards. A good athlete who can stretch the field. The Panthers need somebody to stretch the field with Ted Ginn Jr. gone.

Projected round: 3

Cody Latimer (6-2, 215) Indiana: Caught 72 passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Rising fast on a lot of draft boards. Had foot surgery in January and was unable to work out at the NFL combine in February, but ran a 4.44 40 in late March at Indiana's pro day. Excellent blocker, which Carolina likes at the position.

Projected round: 4-5

Jarvis Landry (5-11, 205) LSU: Had five 100-yard receiving games in 2013. Makes the tough catches and is a solid blocker. A team captain, so good leadership skills.

Projected round: 2-3

Marqise Lee (5-11, 192) Southern Cal: Missed three games last season with a knee injury, but is good to go. Won the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's top receiver in 2012. Had 118 catches. Can be dynamic after the catch, and the Panthers are looking for a dynamic receiver.

Projected round: 1-2

Kevin Norwood (6-2, 198) Alabama: Had seven touchdown catches in 2013. A solid route-runner with good hands. I had a prospect from another SEC team tell me Norwood will surprise and have a major impact once he gets into the NFL.

Projected round: 4-5

Offensive line

Dakota Dozier (6-3, 313) Furman: He didn't come from one of the big-time programs, but against big-time programs Florida State and Clemson this 6-4, 315-pound prospect more than held his own. A solid run-blocker, and the Panthers like to run. Had a good showing at the Shrine Bowl. Played guard, but could be a nice fit at tackle on the right side.

Projected round: 2-3

Cameron Fleming (6-4, 323) Stanford: Played on the right side for Stanford and helped the team rush for a school-record 2,904 yards in 2013. In 2011 helped protect Andrew Luck, who threw for a school-record 37 touchdowns.

Projected round: 4-5

Morgan Moses (6-6, 313) Virginia: Moved from right to left tackle for his senior season. Solid run-blocker with good first step, but has been questioned for his ability to redirect in a short area. Could sneak into the late first round.

Projected round: 2-3

Billy Turner (6-4, 315) North Dakota State: Good build but needs to carry more weight. Aggressive as a run-blocker, but inconsistent in leverage as a pass-protector. Would be a good fit for a power offense like Carolina.

Projected round: 2-3

Defensive line

Kony Ealy (6-4, 273) Missouri: First-team All-SEC selection who is big and quick off the snap, which makes him an effective pass-rusher off the edge. Still needs work as a run-stopper. There are no guarantees the Panthers sign Greg Hardy to a long-term deal, so Ealy could be insurance.

Projected round: 1-2

Cornerback

Kyle Fuller (5-11, 190) Virginia Tech: He missed six games last season with a sports hernia, but at 6-0 and 190 pounds he can play any kind of coverage.

Projected round: 3

Verrett
Jason Verrett (5-9, 189) TCU: Slightly undersized at 5-9, but ran a 4.38 40 at the combine and is polished product. Could be a nice fit in the slot, where the Panthers are looking for an option.

Projected round: 1-2

Quarterback

Garrett Gilbert (6-4, 220) SMU: Had a strong pro day, completing 87 of 88 pass attempts to see his stock rise. The son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert. An athletic quarterback with Cam Newton-like size who could turn into a nice protégé for Newton.

Projected round: 7-FA

Brett Smith (6-3, 206) Wyoming: One of the more athletic quarterbacks in the draft, running the 40 in 4.51 seconds at his pro day. Had 76 career touchdown passes and 97 touchdowns overall during his college career.

Projected round: 6-7
Baltimore Ravens free-agent tight end Ed Dickson announced Wednesday on Twitter that he was on his way to meet with the Carolina Panthers.

Dickson
The Panthers already have signed St. Louis Rams tight end Mike McNeill to a two-year deal, but he's more of a blocker.

Dickson could be a nice receiving complement to tight end Greg Olsen, who led the team in receptions last season. Dickson had only 25 catches this past season, but in 2011 he caught a career-high 54 for 528 yards and five touchdowns.

A fifth-year player out of Oregon, Dickson was a third-round pick by the Ravens in 2010. Buffalo also has shown an interest, and the Ravens reportedly haven't ruled out re-signing him.

