“You use free agency to set up the draft,” Panthers General Manager has repeated. It’s not sexy, but neither are the teams that usually spend big in February either. The real nookie is made in the draft because rarely do hired guns turn out to be franchise anchors. And if they do, it’s usually them just re-signing with their current team to a long-term deal. Quarterbacks, left tackles, defensive ends, and even wide receivers are simply too expensive to buy in their prime. Maybe if a team is a piece away from a Super Bowl run, they can go after a high profile free agent. Gettleman, however, has reiterated that long-term success is built in the draft, leaving free agency as mainly a means to maximizing draft value.
The Panthers aren’t one piece away, they are several. Carolina doesn’t have the cash to address key weaknesses through free agency either. The positions Carolina needs most, left tackle and wide receiver, are the most expensive outside QB. Franchise left tackles cost a fortune on the open market. Carolina couldn’t afford a true number one wideout, even if a guy like Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, hadn’t been tagged, which leaves overpaying the next tier guys like Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb.
So if a left tackle can’t be hired and an elite wideout is widely out of the question, how can Carolina use free agency to set up their draft? The key is finding good value and production at some cheaper positions, like safety and running back. These positions don’t command as much money on the free market. Carolina can shop for some quality players without paying a king’s ransom, setting up their draft to go aggressively at the higher dollar positions.
Carolina will clearly look for a tackle, maybe two, in this year’s draft. In fact, It wouldn’t be all that shocking to Carolina draft back to back offensive tackles like they did with defensive tackles in 2013. Carolina also could use help at wide receiver, running back, tight end, and even defensive end now that Greg Hardy is rumored out. There are only so many picks, and only so many of those picks will contribute early. If tackle and wideout are Carolina’s highest priority, they will need to use free agency to pad other positions so as to spend their capital on tackles and receivers.
A Value Position That Doesn’t Break the Bank
While the last decade has devalued running backs, safeties have increased exponentially in value as teams move to more 3 and 4 wideout sets. Having a versatile safety, who has strong coverage skills and who can step up into the box, has become a near invaluable commodity. Simply look at Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor’s importance in Seattle's success.
The contractual expense for safeties hasn’t kept pace with their increasing field value. As offenses focus more on throwing, defenses have focused more on the pass rush, causing left tackle and edge rushers field value to skyrocket. The positional contracts have ballooned too in the last decade. Cornerbacks have also retained high positional spending because of the heightened value of wide receivers and island visibility of the position. Safety, however, is a position that is trending in importance, but the salaries haven’t ballooned to the degree of the higher profiled positions just yet.
A Strong Need in Carolina
Given the tread wear on Roman Harper’s tires, the Panthers need a youthful upgrade at strong safety. It’s a position, however, they can’t afford to spend tons of draft capital, but may be able to find youthful value and production on the free market.
Currently, there are three viable safeties available that the Panthers could target, Devin McCourty (NE), Rhahim Moore (Den), and Da’Norris Searcy (Buf). Both McCourty and Moore are free safeties and don’t fit Carolina’s needs all that well. Tre’ Boston showed nice at free safety to close out the 2014 year, so finding a natural strong safety would be ideal.
A Strong Searcy to the Problem
Da’Norris Searcy would be a great match for Carolina. At only 26, the former UNC standout, is looking for a solid free agent deal as his rookie contract expires. Buffalo doesn’t have the money or really the space to fight all that hard for another safety right now. Searcy has indicated that he will test free agency in hopes of securing the best scenario for him and his family.
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There’s great value in potentially signing Searcy as well. He hasn’t seen the field as a starter outside of this past season, which isn’t surprising given that Jairus Byrd held the position in 2013. Although Searcy hasn’t played a ton, when he’s been on the field he’s been tremendously effective. According to ProFootballFocus, Searcy had an overall higher rating than Seattle’s Cam Chancellor. Searcy’s lack of playing time could actually be a benefit, granted Gettleman is convinced that his play isn’t a phenomenon. Searcy can only command so much money at a position that is somewhat affordable. Commenting on potentially keeping Searcy, Bills GM Doug Whaley remarked, "Searcy is going to be a little challenging because we have paid Aaron Williams, and there's some money tied up in that position, and Searcy may probably garner starting money at safety."
Safety in Free Agency
Carolina’s defense was at their best when they had hard-nosed strong safety Mike Mitchell in 2013. Mitchell proved difficult to replace, and had it not been for the cap difficulties facing Carolina in 2014, they would have liked to have brought him back. Searcy could just add that toughness and talent in the backfield that Carolina lacked last season. Harper’s value came in his mentoring ability, not necessarily in his production. His play improved toward the end, but he’s not a guy Carolina can count on for much going forward.
Adding some help without simply putting another rookie out there and hoping for the best would bring some much needed strength to a young and improving secondary. Searcy wouldn’t be Dollar Store cheap, but he doesn’t garner the name and hype to break the bank entirely. Look for his contract to be about 3.5-4.5 million per year, ranking him in the range of guys like Mitchell or Donte Whitner. With some shrewd negotiating, Gettleman could keep this figure lower, especially in the first year of the contract because of Searcy’s limited capacity as a starter. If so, Searcy could just provide some safety in free agency.
By the Professor aka Tony Dunn
Follow me on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles