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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Moorehead to return?

Reserve DT Kindal Moorehead may be a target to keep, says Darin Gantt of the Rock Hill Herald.

Gantt makes good points (and points similar to my own statements in reference to Rucker within the past week) about defensive linemen getting snapped up - so now in addition to the franchised and locked up ends, some tackles have been signed to extensions as well leaguewide - which won't just keep Rucker, but Moorehead as well.

It seems plausible, but amongst a bevy of problems with Moorehead over the past few years, it doesn't make much sense from this vantage point.

The biggest problem is that, with Jordan Carstens coming back, and a threesome of Jenkins/Kemoeatu/Damione Lewis aboard already, the team has Lewis to do Moorehead's job better than Moorehead can, and will theoretically roster 5 DT. One will undoubtedly be unable to dress most of the time, meaning you'll have to choose between Carstens and Moorehead weekly. As well, if the team were to keep 9 defensive linemen (as they typically do), it would make much more sense to have five ends than five tackles, given Mike Rucker's injuries.

As well, the team has bigger needs to deal with, most notably getting deals done with higher profile guys to gain cap space. And finally, a veteran to be the 4th or 5th DT making the 5th year vet minimum or greater, is a lot more expensive than the requisite rookie deal if the team did in fact feel that they needed a 5th tackle.

Add in Moorehead's propensity to have odd occurrences and injuries at the onset of training camp (it seems as if Moorehead got stung by a bee at least twice in four years, and started slow every year), and it just seems a misplaced priority. It's hard seeing the team not being able to do as well as Moorehead in the lower tiers of the free agent market, or seeing them go in with four veterans (three well-paid) and not be deep enough.

Surprise Mangum Retirement Brings Change

TE Kris Mangum, a part time starter for the last five years and a consistently hard-working Panther for ten, retired today per the team website. Mangum officially started 61 of 126 games played, splitting time with Wesley Walls in 2000-01, and a host of players through the John Fox era. The Mississippi native caught 151 balls for 1424 yards and 9 touchdowns in his career, all with Carolina.

The move saves the team $1.1 million. One rumor suggests that Mangum retired rather than face getting cut amid pressure for the team to find one clear starter, a move that would make Mangum's salary somewhat prohibitive. However, given the team's propensity for versatile, smart veterans in support roles, it's entirely possible the team would have as well liked to have kept Mangum aboard another year as a backup.

With the money saved from the retirement, the team now enters Friday's free agent session with about $5.5 million to spend. There aren't any other cuts necessary to be under the salary cap by Friday. However, the team would likely need to make cuts if signings started, and the team does still need to deal with roster bonuses that include Dan Morgan's, Mike Rucker's, and Jake Delhomme's, by the 10th of March.

The TE position in free agency features a pair of very promising starters: Dan Graham, formerly of the Patriots (and coached by new OC Jeff Davidson) and Eric Johnson, formerly of the 49ers. Both have had minor injury problems recently, but both have promising backgrounds. Given the number of balls Kellen Winslow II saw in Cleveland with Davidson as interim OC, the team may be looking to put together an upgrade.

Also, with Graham as the key free agent, the Minnesota Vikings are supposedly willing to throw significant money his way, leaving their own free agent pair of Jim Kleinsasser and Jermaine Wiggins available. Wiggins is a support player in the passing game; good hands and decent routes make him a viable option there, but his blocking isn't good and effort may not be there. Kleinsasser is an expert blocker as a TE or as a FB, but is only an outlet option at TE, never reaching anywhere near Wiggins' high catch totals of 2004-05.

Wiggins, as a Panther, was at odds with former OC Dan Henning, supposedly taking less money to go to Minnesota than stay in Carolina; it paid off, catching a total of 186 balls in three years since leaving. Whether the team thinks he's a good enough blocker, or whether he can be paid just enough to be a role player, is hard to say, but chances are the ill will from the past offense won't be there. As well, Wiggins was tutored by Davidson as a Patriot before coming to Carolina.

Jeff King will, undoubtedly, be looked at as a long term player from a roster standpoint, and may be able to compete a bit this year. Michael Gaines, a part time starter with Mangum, is the current default starter, but is a free agent after this year and has only shown occasional promise despite good athleticism. With that pair, the team only has marginal talent, unless King shows something in year two; chances are, Gaines will not be retained unless he steps up a bit, as he's a restricted free agent this year (and therefore unrestricted next year).

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Donnie Edwards?

