CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ten takeaways from Tuesday’s season wrap-up interviews with Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman:
Josh Norman could get tagged: Gettleman wouldn’t say keeping the Pro Bowl cornerback was his top priority, but he admitted the “franchise tag’’ is an option he would consider. The projected value of the tag for a cornerback is about $13.8 million. The Panthers currently are $5.1 million under the cap, which will jump from $143.28 million in 2015 to between $150 and $153.8 million. Gettleman also reminded that no team is one player away from winning the Super Bowl. But you got the feeling the organization will do what it can to keep Norman. As Gettleman said, “I don’t want to develop guys for other teams.’’
Speaking of the salary cap: “We’re not in a bad place,’’ Gettleman said. He didn’t say the Panthers were in a great place, but you get the feeling they are in position to lock down a player such as Norman to a long-term deal.
Stand by your Cam: Both Rivera and Gettleman defended Cam Newton after the quarterback walked out on reporters following Sunday’s loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50. They didn’t say they loved the quarterback’s behavior, but they didn’t admonish Newton as many have. Rivera called Newton’s decision to talk to the media on Tuesday, which the quarterback hasn’t done on exit day the previous four seasons, a huge step in his growth. Gettleman said one of the things he looks for is a player who “hates to lose.’’
Things will change: The culture the Panthers talked about so much during their 17-2 season likely won’t change because key leaders such as Newton, Greg Olsen, Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil will return. But there will be turnover. As Rivera said, “The locker room won’t be the same. There will be change.’’
Here or nowhere: Several older veterans such as cornerback Charles “Peanut’’ Tillman and defensive end Jared Allen would like to play next season, but only if it’s for the Panthers. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery wasn’t quite so adamant, but his preference is Carolina if he plays. Tillman is a free agent. The Panthers signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.75 million in 2015, but he’ll be 35 entering next season and he’s coming off a torn ACL. That might be a tough sell. Allen, the NFL’s active sack leader, will be 34 before next season. He’s scheduled to count $8.5 million against the 2016 salary cap under his current deal, which was inherited when he was acquired in a trade with Chicago. If the Panthers keep him, it’ll have to be at a reduced cost. Cotchery will be 34 in June. He’s valued for his leadership in bringing along a young group of receivers, but with 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin returning, it could make this a difficult decision.
Understatement of the day: This occurred when Gettleman said Benjamin will make the Panthers better in 2016. Duh. Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp that led many experts to predict gloom and doom for the Panthers. “We’re getting a first-round wide receiver back, so that doesn’t upset me,’’ Gettleman said.
Kony Ealy a rising star: If the Panthers are considering parting ways with defensive end Charles Johnson, the Super Bowl performance of second-year player Ealy might have made it easier. Ealy set a Super Bowl record with three sacks and an interception. Only two other players -- Hall of Famer Reggie White and Arizona’s Darnell Dockett -- have had that many sacks in the title game. Ealy also forced and recovered a fumble. Gettleman compared Ealy to Norman a couple of years ago: “talented but stubborn.’’ With Ealy as one starter the Panthers could look to get younger at the other end spot. Johnson will be 30 in July and is set to count $15 million against the cap.
Mike Tolbert wants to return: The fullback/running back says he has another four or five years left at a “Pro Bowl’’ level. Not many teams use a true fullback like Carolina, so re-signing him makes sense. It just doesn’t at Tolbert’s 2015 salary cap figure of $3.4 million. Tolbert said there have been no talks with management yet.
Picking 30th: Rivera thought the Panthers were picking 31st until Gettleman told him they were picking 30th because one team (New England) won’t have a first-round draft pick. It’s way too early to predict what that pick will be, but Gettleman loves his big bodies -- whether it’s a lineman or a wide receiver.
Scaling back: The Panthers already have gotten permission from the league to start offseason workouts later than the scheduled date and scale back after spending an extra five weeks practicing and playing. Rivera wants to make sure players get plenty of time for their bodies to recuperate.