Marty Hurney unplugged: Carolina Panthers GM on NFL free agency

Marty Hurney unplugged: Carolina Panthers GM on NFL free agency
Carolina Panthers general Marty Hurney says Dontari Poe (92, chasing Cam Newton) is an “excellent fit” for the team at defensive tackle. (Credit: David T. Foster III I The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - The Carolina Panthers have been in the middle of a number of big deals already in the past month. Let's take a look at some of the key ones – other than the Bashaud Breeland "deal/no deal" that I discuss in a separate column. In each case, I will give you a comment from Panthers general Marty Hurney about the transaction and then my own analysis about the move.

On losing Andrew Norwell

The former Panthers guard had the best year of his career at exactly the right time in 2017. Ranked the No. 4 free agent at any position by ESPN, Norwell signed a massive, five-year, $66.5-million deal with Jacksonville to become the highest-paid offensive guard in the league.

Hurney: "Nobody wanted to lose Andrew Norwell. He's a terrific player. ... But it was just not possible to keep him. I think it would have been very hard to pay what he was going to get in free agency, to pay him when we already have Trai Turner, who was paid (another large contract) at guard. I think that's one thing we're trying to do a good job at is not only different skill sets at each position group, but also that we distribute our salary cap dollars among the position groups."

Once an undrafted free agent with the Panthers, Andrew Norwell became the NFL's highest-paid offensive guard earlier this month when he signed a massive contract with Jacksonville. Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer 

My analysis: The Panthers were only going to pay big money to one guard, and they made their decision last July when Hurney became interim GM (replacing the fired Dave Gettleman) and immediately signed Turner to a contract that was slightly cheaper than the one Norwell got.

[READ MORE: Is Marty Hurney 2.0 different? Bashaud Breeland is a case study]

On losing Star Lotulelei

The Panthers' first-round draft pick in 2013, Lotulelei was a steady, run-stuffing presence as a defensive tackle for Carolina for the past five seasons. Ranked the No. 9 free agent at any position by ESPN, Lotulelei ended up going to Buffalo for five years and $50 million.

Hurney: "Obviously anytime you lose a player like Star – you hate to lose any of those guys. But when he got the deal with Buffalo, we decided we were going to go in another direction."

My analysis: Lotulelei only missed three games in five years and freed up Luke Kuechly to make a lot of tackles. With that said, he has never been the disruptive pass-rushing force that Kawann Short is. I think the Panthers would have taken Lotulelei back, but not at the price Buffalo was paying.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney has made a number of free-agency moves, including a trade for Torrey Smith in which he shipped starting cornerback Daryl Worley to Philadelphia. Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer

On signing Dontari Poe

Once Lotulelei left, the Panthers quickly signed Dontari Poe – a defensive tackle who has played for Kansas City and Atlanta and will play much the same role that Lotulelei did for Carolina. Poe signed a reported three-year, $28-million deal.

Hurney: "We were very excited to get Dontari. We feel like he is an excellent fit for our defensive line."

My analysis: Hurney wouldn't say it, but I will – Poe has a chance to be better and certainly more disruptive in the pass rush than Lotulelei was. This could work out really well, assuming Poe stays healthy.

On trading Daryl Worley for Torrey Smith

Hurney sent cornerback Daryl Worley, who had started 25 games over his first two NFL seasons with mixed results, to Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in return for Smith. The Panthers are now obligated to cover Smith's previous contract, which will pay him $5 million a season in 2018 and 2019.

Hurney: "Obviously we were looking for veteran help at wide receiver. Torrey stretches the field and is a great locker-room guy. He will fit in great and be a leader in the wide receiver room. He's got Super Bowl rings and he's that vertical presence we've been looking for. He comes in and helps us right away."

The Panthers traded cornerback Daryl Worley (26) to Philadelphia to get wide receiver Torrey Smith. Worley started 25 games in his two seasons for the Panthers but had an uneven career. Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer 

My analysis: Hurney would say hardly anything about Worley, but it was obvious as often as the coaches benched or rotated Worley last season that the team believed it needed an upgrade at the position. Worley just wasn't around the ball enough.

Smith's contract seems high for a guy with modest numbers last season (36 catches, 430 yards) – although a whole lot of wideouts have gotten rich in this free-agency period and Smith was productive in the playoffs. I think the Panthers considered Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee and Paul Richardson, but ultimately decided each player would be overpriced.

On re-signing Graham Gano

Gano, the placekicker who had a Pro Bowl season in 2017, signed a four-year, $17 million extension with Carolina earlier this month.

Hurney: "I can't remember a kicker having as impressive a season as Graham had last year. ... That was pretty much a no-brainer."

My analysis: If Carolina wanted a cheaper alternative, it would have kept Harrison Butker. Since that ship sailed long ago, I would have re-signed Gano, too.

On signing Jarius Wright

This is the veteran slot receiver the Panthers believe they need, given that Curtis Samuel had such an injury-plagued rookie year. Once nicknamed "Mr. Third Down" by former Minnesota teammate Stefon Diggs, Wright also has the advantage of playing in a Norv Turner offense in Minnesota.

Hurney: "Jarius has a knack at getting open. He has very good hands. He can play the slot and knows Norv Turner's offense. He should provide a very steadying influence for us."

My analysis: The Panthers want Wright to become a slightly faster version of Jerricho Cotchery -- which the Panthers believe he can be. If he is, then the money is well-spent. If not, it isn't.