Rumored to be a trade option late preseason 2006, Donnie Edwards is set to become a free agent. Edwards, while not young at 33 (34 once the season starts), would fix a number of issues on the Panthers' D - run support gap control and short zone pass defense. As well, Edwards penciled in at weakside linebacker would fill a hole and give the team leadership, experience, and mentoring to Thomas Davis while strengthening the team in the event Dan Morgan is playing in 2007 - which ultimately means the team making lesser plans to succeed Morgan.

While Edwards isn't an ideal candidate for an inside linebacker role in the 4-3 because of his size, he could play the role, or more likely could make the calls and strengthen the front while a young player learns. If the team keeps Morgan, or replaces him with a lesser player, Edwards would fill the deficiency. However, at his age, a lucrative deal is always risky, and it's hard to see the team throwing around the amount of money Edwards was looking to receive last year in San Diego when the contract dispute arose, and chances are Edwards will look for at least that much. Edwards' last contract was 5 years, $18 million, and is expected to look for around $5 million/year.

Other WLB/MLB options for 2007

With Chris Draft and Na'il Diggs free agents in six days, to add to the team's decision on Morgan, the team basically must rebuild its linebackers from scratch this year, and while the mention of Edwards gets moved around, the team has a number of other options. Re-signing either Draft or Diggs, or both, remains an option, and the team could look toward the draft for a WLB or MLB. There are, nonetheless, options within the team that may prove beneficial, with enough faith in their ability.

James Anderson was a curious pick in the 2006 draft at the time; Carolina had already picked up Diggs and Keith Adams and had Draft to go with expected starters Morgan and Thomas Davis. Adding Adam Seward and Vinny Ciurciu in, the team had seven linebackers and speculation had Ciurciu not making the theoretical cut. Anderson, however, couldn't beat out Diggs for a start and only started two games. Looking very active late in the New Orleans game against Saints scrubs, Anderson showed little elsewhere and did not look good against the run, a problem for an active, small OLB. Nonetheless, by default, Anderson is the likely starter at WLB unless something else happens, and chances are, anything that happens will be competition, not replacement.

The team may or may not have soured on Seward in 2006; Seward had a very productive and strong preseason last year and rightfully earned the backup MLB slot. However, he struggled inside during the season and the run defense was woeful in the weeks Seward played during the regular season before, and Seward rarely played on defense afterward. A move back outside may be in order, where Seward's more natural athleticism may show, and if so, Seward may be fighting with James Anderson for the start.

The team does also have the option of moving Davis yet again, to WLB, and finding a suitable strongside player cheaply, but the team finds Davis a good fit strongside, like his playmaking and abilities on the side of the defense he's naturally been on, and the staff noted hating to move him the first time because of the learning process.

Rucker Deal Ramifications

One thing that may or may not have colored the futures of both Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers is the sudden lack of availability of other ends. Dwight Freeney (Colts) and Justin Smith (Bengals) have been franchise tagged, meaning that it'll probably be well into April that either is signed to a long term deal, likely to be very lucrative and expensive. With the pair of tagged veterans being added to Kansas City's Jared Allen (a restricted free agent who asked for a trade this week), there will be a minimal amount of elite pass rushing available. The best option at this point is DE/LB phenom Adalius Thomas, who may set the price tag for both positions this year. Fewer free agents of worth being on the market means overspending for second and third level guys.

Initially, that would go against Rucker - the team could get $4.4 million in cap space by cutting him outright, giving enough room to start free agency without getting a Peppers deal done. Extending Peppers' contract would knock a good deal of cap space off the books - his current cap charge is $14 million, and the team can't get that cap relief until they strike a deal. Peppers' camp is likely to wait until the other deals are signed, since he's not a free agent.

But without other options on the table, the team may have decided that putting a high pick behind Rucker and extending his deal would give the team the relief they needed, at a cost effective price - Rucker's in the final year of his deal, so future cap spreading doesn't compound a past contract's problems, so most of the restructuring would mean savings.

Therefore, with Rucker expected back and the team looking to find a cheap backup, Al Wallace and his problems defending the run were gone for immediate savings. Since the team couldn't find anyone reasonably priced to replace Rucker, they simply stay with Rucker. The hard part will be waiting out the Peppers contract and that savings.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

More Jeff Davidson News

Davidson, a very likeable and charismatic man for a former lineman and line coach, has been making the media rounds since being hired. It's a curious move for a guy whose replacement was ousted, in part, because of saying too much to the media. There's no amount of slamming current or former players here, though - no badmouthing of Eric Shelton, for instance.

