How the Panthers Were Remade

When the Panthers produced a disappointing 1-5 start to the season a year ago, Marty Hurney was the guy who paid the price. The Panthers general manager was fired after 11 seasons at the helm, a run that admittedly saw its ups and downs. During Hurney’s tenure, Carolina won the NFC South three times and made an unlikely run to the Super Bowl in 2003, but the team collapsed to a 2-14 season in 2010 and was on a 9-29 stretch when Hurney was fired. Several weeks before the move, I wrote a piece on Grantland that documented some of the decisions Hurney had made and how they had prevented the team from contending in the NFC South.

A year later, and the Panthers look like a totally different franchise. With the same head coach and many of the same players, Carolina is now 9-4 and almost surely in line for a playoff berth in the NFC, its first since 2008. Ron Rivera’s metamorphosis into an aggressive coach has been well covered, but less has been said about the personnel side of things. General manager Dave Gettleman had an impressive debut draft with the team, bringing in talented defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, but many of the players who are starring on this Carolina team were drafted or otherwise acquired by Hurney.

It was fair to criticize Hurney a year ago; he had made some clearly aggressive decisions with his spending on and valuation of personnel, and it hadn’t worked out. It’s also appropriate now, though, to go back and give the choices Hurney made a second look. Did Hurney get a bad rap with another year of hindsight to judge his decisions? Or are the Panthers succeeding in spite of his work from the past? Let’s review the work he did in constructing much of this Carolina roster.

The Draft

Let’s start with a clear win for Hurney: He nailed his two final first-round picks about as well as anybody could. It helps when you have the first overall pick, of course, but Cam Newton was hardly regarded as a slam-dunk selection when Carolina took him with the top pick of the 2011 draft. He’s been a valuable contributor since the moment he stepped onto the field as a Panthers player. Even more impressively, though, was the selection of Luke Kuechly when he fell to Carolina with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. Linebacker was hardly a position of need for the Panthers, but Hurney was right to draft for the talent as opposed to the fit. Kuechly’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and one of the best players in football. Those picks seemed good a year ago; now they’re downright brilliant. Hurney absolutely deserves credit for what he did at the top of the draft.

The rest of those drafts aren’t quite as impressive. With no second rounder in the 2011 draft, Hurney used a pair of third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, neither of whom are still with the team. Fourth-rounder Brandon Hogan is out of football. The rest of the draft offered little. And after Kuechly in 2012, the only other Panthers selections to become a starter so far are second-rounder Amini Silatolu, who moved to guard (and tore his ACL earlier this year), and punter Brad Nortman. The only other player from 2012 who seems in line for a starting gig in the future would be cornerback Josh Norman. And going back to 2010, while Hurney found a steal in sixth-rounder Greg Hardy, he had no first-round pick and used his top three selections on Jimmy Clausen, Brandon LaFell, and Armanti Edwards.

Hurney’s biggest problem with the draft wasn’t that he was incapable of finding talent; instead, in fact, he might have been too confident in his own team’s ability to identify talent. During his time in the drafting chair, it’s hard to find a general manager who traded up more frequently than Hurney. He was also a frequent practitioner of the worst trade a general manager can make, the deal in which you acquire a pick in a given round by giving up a future pick in a more valuable round. As is almost always the case with these sorts of trades, regardless of who is making them, they didn’t really work. Hurney sent a future first-round pick to the 49ers in 2009 to draft Everette Brown with the 43rd pick, a deal that netted San Francisco superstar guard Mike Iupati. Then, a year later, Hurney sent a future second-round pick to the Patriots to take Edwards with the 89th pick in the draft. That pick eventually became the 33rd selection in the subsequent draft, representing a chasm of value given away by Carolina for a guy who ended up failing to amount to an NFL-caliber player. (The Patriots whiffed on the pick, too, taking Ras-I Dowling, but they had the right idea.) Those deals look just as bad now as they did then.

So, in all, Hurney’s recent run as a drafter is still a mixed bag. His two final first-round picks were phenomenal selections, but his drafts on the whole were spotty and he had an unfortunate affection for sacrificing valuable later draft assets to nab the guy he wanted now.

