ORLANDO – The Panthers’ at-bats so far during free agency haven’t generated home runs at every turn, but Carolina has covered all the bases.
That was the general assessment shared by head coach Ron Rivera over breakfast at the NFL Annual Meeting.
“It’s taking a lot of pressure off what we need to do at the draft – we’re at the point now where we can draft the best available player,” Rivera said of the moves made to date. “But it’s still early in the offseason, so I think we can most certainly be better.”
The Panthers have added viable options at wide receiver (Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright), defensive tackle (Dontari Poe), safety (Da’Norris Searcy), cornerback (Ross Cockrell) and guard (Jeremiah Sirles), but there’s work still to be done. Free agency remains an option, and the draft is a little more than a month away.
Based on the current roster, Rivera addressed some of the position groups that still have the most to figure out.
RUNNING BACK: The Panthers released franchise rushing leader Jonathan Stewart, setting up second-year back Christian McCaffrey to perhaps carry more of the load but opening up opportunity for a new bruising back.
As things now stand, a not-so-new name is up to bat in Cameron Artis-Payne, who has paced the Panthers in rushing each of his three NFL preseasons but whose regular season chances have been severely limited.
“We have a couple of unknowns in our backfield that we have to find out more about – if Cameron Artis-Payne can run the ball, can be effective for us, and if Fozzy (Whittaker) can do a little more. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds,” Rivera said, offering more on Artis-Payne. “He’ll most certainly get that opportunity. We’ve got to see what he’s capable of. If you go back and look at the way he played in the preseason and when he got some opportunities to carry the ball most notably against Miami (68 yards on seven carries in Week 10), you see some things that tell you that the young man has some explosive traits and some ability to run the ball inside. I wish we would have used him more last season so that we’d have a better feel for who he is.”
Artis-Payne struggled with a couple of exchanges filling in for Stewart in the regular season finale, but between the Dolphins game and that one he had just one rushing attempt.
TIGHT END: The Panthers have looked at a couple of players in free agency to back up Greg Olsen that have since signed elsewhere – the same thing that 2017 reserve Ed Dickson did. Rivera said that a backup with the potential to eventually replace Olsen could still be brought in via free agency or the draft, but for now new offensive coordinator Norv Turner is sizing up the ability of Chris Manhertz, who backed up Dickson when Olsen was hurt last season.
“I know Norv has taken a long time to look at what Chris Manhertz can do, and he feels pretty good about Chris,” Rivera said. “He really likes his ability to block, and he runs well enough to be a threat still (as a pass catcher). He’s very similar to Ed.
“He’s still raw because he was a basketball player learning to play the game – he’s got a little ways to do. But the one thing I do know is he’s been hanging out with Greg Olsen a lot. That could be a good thing for us.”
Olsen recently hung out at an audition for a coveted broadcast booth spot on Monday Night Football, but Rivera said he and the Panthers brass knew the score before Olsen – under contract through the upcoming season – tried out for the gig.
“Before Greg went up there, he came to (general manager) Marty (Hurney) and I and said, ‘Guys, I’m just going up for practice. This is for the future. I don’t know when the future is going to be, but it’s not right now. I’m playing,’” Rivera said. “Everything he’s told me is about getting ready for next season.”
LEFT GUARD: Rivera was disappointed that the Panthers didn’t have the resources to bring back Andrew Norwell, whom Rivera called the “ultimate left guard in this league.”
“I hated to lose him, but it’s one of those salary cap things that there was just no way around,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately you get in situations where you can’t because of the cap keep guys of his ability, and it breaks your heart.”
Rivera said free agent signing Jeremiah Sirles, re-signed Panthers offensive lineman Amini Silatolu and second-year tackle Taylor Moton will all get a look at the spot, adding that the Panthers will “play the best guy.”
There’s still a good chance their guy could come via the draft.
DEFENSIVE END: Rivera’s reaction when Julius Peppers picked another year with the Panthers over retirement?
“I was fired up,” he said. “We never broached the subject, never pushed him on it. I know he and Marty talked at the beginning of the offseason and Marty told him, ‘Hey, just let us know when you’re ready.’
“He was outstanding with that, and just before free agency started he notified us that he wanted to get a deal done. Now he’s back, which I think is exciting.”
Peppers obviously isn’t a long-term solution opposite Mario Addison, who is 30 himself, but Rivera believes there are players already on the roster capable of developing larger roles. Rivera said Wes Horton – quietly among the NFL’s strip-sack leaders over the past season or so – has earned more opportunities. He hopes third-round draft choice Daeshon Hall, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, proves worthy of snaps as well.
“Daeshon Hall is a young man that has to step up,” Rivera said. “We drafted him high for a reason after what we saw at Texas A&M, and we’re going to expect that out on the football field very shortly.”
While Hall is expected to take part in Organized Team Activities come May, Rivera said Peppers and linebacker Luke Kuechly – both coming off shoulder surgeries – “probably” wouldn’t be on the field at that stage. Rivera said Kuechly’s offseason surgery, on his right shoulder, was to “clean it up” and wasn’t nearly as extensive as the left shoulder surgery he underwent after the 2015 season.
“Both of those guys are going through their rehab right now and are progressing very well,” Rivera said. “Until we’re given the clear, we’ll just let them continue to do the things they’re supposed to do with the training staff.”