And the parallels of being the anti-Henning continue in the recent news, as Davidson has recently stated he was going to do a lot to get Steve Smith the ball, possibly including some motion (and without stating it directly, a possible move from the X receiver to the off-the-line Z receiver, though that would keep Keyshawn Johnson from going in motion for blocking).

The four Panthers backs (with a notable exception of mentioning fullback Brad Hoover) were discussed as well, but not in depth. There was talk of film study and merely wanting to put them to the ground in various ways, which may or may not mean more specialization amongst the four backs. The speculation last year was that Hoover, a former RB, was pushed back toward carrying the ball by Fox after neglect by Henning, so it's hard to say whether Hoover will be much of a ball carrier, but shouldn't be a major threat either way. With Nick Goings back after an extension, and possibly gaining a portion of the KR duty, it appears that Shelton may again be inactive much of the 2007 season.

In a recent John Fox/ interview, Fox mentioned the new cadence and the use of a different audible system. To go more in depth, we'll have a series of audibles (color/number: green 82) that'll include a dummy call (certain colors will be decoy). There's rumor of working on Delhomme's calls to make him a greater threat of pulling defenders offside, considering the team's general offensive discipline.

There was also mention of the team's new philosophy toward blocking: the Panthers now rejoin the majority of the league in running a zone scheme rather than a man-blocking scheme. This will have more flow/motion style stretch plays, as well.

Rucker, Morgan still technically not decided

Rumor, apparently picked up by Steve Reed of the Gaston Gazette, had Dan Morgan restructuring and staying, but no decision has been made. The team still needs to take action on a series of bonuses totaling $2.5 million.

The team has stated they want to keep DE Mike Rucker, says the Charlotte Observer:
"We're hoping Mike Rucker can come back full-strength next season," Hurney said, "and he's definitely in our plans. Mike Rucker typifies what we want in both a player and a person."

For that to happen, Rucker will most certainly have to structure his roster bonus into an extension, a risky move for the former Pro Bowl end at age 32 and still rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee. Rucker had been largely unscathed and productive throughout his career since he first earned a starting spot in 2001, so there's reason to be hopeful.

With Rucker staying, Al Wallace was released, in a move many didn't expect; Wallace is a key reserve who re-signed with the team in 2004 when media experts reported he could cash in as a starter elsewhere. However, Wallace rarely played ahead of Rucker, and as a spot starter in 2005 and late 2006, Wallace had issues playing the run and holding contain. While Wallace's salary wasn't terribly prohibitive, it did save the Panthers in excess of $1 million, and likely signifies that the team will be on the look out for a more well-rounded backup to Rucker and Peppers.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rucker in cap danger, to add to health concerns

Mike Rucker's late-December ACL injury was devastating to the Panthers' defense, and throws a wrench into any plan toward this offseason's team-building. However, even a healthy Rucker would have problems making this staff without changing his contract, with a $2.35 million roster bonus that would count completely on the 2007 cap that's due on March 10. The team would save $4.4 million overall with the cut, and Rucker is likely unable to be completely healthy from knee surgery before fall, casting doubts on his readiness to start the season; even if he could, rushing back from injury too fast can occasionally cause re-injury. Rucker could start the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, which would give him preseason and up to 8 weeks of the regular season to recover, but his salary is a very high one to sit the bench for half of a season outright.

Since the Rucker deal is in its final year, the team has many options:

  • Cutting Rucker outright saves his entire salary and the March bonus.
  • Renegotiating the current deal to save the bonus or most of the salary. Cutting Rucker and bringing him back is the most extreme part of this, and risks not being able to bring him back at all.
  • Pay Rucker as-is, and find much harder ways to clear cap space, very unlikely at this point.
It would be good to get something done to keep him aboard; anything done would come with the promise of future contract; Rucker turns 32 this month, and had not had any major injury up until this December. A durable, hard working defensive lineman, Rucker has been a major cornerstone to the franchise.

Also, Julius Peppers' ridiculous $14 million cap hit this year should hopefully be turned into a new deal, including rolling his $3 million incentive bonus for consecutive Pro Bowls into part of a signing bonus. A new deal will be costly - in the range of $8 million, minimum, with the signing bonus likely being tw0-part at minimum totaling at least $15 million. John Abraham received $45 million over 6 years, with a $12.5 million bonus last year, which may be a starting point for negotiations; however, if the team doesn't reach a deal with Peppers before Dwight Freeney signs before or during free agency, that deal will set the bar.