Contracts

Hurney’s real area of largesse during his time in Carolina, though, came in re-signing the talented players on his roster to long-term extensions. There’s nothing wrong with that plan — you want to lock up the young core of your team if it’s a core capable of winning a Super Bowl — but general managers also have to anticipate the market and spend the money they have to work with accordingly. Last year, it seemed like Hurney either misread the market or paid an overwhelming premium to sign players from his 2-14 team to extensions. Those deals might not look so bad after a successful season.

One deal I thought made sense, both at the time and a year ago, was for Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. That hasn’t changed: Kalil missed most of 2012 with a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, but he’s back to a relatively high level of play again this year. Somewhat ironically, the other two deals I wrote off as merely mediocre look worse a year later: James Anderson was released and is part of the sieve Chicago puts out as a run defense, while Charles Godfrey had a disappointing 2012 season before tearing his Achilles two games into the 2013 campaign. Neither of those contracts seem wise at this point.

Hurney signed five other players to large contract extensions in the summer of 2011, adding a sixth during the following August. Those were the deals that formed the crux of Carolina’s issues by tying up gobs of salary-cap space and preventing it from adding more than replacement-level talent at a number of positions around the roster. Let’s see how those deals look now.

Jon Beason’s five-year, $50 million deal was a disaster from the day it was signed. Beason was already struggling with Achilles issues before the extension, and he was unable to practice after signing the deal before tearing said Achilles in Week 1 of the 2011 season. He returned as a shell of himself in 2012, limping through four games before going on injured reserve with a knee injury, ceding the middle linebacker’s spot to Kuechly in the process.

Moved to the weak side in 2013, Beason struggled before losing his job to former Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn. He was then traded to those same Giants, where he’s actually been weirdly competent given how thin the Giants were at linebacker before the trade. Beason renegotiated his deal after the 2012 season, but the Panthers will have $8 million in dead money on their cap in the upcoming 2014 campaign. It would be fair to say this deal didn’t work out.

Thomas Davis received a five-year, $36.5 million extension despite tearing his ACL in each of the two preceding campaigns. Davis then tore his ACL again two weeks into the 2011 season. He declined an $8 million option bonus to stay with the Panthers before the 2012 campaign, a season in which he stayed relatively healthy and suited up for 15 games. This year, though, Davis has been a downright great player. Moving to the strong side, he’s been capable of holding up against the run while providing Carolina with another superb pass defender alongside Kuechly. He deserves to go to the Pro Bowl this year, but I’m afraid he’ll get lost in the wake of Kuechly’s brilliance.

At the time it was signed, Davis’s contract was awful; there was nobody else in the same stratosphere in terms of interest in Davis, so the Panthers bid against themselves and paid Davis a significant premium in the hopes he would return and develop into a star linebacker. You know what, though? Right now, he’s playing like a star linebacker. He’s only on Carolina’s cap for an average of about $6.3 million over the next two seasons, at which point his cap hold balloons to $10.3 million, which will likely lead Carolina to renegotiate the deal or move on. This is an extension that looks much, much better one year later.

Charles Johnson was given a mammoth six-year, $76 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL during the 2011 season at $34 million. The Panthers gave Johnson the extension after an 11.5-sack season at age 24, his first year as a starter, in order to prevent him from hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent.

The Panthers paid Johnson superstar money to be a dominant pass-rusher. In 2011 and 2012, he was a good player, but he didn’t hit the lofty heights Carolina expected of him; he produced a total of 21.5 sacks over those two seasons, the 11th-best total in football. According to Football Outsiders, Johnson was 12th in the league in hurries a year ago, although he did not finish in the top 20 in hits. The picture is of a pretty good 4-3 defensive end, but those guys were getting one-year deals from the Seahawks last year. With that being said, 2013 has probably been Johnson’s best year as a pro; he has 8.5 sacks in 10 games, having missed time with a sprained MCL. He might not be the best defensive end on his own team, but that’s because Greg Hardy is a mercurial presence on the opposite side of the line.

In a vacuum, you would absolutely want a player like Johnson on your team: He’s a talented two-way end, he’s still just 27, and there’s still the upside of a 15-sack season. The problem, though, is the opportunity cost of having him at an exorbitant price. Carolina already needed to restructure Johnson’s deal to create cap space this offseason. Next year, if the team doesn’t restructure his deal again, Johnson’s cap hold will rise from $8.7 million to $16.4 million. And if the Panthers do restructure, they’ll be putting off accounting for the cost of the bonuses on their cap until some point in the future, at which point they’ll be paying the likes of Newton and Kuechly more than the $8.8 million those two represent on their cap this year. Johnson’s still a very good player, but this is an onerous contract for a guy who is still a step short of stardom.

