Dave Gettleman was hired as the Panthers’ general manager in January of 2013, coming over from his previous job as Senior Pro Personnel Analyst with the New York Giants, where he had worked in the front office since 1999. He deserves a lot of credit for the Panthers’ breakout season and thus this award. An examination of the Panthers’ salary cap shows us why. The Panthers have 7 players with cap numbers of higher than 5 million this season, which puts them among the tops in the NFL, none of whose current contract was signed while Gettleman was the general manager. Teams who are structured like that almost have to get top level performances from those highly paid players to be successful.
How did those guys fare for Carolina this year? Well, Jon Beason was traded to New York early in the season after getting benched, leaving about 5.3 million in dead money on Carolina’s cap with him. DeAngelo Williams carried the ball 201 times and averaged about 4.2 yards per carry, hardly worth his top-10 positional cap number. Steve Smith caught 64 passes for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns, for the 4th worst season of his career, behind his rookie year, the Jimmy Clausen year, and the year he missed 15 games with injury. Among wide receivers, he was 14th in cap number and 39th in receiving yards. Also 10 tight ends had more receiving yards than him.
Ryan Kalil had a solid season, but didn’t live up to the then record contract for a center he signed a few years back. His cap number was 3rd at his position, but he ranked just 10th among centers on Pro Football Focus. Charles Johnson also had a solid season, coming in 19th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but that hardly makes him worth the 5th highest cap number among 4-3 defensive ends and 8th among defensive ends regardless of scheme.
Only two of those seven had years that were worth their cap number. Thomas Davis is one. His cap number was 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers, but that’s also exactly where he graded out at his position on Pro Football Focus. Thomas Davis wasn’t signed by Gettleman. He was inherited. However, Gettleman is undoubtedly a big part of the reason why he’s still here. Davis has torn his ACL three times in his career. Not many general managers would have kept a guy like that on the roster at his current cap number when cutting him would have saved over 2 million in cap space and close to 5 million in cash. Gettleman did and the Panthers were rewarded for it.
Cam Newton is the other one. He had a cap number of about 6 million, by virtue of being the #1 overall pick in 2011. It’s a solid chunk of the cap, but it was just 18th among quarterbacks. I think you’d have a hard time finding 17 quarterbacks who had a better season than Cam Newton. Newton wasn’t drafted by Gettleman, so he doesn’t deserve credit here, but it’s worth noting that he’s one of the few good things left behind by the previous regime.
There were a few other good things left behind by the previous regime. Gettleman didn’t draft either Luke Kueckly or Greg Hardy, both of whom were vital to Carolina’s success this season and greatly exceeded their cap numbers on their rookie deals. Veteran Jordan Gross had a vintage year this year and was much better than his 4.9 million dollar cap number. However, it’s still a head scratcher how Carolina was not only able to finish 12-4, win the NFC South, and get the #2 seed, despite having their high cap number guys struggle, but also how they were able to do this with about 11 million dollars left in cap space, 6th in the NFL.
There are two reasons for this and Gettleman has his hands all over both of them. They got great production out of guys signed to cheap deals and they nailed the 2013 NFL Draft, Gettleman’s first with the team. The biggest example of cheap salaried guys making a huge impact is in the secondary. The secondary was in dire need of help coming off of last season and desperately needed an overhaul. However, the Panthers didn’t commit a single draft pick to it.
It was a risky move, but it paid off. The Panthers finished 11th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed and 2nd in the NFL in points allowed. Captain Munnerlyn, Michael Mitchell, Melvin White, Quintin Mikell, and Drayton Florence were the top-5 guys in terms of snaps played on that secondary. Not exactly big name guys, but they definitely got the job done. They combined to play 3897 snaps and only Melvin White graded out below average on Pro Football Focus and he did so just barely. Their combined salary cap number: About 3.6 million. That’s bargain shopping.