Panthers fans out there should hope for a long, drawn out Franchise Tag and holdout situation between Freeney and Colts GM Bill Polian, if a Peppers deal isn't signed. Carolina has no concern of losing Peppers, however, as his contract

Monday, February 12, 2007

As cuts come through, Morgan decision coming soon

The New York Giants cut three players Monday, a sign that the cap cut season is almost underway. LBs Lavar Arrington and Carlos Emmons, and OT Luke Pettitgout are out, and chances are more cuts will come all across the league.

With that in mind, it's time to anticipate a decision soon on a few Panthers, namely Dan Morgan. On March 2, the league season for 2007 officially starts, and by March 12, Morgan will be due a $2 million roster bonus (and another $500,000 in bonuses over the offseason). Morgan has stated he's not retiring, and wants to play despite numerous concussions. The last numbers from have the team taking a net hit of $850,000 this year, meaning the team would save more by keeping him, despite reservations about his health.

The team did set up cap-friendly deals with former practice squad players QB Brett Basanez and FB Steven Jackson, when brought up to the active roster, giving them unlikely-to-be-earned incentives that hadn't been earned; for the cost of a few games' prorated salary in place of injured veterans, the pair will have given the Panthers a $3.2 million credit toward the 2007 season in a loophole that may very well be closed this offseason.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Passing Game Coordinator?

Whether a mere tip of the hat, a measure of respect, or a true meaning of added responsibility, the team has added the title of Passing Game Coordinator to Mike McCoy, quarterbacks coach. What this means, at this point, is hard to say. The title is an archaic one, often used at the college level and a title that generally left the NFL in the 1980s, resurfacing a bit with Bill Parcells last year.

It could be a way of showing appreciation for "forced loyalty", so to speak - as with Cleveland giving Jeff Davidson the Assistant Head Coach title after turning the Jets down for permission to interview the young line coach. McCoy was unreportedly, but supposedly, sought for interviews with other teams, and after Carolina turned McCoy down for permission, then turned him down for the coordinator job here. Giving the extra title may be a way of showing appreciation and respect for a coach who may take the lack of hiring as a negative.

It could be actual responsibility, but how much won't be known. Davidson has said numerous times, and had in Cleveland when he took over mid-season, that he enjoys input from all his coaches. Certainly, that was going to happen regardless of what McCoy's title was. Undoubtedly, regardless of what any title is, Jim Skipper and Richard Williamson will have a lot of say in what happens with the run and pass, respectively, as both are extremely valued and have coordinator experience. Certainly, Geep Chryst's background as a coordinator will mean he'll have input as well. Maybe the title given to McCoy was to simply keep him from being lost in the pile amongst a strong offensive staff.

In the end, I hope, and expect, Davidson to have autonomy over his staff and the plays called, and that McCoy will report to him, and not directly to Fox. As long as that happens, McCoy can be called whatever John Fox wants. And in the meantime, hopefully we'll see a bit of this promise that the media continues to lobby to see.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Geep Chryst the new TEs coach

After waiting for around two weeks, in what seemed destined to be a waiting game for Pete Metzelaars, the Panthers chose another position coach from within: Geep Chryst, former Cardinals and Chargers offensive coordinator, is the new tight ends coach, replacing Dave Magazu, now the offensive line coach.

Chryst was hired last year, likely as an insurance policy in the event staff changes had to be made. A versatile and knowledgeable assistant, Chryst has varied experience and was considered to be able to handle any of a wide array of roles for the offense, but had not been working in the NFL for 2004-2005.

This led credence to the idea that Mike McCoy was actually doing the duties he'd been promoted to, when he became quarterbacks coach in 2004. At the time, it had been noted that Dan Henning had specifically asked not to have a QBs coach in 2002, and never had one in other offenses he'd run. Henning, himself a quarterbacks coach in title in Carolina in 2002-03 along with his ongoing coordinator job, and QBs coach for Bill Parcells/Charlie Weis in New York, Joe Gibbs in Washington (after the first failed head coach try in Atlanta), was rumored to feel that QBs coaches often had too much input into the offense and didn't want that level of statement in an assistant.

With McCoy being pushed by John Fox to do more in depth with the offense, Chryst was to do more of the offensive assistant duties that McCoy had done, including breaking down of game tape for tendencies and scouting. It was speculated that Chryst, a former QBs coach in between offensive coordinator engagements, would be able to succeed McCoy if promoted, and in the meantime, impart wisdom on the young coach.