Olindo Mare received a four-year, $12 million deal and was cut one year into the contract. He’s currently out of football. The Panthers replaced him with Graham Gano last season after Hurney was let go, and Gano’s been reasonably effective since arriving in town: He’s 29-for-34 on field goals as a Carolina player.

DeAngelo Williams was signed to a five-year, $43 million contract that guaranteed him a whopping $21 million. That deal came even though the Panthers had first-round pick Jonathan Stewart waiting in the wings; it seemed like the team would then move on from Stewart, but in 2012, Stewart received a six-year, $38 million deal that guaranteed him $22.5 million. You wouldn’t make either of those deals again. Williams has been an average back since signing his deal, averaging 745 rushing yards per season despite staying healthy for the duration of his new deal. Stewart’s been riddled with injuries since signing his extension and has only accrued 516 rushing yards since the beginning of the 2012 campaign.

Furthermore, those deals didn’t make sense because they were signed in an economic context in which teams weren’t committing money to one veteran running back, let alone two. Both Williams and Stewart have already had to restructure their deals to create cap space, but that just adds dead money to Carolina’s cap in the future. Even worse, while Carolina might want to get rid of the two, it doesn’t make economic sense to do so. Williams would make $6 million to play for the team next year, but Carolina would eat a $9.6 million dead money charge to cut him. Stewart, meanwhile, will make $5.5 million to play for Carolina or cost a staggering $18 million on their cap if they were to get rid of him. When Stewart’s cap hit rises to $8.5 million in 2014, his dead money figure only falls to $12.7 million. The Panthers, on Stewart’s current deal, can’t even think about cutting him until 2016. These deals are enormous mistakes, and their full impact on Carolina’s cap is yet to be realized.

Ironically, the best running back on Carolina’s roster is a player Hurney brought in under the radar for next to nothing. Hurney signed bruising back Mike Tolbert during the 2012 offseason on a four-year deal that maxed out at a total of $10.9 million while guaranteeing Tolbert just $2.7 million. Williams is the starter, but when the team needs a key yard, it turns to Tolbert, the nominal third-string back. There’s something paradoxical about congratulating Hurney on a good running back deal after his two big running back contracts failed to deliver, but Tolbert’s a useful cog in the Carolina offense.

So, with mostly the same roster, why are the Panthers better this year? For one, they’ve stayed healthier, outside of a rash of injuries to the secondary early in the season. They’ve hit on a number of journeymen and undrafted free agents who have played big roles, with Gettleman unearthing the likes of Melvin White after draft day and finding Mike Mitchell in free agency for $725,000. An excellent debut draft for Gettleman saw the Panthers take Lotulelei and Kawann Short with his first two selections, shoring up the defensive tackle spot that Hurney had struggled to fill for years. And, yes, Hurney’s final two first-rounders — Newton and Kuechly — are among the 30 best players in football.

In the long term, though, the draft picks Hurney made after those two stars and the contracts he gave out are going to continue to hurt the Panthers. This is still a team crying out for another starting wide receiver, an interior lineman or two, and anything resembling a star in the secondary. You can get by with those weaknesses when you have great talent to cover elsewhere, but as you saw in Sunday night’s loss to the Saints, this is still a team with exploitable holes that is going to really struggle to come back from an early deficit.

More distressingly, the Panthers have been in salary-cap hell since the year after Hurney inked that mass of deals, and it’s not going away anytime soon. They’ve already had to restructure deals in 2012 and 2013 to create cap space, and that restructuring process will continue for each season forward. They’ll finally start to see the possibility of cap space in 2015, when Beason’s deal comes off the books, but that’s right when they’ll be offering up massive extensions to Newton and Kuechly. They’ll still need to somehow find a way to re-sign Hardy, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Carolina’s going to be scraping together nickels and dimes for the foreseeable future because of the contracts from the Hurney era. They might also be competitive because of the stars he drafted, which is why Hurney’s legacy as Panthers GM will be conflicted. He deserves some of the credit for helping to bring a playoff team back to Carolina, but he will also end up taking some of the blame for limiting its ceiling in the process.

Filed Under: NFL, Carolina Panthers

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell