Reading between lines of Ron Rivera, Dave Gettleman

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After 30 minutes of listening to Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman dodge specifics on his offseason plans, I made one last attempt to get something specific on when quarterback Cam Newton might be signed to a long-term deal.

Since Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera independently mentioned Newton needed to be more consistent, it seemed logical to ask if they wanted one more season to evaluate if that consistency is there before making a commitment expected to be in the $100 million range.

Gettleman laughed.

“Nice try,’’ he finally said.

Season-ending news conferences rarely get definitive answers, particularly with the Panthers, who have what they call an “evaluation season.’’

You have to read between the lines and remember how the team reacted in similar past situations.

So here’s my attempt to read between the lines on what Gettleman and Rivera said – or didn’t say – on various subjects on Tuesday:

Cam Newton: He’s entering the option year on his rookie deal. Both Gettleman and Rivera agree the first pick of the 2011 draft is the team’s quarterback of the future. They like much of what he did this past season, particularly out of the no-huddle offense that worked well during a 5-1 finish. They also acknowledge he has to improve on fundamentals and mechanics, such as throwing off his back foot.

My take? It’s obvious the plan is to sign Newton long term, probably in the next few months, definitely before the 2015 season begins. They have the flexibility under the cap to do so now, and they need to get this deal out of the way to get a long-term deal with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly next year.

Greg Hardy: The defensive end remains on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. That case will be heard on Feb. 9. Will the Panthers pursue him in free agency if he’s found innocent? Or even guilty? Rivera reminded that everyone knows how he feels about Hardy. If you don’t know, he likes him. Gettleman simply said there’s nothing to discuss until after the case is resolved. Asked in general if the organization would shy away from a player with a history of domestic violence, Gettleman said, “It would be something you’d have to really think about.’’

My take? While there are those who would welcome Hardy back, the organization emotionally has moved on. Even if found innocent by a jury, the naysayers would remind Hardy was found guilty by a Mecklenburg County Judge, whose verdict was set aside when the appeal was requested. Hardy has great talent. He could help take this defense to another level. But the organization probably isn’t willing to risk the backlash should there be another incident down the road.

DeAngelo Williams: Gettleman learned his lesson a year ago when he left Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver, hanging with his comments before having a sit-down meeting with him. After Smith was released, it got ugly in the media, at least on Smith’s side. Gettleman doesn’t want it to get ugly with his all-time leading rusher, who played in only six games this season and became secondary to the offense after Jonathan Stewart emerged as one of the league’s top rushers. “I need to talk to DeAngelo,’’ Gettleman said. “He had a tough season. The obvious, the loss of his mom was very, very difficult. ... It was tough for him, and before I say anything, just know he’s a pro’s pro.’’

My take? This didn’t sound like a goodbye the way Gettleman’s “he’s had a good career’’ comments about Smith did last year. Having said that, the Panthers can clear $2 million under the cap by cutting Williams. They like what they have with Stewart and backup Fozzy Whittaker. Adding a young back to groom behind them would be smart. Either the Panthers release Williams or convince him to come back for a huge discount.

Byron Bell: The left tackle struggled in his move from the right side. Set to become a free agent in March, little that was said by Gettleman or Rivera sounded like an endorsement for his return. “Byron showed flashes,’’ Gettleman said. “It’s about consistency. I give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, it was his first year playing there. But I think we’ve shown if a player shows up that we think is going to make us better, we’re going to go get him.’’

My take? Bell ranked 83rd out of 84 tackles rated by Pro Football Focus. Since the Panthers don’t have to shop this offseason at the “Dollar Store,’’ as Gettleman said, signing a left tackle in free agency seems like a no-brainer.

Staff: No changes have taken place, and Rivera didn’t indicate any were coming. The most obvious would be special teams coach Richard Rodgers, whose unit took a big step backwards this season and cost Carolina several opportunities to win. But as Rivera reminded, key players such as Mike Tolbert, Chase Blackburn, Richie Brockel, Benwikere and Whittaker were injured at various times. Rivera also talked a lot about committing certain positions to special teams with free agency and draft moves.

My take? Rivera is focused on a 5-1 finish and not what happened during a 3-8-1 start. The strong finish not only saved Rodgers’ job, but perhaps that of offensive coordinator Mike Shula. “If you only look at the first 12 games then a lot of us should be thrown out on our ear,’’ Rivera said.

Primary need: Speed. The team improved this past season when rookies Benwikere, Tre Boston (free safety) and Philly Brown (wide receiver) became regulars. “We need more speed, we know that,’’ Gettleman said. “We’re not silly. We’re not going to miss the obvious.’’

My take? Pretty obvious, find more speed. Gettleman mentioned the draft will be strong at wide receiver again. Finding a receiver with elite speed to put opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year’s first-round pick, and one with return capabilities at No. 25 would be a nice fit.