Getting a Foot In The Door

It appears becoming a Panthers' third-tier assistant (assistant position coach, quality control, etc) is the perfect way to find a job. From 2002's initial staff to 2006, only Magazu and Mike Maser were hired from outside the staff, unless you count the addition of coaches like Danny Crossman, Geep Chryst, and Ken Flajole as third-tier assistants; in that time, Crossman, Flajole, Magazu, Chryst, McCoy, Sal Sunseri, and most notably Mike Trgovac have filled almost all of the vacancies. As well, Alvin Reynolds, Paul Ferraro, and Darrin Simmons have used third-tier assistant positions to become position coaches for other teams.

In that same time period, Magazu and Maser are joined by only Jeff Davidson and Tim Lewis as outside hires in that five year span. While most coaching positions are related in one way or another by connections to existing staff and the head coach (the only legitimate reason the Rooney Rule has any real standing), it seems the staff handling interior hires has done a good job spotting coaching talent waiting for a break, and then relied on that break to fill vacancies.

Speculation on what to expect from the new offense

Expect the offensive playbook to be very similar to Charlie Weis'. While in Cleveland, Davidson wasn't able to run "his offense", very derivative of the Patriots' system and expected to be using the same playbook. In the NFL and to a point in college, offensive systems are so open to being used in various ways and written coherently enough that coaches will take the systems they liked working with, and do minor chances at most. Even the West Coast Offense, a widely used system throughout the NFL, is largely intact from the 49ers days in the late 80s and early 90s as Bill Walsh finished the system and Mike Holmgren slowly updated it. Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, and a host of others still use literally the exact same playbook.

And it's expected the same of Davidson. That was likely a selling point (besides the unstated, but expected, recommendation of Davidson mentor Charlie Weis himself, a close friend of John Fox'), given the grumbling of star WR Keyshawn Johnson, and to a lesser point Steve Smith. Smith is due an extension, and Johnson has considered retiring. With both, the point is somewhat clear - they both want to spend the greater portion of the offseason in Los Angeles with family and friends, in their homes, rather than in Charlotte for a few weeks learning a new offense. Johnson, specifically, had gone through a number of offensive changes (learning new head coaches, offensive coordinators, playbooks/systems, and quarterbacks) in his career, and hasn't made a decision to stay.

With Johnson having played under the Weis system before, it's expected the offense will be nearly identical in structure, verbiage, and so on, just with a different coach and different tendencies/playcalling. That would minimize the learning needed for Johnson specifically, and would cascade into quick learning for Smith. It's entirely possible that the pair might be expected to meet with Davidson in LA for a few days over the offseason and expected to be in with the rookies during training camp (rookies are expected to report early).

With the playbook the same, it might not be right to expect the same wide-open philosophy with the team as with Weis. 3 WR sets will be out there, but 2 TE sets will be just as prevalent. FB Brad Hoover may be seeing less time in the offense.

Hopefully, the over-cautious nature of the offense will go a bit. The changeup from being a "draw on 3rd down" to "let's throw deep twice in a row" team really hurt Carolina at times, and while field position is fine, getting first downs should be the concern. A better, more powerful running game as well as a little more varied passing attack may keep the team from intentionally stalling drives by decision-making.

The TE should be involved. With Davidson running the offense, Cleveland's Kellen Winslow II had 89 receptions. It'd be nice to see the team settle on one TE, as well.

With Jake Delhomme a proponent of the armband playbook messaging system, I'd expect the team keeps that facet of the Henning system.

Still no TEs coach

With the promotion of Dave Magazu to offensive line coach (a move rumored to mean the approach, and possibly the talent evaluation was to blame, moreso than the teaching or preparation), the Panthers still have yet to hire a tight ends coach. With various staffs being nearly complete, and coaching-search haven Senior Bowl over, it appears that rumors of the Panthers waiting for Colts offensive assistant Pete Metzelaars may be true.

Metzelaars can't interview until his season is over, which happens win or lose this weekend with the Super Bowl. As offensive quality control and assistant offensive line coach, which includes assisting the TEs and linemen in practice, breaking down tape of the offense, and helping scout the opponents' defensive front for personnel and tendency. Metzelaars has enough experience to become a full-fledged position coach, and has the obvious background in the NFL as a tight end to draw from as well.

New offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson has the same background, working with the line and tight ends after coming from an NFL players' background and having to volunteer to get into the coaching ranks, so it may be a very good fit if this is what happens. In the NFL, most position coaches aren't allowed to interview without permission (unless they're not under contract), but third-tier assistants (assistant position coaches, assistants to the head coach, offensive/defensive quality control, etc) are often granted that access for any open position that promotes them into a true position coach.