Who are these guys and where did Gettleman find them? Mitchell was a 2nd round pick in 2009 by the Raiders and washed out of Oakland, signing with Carolina for 1 million dollars this past off-season. Quintin Mikell is a veteran in his age 33 season, his 11th in the NFL, and was completely overlooked by the league because of that, signing with Carolina for the veteran’s minimum right before the season started. Drayton Florence was in a similar situation, also in his age 33 season and his 11th in the NFL, but he was actually cut from his one year deal by the Panthers in final cuts, before re-signing with them for the veterans minimum in mid-September. Melvin White, meanwhile, signed with the Panthers as an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette after the draft.
The only one of those five who was on the Panthers’ roster before the season was Captain Munnerlyn, a 6th round pick of the Panthers in 2008 and someone who did play a lot of snaps for the Panthers in past seasons. Gettleman didn’t draft Munnerlyn, but he did bring him back on a one year, 1.1 million dollar deal this off-season, after he failed to get more than that on the open market. Munnerlyn was the highest paid of their secondary quintet, but he was also the best of the bunch. The diminutive 5-8 cornerback excelled in all 3 facets of the game, run defense, pass coverage, and blitzing, doing his best Antoine Winfield impression and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked cornerback.
The secondary wasn’t the only area where Gettleman found deals. Needing help on the offensive line and wide receiver, Gettleman turned to Travelle Wharton and Ted Ginn, who each had cap numbers of 1.1 million this past year. Turning to Wharton and Ginn wasn’t exactly in vogue this off-season, which is why they were able to come so cheap. Wharton is a former Carolina offensive lineman who gave them some good years from 2004-2012, but got released as a cap casualty after the 2011 season. Wharton then went to Cincinnati, but didn’t play a regular season snap for the team, missing the entirety of the season with a knee injury. The Panthers took a chance on the 10-year veteran going into his age 32 season, coming off of a lost season with injury, and having been cut twice since his last regular season snap, and the rewards were great. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard.
Ted Ginn wasn’t quite as good. The bust of a 2007 1st round pick bounced around from Miami to San Francisco to Carolina this last off-season, but he definitely had a positive impact and I don’t just mean catching the winning touchdown in the Panthers’ victory over New Orleans, which essentially won them the NFC South. Ginn was 4th on the team in receiving, catching 36 passes for 556 yards and 5 touchdowns. That doesn’t sound like much, but he graded out above average as a receiver in Pro Football Focus and played a valuable role as the 3rd receiver. He also provided value on special teams, averaging 12.2 yards per punt return on 26 returns and 23.8 yards per kickoff return on 25 returns.
And that was just in free agency. Gettleman’s first year on the job also featured a very strong draft. He didn’t have a lot of resources to work with, as the Panthers had just 5 picks in this draft, as a result of past trades. Their final 3 draft picks (Edmund Kugbila, AJ Klein, and Kenjon Barner) didn’t do much of note this season, but given the way Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short, their first and second round picks respectively, played, they didn’t have to. Both emerged as starters at what was a long-time need position of defensive tackle and they didn’t just start. They both played extremely well and should get Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration, grading out 16th and 14th respectively among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus.
Now, Gettleman doesn’t deserve all the credit for the production of the cheap signings and rookies. The players themselves obviously deserve some credit, as does head coach Ron Rivera, but Gettleman deserves most of the credit. Gettleman also deserves credit for not firing Ron Rivera, who is a Coach of the Year Candidate in his own right, after the public outcry for him to be let go and after it would have been very easy to let him go. Even I thought they should have fired him, after his continued struggles in close games to start the season (2-14 to start his career in games decided by a touchdown or less at that point) threatened to derail my prediction that they would win 12 games, the NFC South, and get the #2 seed (it didn’t thankfully). For all of the great work he did getting them to that point in a tough situation given the previous regime’s habit of giving out undeserved exorbitant contracts, Gettleman deserves Executive of the Year.