CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A few NFL players who became salary-cap casualties in the past week play positions that are a big need for the Carolina Panthers.
But do the Panthers need them?
Let’s take a look at five of them, and what Carolina’s interest might be:
WR Victor Cruz (Giants) — Because Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman came to Carolina in 2013 from New York, there is a natural assumption that he’ll be interested in former Giants players who become available. Cruz could make sense. No offense to Ted Ginn Jr. (31), but the Panthers lacked veteran leadership at wide receiver after Jerricho Cotchery wasn’t re-signed following the 2015 season. Cotchery was valuable in the slot, a position the 30-year-old Cruz plays. Nobody really stepped up in that role last season. While Carolina should look for a speedy slot receiver in the draft, adding a veteran to mentor that player might be helpful. Cruz made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and had more than 1,000 receiving yards in 2011 (1,536 yards) and 2012 (1,092) and fell just shy of that in 2013 (998). His production dropped to 586 yards this past season, but that would have ranked third among Carolina wide receivers. He’s worth a look, and he wouldn’t come at a big price.
LT Branden Albert (Dolphins) — There’s no doubt that left tackle, and tackle in general, is a priority for Carolina since the future of Michael Oher (concussion) is still in question and Mike Remmers an unrestricted free agent. But the Panthers don’t need a 32-year-old like Albert. Granted, he made the Pro Bowl for the second time in 2015. But Pro Football Focus ranked Albert 65th among tackles this past season, with an overall grade of 42.2 and 47.7 in pass blocking. That doesn’t sound like an upgrade for protecting quarterback Cam Newton. Remmers, who moved from the right to the left side since Oher was out the final 13 games, ranked 51st among tackles with a grade of 66.1, 50.0 on pass blocking. The Panthers would be better served to reinvest in Remmers and go after free agent Matt Kalil (Minnesota) than take a chance on a player past his prime.
CB Justin Gilbert (Steelers) — The eighth overall pick of the 2014 draft by Cleveland, Gilbert has had a disappointing pro career. The Browns gave up on him after two seasons and traded him to Pittsburgh for a 2018 sixth-round pick. The Steelers gave up on him after one season in which he played in 12 games with no starts, and he graded out at 55.0 by PFF. That’s not in the top 112, in case you’re wondering. Carolina rookie cornerback James Bradberry (second-round) ranked 20th with a grade of 82.6. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be worth kicking the tires on Gilbert. Carolina hopes to be set with Bradberry and Daryl Worley (2016 third-round pick) as the starters, but depth remains an issue. If Gilbert gets through the initial round of talks with prospective teams, I could see him getting a workout. It’s more than likely, though, that Carolina will target a player such as free agent Captain Munnerlyn, who was with the Panthers from 2009-13.
DE Mario Williams (Dolphins) — Williams was one of the top ends in the NFL from 2012 to 2014, with a combined 38 sacks for Buffalo. But in his past two seasons he’s had a combined 6.5 sacks — five with the Bills in 2015 and 1.5 for Miami this past season. At 32, he appears to have run out of gas. Perhaps the Panthers will take a look at him because Williams is from North Carolina and played at NC State. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, he might be willing to play at a home-state bargain. The Panthers are also in a state of flux at end — Charles Johnson (30), Mario Addison (29) and Wes Horton are free agents. But Williams would be no better than a reserve depth player at best, so a look is probably all he would get.
RB Rashad Jennings (Giants) — Yep, another former Giants player. But the last thing Gettleman needs is a 32-year-old back to go with soon-to-be 30-year-old Jonathan Stewart as the Panthers look to take pressure off Newton with a better running game. Look for the Panthers to rebuild at RB through the draft, which is loaded with running backs this season. They could begin by taking one with the eighth overall pick. Jennings makes no sense here.