The confidence to let an All-Pro walk
When Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman decided to rescind the franchise tag from All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman a week before the draft, the reaction ranged from shock inside the league (Washington quickly signed him for $50 million in guaranteed money) to panic from Carolina fans. The 65-year-old Gettleman was more subdued. "I like to think people think I'm not a moron," he says. "People are focusing all on this, like the world is falling down. The world isn't falling down. We're intentional and methodical about what we do."
In his four off-seasons as GM, Gettleman has had to make tough decisions—such as letting vets Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams leave—and has been proved right. He let Norman go for several reasons. The first was simple economics. The franchise tag carried a $14 million hit on the salary cap, which would have been fine if it was temporary and replaced by a more cap-friendly extension during the summer. But after two lengthy conversations with Norman's then agent, Michael George, it became clear to Gettleman that an extension wasn't going to be worked out. "There was no way," he says, especially knowing that Carolina's free agents on the horizon include defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Charles Johnson (2017), and guard Trai Turner, linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive end Kony Ealy and safety Tre Boston ('18). "I kept going back and back at the long-term planning with our free agents coming up," Gettleman says. "You can't sign them all. It's not easy."
Another big factor was the limited value that the Panthers place on cornerbacks. In other schemes corners can command nearly starting quarterback money if they are adept at man-to-man coverage, because they allow the team to basically play with an extra defender. While Carolina coordinator Sean McDermott uses some man-to-man, he's more comfortable playing off-man concepts and versions of the Cover 2 zone. Those schemes do not place a premium on the corners, especially if the defense has a good pass rush and interior coverage. With linebackers Luke Kuechly,Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, and a D that was sixth in the NFL in sacks, the Panthers excel at both. "I've done studies," jokes Gettleman, "and it's difficult for the quarterback to throw the ball from his back."
Luckily, the GM says, "it was a corner-heavy draft." Carolina used three of its first four picks on cornerbacks, selecting James Bradberry (Samford, second round), Daryl Worley (West Virginia, third) and Zack Sanchez (Oklahoma, fifth). Bradberry and Worley are both big—6'1" and more than 200 pounds—boundary corners with long arms to combat larger receivers. They've been working as the primary starters in camp, with veteran Robert McClain mixing in, but both Bradberry and Worley have held their own. Sanchez has competed well as a slot corner, but at 5'11" and 185 pounds he may not be ready physically. Third-year corner Bene Benwikere seems likely to take that spot once he returns from a broken left leg.
"To this point, [our draft picks] haven't shown it's too big for them; I haven't seen the brook trout look on any one of the three yet," says Gettleman, using a favorite phrase of his, which means that the rookies haven't appeared confused. Gettleman better hope that continues, or he might be the one with the telltale look—of embarrassment.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
For all his growth as a pocket passer, throwing the ball is not Cam Newton's most valuable skill. Running it is. It's not just that Newton (left) has a blend of speed and power never before seen at QB. It's that defenses have to account for that combination on every down, while OC Mike Shula has done a masterly job designing plays to exploit it. Many of Carolina's runs present a read-option look, forcing at least one defender to stand still and keep his eyes on Newton (left). But these plays don't simply pose a handoff-or-no-handoff dilemma; variations of other running plays are built into them. The Panthers might feature a zone run on the front side for the tailback and a "power" run on the back side, in which a pulling lineman clears the way for Newton. The D has to account for entire play concepts moving in opposite directions. And it's only possible because of Newton.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 11--5
2015 Record: 15--1
SEPT. 8 atDEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 vs.SF [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 vs.MIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 atATL [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 10 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 atNO
OCT. 30 vs.ARI [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 atLA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 vs.KC [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 17 vs.NO [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atOAK
DEC. 4 atSEA
DEC. 11 vs.SD [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 19 atWAS
DEC. 24 vs.ATL [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atTB
= PREDICTED WINNER