For the Panthers to show interest in another tight end likely means the team will not re-sign Ben Hartsock.
video
Maybe this will help you better understand why Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was willing to part with his top wide receivers from 2013.

Smith
Avant
There is almost a $3 million difference between the 2014 salary-cap total for the three receivers the Panthers signed compared to the cap total other teams are counting for the three Carolina lost.

For a team looking to get out of salary-cap jail, that is a plus.

We'll start with the most recent signee, former Philadelphia receiver Jason Avant. The one-year deal the Panthers gave him on Monday doesn't qualify as a minimum-salary benefit contract because of a $150,000 signing bonus.

Avant also is eligible for a $45,000 workout bonus, which would bring the total of his deal and 2014 cap number to $1,050,000.

That brings the 2014 cap total of the three receivers the Panthers signed -- Jerricho Cotchery ($1.7 million), Tiquan Underwood ($925,000) and Avant -- to $3,675,000.

That is $2,741,666 less than the combined cap value of Steve Smith ($2,166,666, Baltimore) , Brandon LaFell ($2 milion, New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. ($2.25 million, Arizona), Carolina's top three receivers in 2013.

Smith alone was going to count $7 million against the cap this season before the Panthers released him. Carolina still had to pay Smith $5 million in salary and deferred bonuses, but long-term the moves have been a big savings.

Now it comes down to whether the new receivers can replace those lost in production.
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is well on his way to a career that will earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But his jersey and pants already are there.

Kuechly
The Panthers recently sent those items from the uniform Kuechly wore on Dec. 22, 2013, when he tied an NFL single-game record with 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints.

They will be an exhibit in the Hall's Pro Football Today Gallery.

If Kuechly continues on his current path, he'll have a bust of his likeness in the Hall when his career is over.

The former Boston College star was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl this past season after helping Carolina to the league's second-ranked defense with 156 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions.

In two NFL seasons, Kuechly has an amazing 320 tackles.

ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden compared Kuechly to future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher of the Bears and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis of the Ravens last season.

"I said it in our preseason game: Luke Kuechly is the best linebacker in football. Exclamation point! Period!" Gruden said. "The guy is unbelievable."

One day that guy may end up in the Hall of Fame, but for now he'll have to settle for his jersey and pants.
The names may have changed, but the 2013 statistics aren't dramatically different when it comes to the new and old wide receiving corps of the Carolina Panthers.

Gone are Steve Smith (Baltimore), Brandon LaFell (New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona).

Replacing them are free agents Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay) -- and a draft pick or two to be named later.

When you compare what the replacements did this past season versus the old regime, it's not enough to lose sleep over.

In overall age (based on the start of next season), Carolina got slightly younger with the average of the newcomers 30.0 compared to 30.3 of those they replaced. Smith, who will be 35 before the season, is the primary reason.

In terms of 2013 receptions, the old regime held a 149 to 108 advantage. Last year's receivers held a 1,928 to 1,489 edge in receiving yards.

The new guys held a 16 to 14 advantage in touchdown catches.

It's not a wash, but it's not worth panicking over.

And overall price tag of the newcomers is considerably lower, which will help with the salary cap down the road.

Coach Ron Rivera recently said at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., that Carolina needed to replace about 10 catches a game based on last season's statistics. The Panthers aren't far from that, although Cotchery and Avant are only short-term solutions.

Underwood is a wild card. He had 24 catches this past season, which is 22 more than Ginn had at San Francisco the year before coming to Carolina.

Ginn saw a 94.4 percent increase in production in 2013. If Underwood can double his that's a win for the new regime.

The other wild card is the draft. Rivera said he's looking for a dynamic receiver. Although none are as dynamic as the top two -- Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M's Mike Evans -- who will be gone way before Carolina picks at No. 28, there's a deep and talented crop.

There are enough receivers that if Carolina takes one or two in the first three rounds, those players can be as much or more of a factor as last year's fourth wide receiver, Domenik Hixon.

Hixon, now with Chicago, had only seven catches for 55 yards and one touchdown last season. While that one touchdown was huge -- the game-winner against New Orleans in the 15th game -- it can be easily replace.

There's more long-term upside for a first- or second-round selection than Ginn, last season's No. 3 receiver.

Throw in Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, two young players management is high on, and the situation isn't nearly as bad as it appeared a few weeks ago.

Time will tell.

Here's a closer look at what the Panthers have lost versus what they have gained:


Who do you have in the Final Four? Had to ask since I'm in Dallas, only a few miles from where the NCAA Tournament will come to a conclusion on Monday night.

I kind of like Kentucky at this point. They beat my pick, Louisville, and the rest of my tournament bracket has more X marks than one of my college calculus tests.

I know, I know. Some of you still want to talk Carolina Panthers. Some of you still want to talk free agency and the draft. I've got time for that, too.

Let's get straight to the Saturday mailbag:
Cam NewtonAP Photo/Dave MartinDonovan McNabb says there is reason to be concerned about the lack of weapons around Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is a big fan of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. He's not a big fan of Carolina's free-agency strategy that left the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner without his top four wide receivers from last season.

"Oh, I would be worried," McNabb told ESPN.com on Wednesday before South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney began his pro day. "First of all, I didn't have a top wide receiver until pretty much T.O. [Terrell Owens] got there.

"For him, I'm just wondering what they are doing to build around him. You lose Brandon LaFell, you lose Steve Smith, Ted Ginn's gone. All you have at this point is Greg Olsen."

Olsen is Carolina's tight end, who led the team in receptions last season with 73.

I reminded McNabb, now an analyst for Fox Sports, that0 Carolina signed Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Jerricho Cotchery. He didn't seem impressed.

"Greg Olsen," he reiterated as Newton's only legitimate weapon.

McNabb wasn't suggesting the Panthers should have gone after former Philadelphia Eagles teammate DeSean Jackson, who signed with Washington after being cut last week.

He respects the opinions of Carolina coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who were with him during parts of his career in Philly.

"But you've still got to give him some help," he said of Newton. "The quarterback is only as good as the people around him. If you don't ever want him to throw to a player that can create big plays out of the passing game, it's not going to go well."

And to Rivera's argument that the Panthers don't have to have a bona fide No. 1 receiver to be successful, McNabb simply rolled his eyes.

"I hate when teams [say] that," McNabb said. "Who are they, Bill Belichick and the Patriots now?"

McNabb's best example is himself. Let's go back to his comment that he didn't have a true No. 1 until Owens arrived in Philadelphia in 2004.

In the two seasons before Owens, McNabb threw a combined 33 touchdown passes. With Owens, he completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes for a career-high 31 touchdowns and 3,875 yards.

He also ran less that season -- 41 times for 202 yards after averaging 69.8 carries and 447.8 yards rushing in his first five seasons.

To further the argument, McNabb had two of his better seasons late in his career with Jackson in 2008 and 2009.

"[A receiver] doesn't have to be considered a No. 1, but in their offense you need a top dog," McNabb said of Carolina. "We've seen what Steve Smith can do in that offense. We've seen how LaFell has been able to get catches off of Steve Smith.

"What are they going to get them off? Jerricho Cotchery? What was Jerricho Cotchery in Pittsburgh? A No. 4? A 3?"

To be fair, Cotchery caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season. He was also the third or fourth receiver.

Regardless, McNabb is concerned about the Carolina passing game. But he's not concerned with Newton, who is out approximately four months recovering from recent surgery to tighten tendons in his left ankle.

He recalled overcoming a broken right ankle in 2002 to be stronger than ever.

"The biggest thing is they're going to benefit from making the playoffs," McNabb said. A record of "12-4 is not easy. What did they do? Win eight straight? That says a lot, and the quarterback is responsible for that."

McNabb likes where Newton is mentally, and that Newton no longer feels the urgency to do it all on the field. But will that change due to the loss of weapons from last season?

"It's just a minor setback," McNabb said of the surgery. "He'll be ready for training camp, which is good. Obviously, it's going to take some time to recover. But Rivera understands how to slowly put him in that arena, that progression to be right.

"He's still a franchise quarterback."
The Carolina Panthers have the 28th pick in the 2014 NFL draft after finishing last season with a 12-4 record. Their primary needs easily are wide receiver and offensive tackle, although a top cornerback might be tempting if one fell that far.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draftInsider is out on ESPN Insider today. He picks the top three rounds for each team, and I have to admit I like what he's done with Carolina.


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