GM Marty Hurney and John Fox share a laugh earlier this year at OTAs. (AP Photo)
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – I had a chance to sit down one-on-one with Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney for about 30 minutes this week at Wofford College for a state-of-the-team address heading into the 2010 preseason.
Hurney spoke openly about several topics including the team’s offseason shakeup, the quarterback situation, his biggest concerns entering the season, whether or not the team is counting on Armanti Edwards being a factor this year, the perception by some fans that this is a throw-away year in terms of making the playoffs, and the future of coach John Fox.
Here’s what he had to say:
Q. You had an interesting offseason parting ways with a lot of veteran players. Some people might call it rebuilding; some might call it a youth movement. Can you talk about your philosophy this past off-season and the decision to go younger?
Hurney: “Every offseason is different and you have to make difficult decisions every year. This past year we probably had more than most. We feel like we have a core of very good players and we felt like they were ready to take the next step in certain situations. We just had a group of veterans we made changes with.
“We are a young team but I feel like we’ve kept our formula as far as what we do and how we want to win football games. We have a lot of young players who have a lot of experience with us. I think it’s a transition that has to take place in a certain degree every year. Some years it’s less and some years it’s more. In our case, this year it was more. But I feel like we have a core of young players that are ready to take the next step.”
Q. You’ve had a chance to watch this team practice. What strikes you about this group?
Hurney: “The first trait that I feel like we’ve improved is our overall team speed. That’s something that we feel good about it. We all feel like we have more team speed. Now with that we’ve lost experience so there’s a balance there. Just looking at positions, the quarterback position is very interesting to watch. We feel like we have four very good quarterbacks here. Matt Moore has had a terrific camp and really every time Matt has had a chance he’s done exactly what he’s doing now – he’s stepping up and filing the role. Obviously we feel like Jimmy Clausen has a lot of talent and Hunter Cantwell, Tony Pike, all of those guys have the ability to play in the league.
“When you watch young players develop it’s an exciting part of it. That’s what we do is try to identify players and bring them in. So when you do that watching them develop is very exciting. And really we have that at every position this year. At every spot there is at least one player, and at several spots maybe more, that you think has the ability to improve and you watch him develop and improve day in and day out.”
Q. You mentioned the quarterbacks. In years past you’ve always had that veteran you could fall back on – whether it be Jake Delhomme, Josh McCown or Rodney Peete – but this year you don’t. How comfortable are you going into the season with only Matt Moore having played in this league?
Hurney: “Well, as comfortable as you can ever be without having somebody who has been with you and proven it in the past. Again I think we’re comfortable with the ability of our players that are at that position. It’s just like anything, I think there’s always a give and take in that a young player sometimes brings more potential, but he lacks experience. His upside might be greater but you’re going to have to have some growing pains. Whereas if you have a veteran quarterback his upside might not be as great but his experience is there. I think every decision you make has a plus and minus with it. But I do think we have some young quarterbacks who have a lot of upside and a lot of talent.”
Q. With the quarterbacks, is this the strongest group of arms you’ve had collectively in camp?
Hurney: “Strong arms and accuracy. And accuracy is number one. And I think we do have more accuracy. I think our passing game has been crisper at times. Again, it’s early so these are just impressions so you won’t know until you get in the preseason games.”
Q. What would you say is the biggest concern heading into the season this year, the defensive line?
Hurney: “It’s funny because everything changes so quick with an injury here or there. Obviously the most change we’ve had as far as veterans leaving would be defensive line. That would be the first position that comes to mind and the second is wide receiver because we’ve made additions there and that was one of the positions we targeted to really be a priority this offseason. So those are the two.
“At defensive end we were able to get Tyler Brayton back and he’s the leader of that group. Charles Johnson is going into his fourth year and is ready to have his best season I think. Charles has worked extremely hard this offseason and is looking very good. And Everette Brown is going into his second season and should be better. We feel like we picked up a couple of good pass rushers who will help us on the line -- Eric Norwood is a linebacker who can help in pass rush situations and Greg Hardy, he’s an extremely talented player who we feel can help us.
“Inside, I think we tried to address that last year in a sense that we traded our fifth- and sixth-round draft choices for Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler and we feel like they can help us. We picked up Derek Landri off waivers from Jacksonville at the end of the year and we have Corvey Irvin. And we signed Ed Johnson in the off-season. Andre Neblett is a rookie free agent out of Temple who has had a very good camp. So we’ll see. We have guys who can compete there and that is an interesting position to watch in the preseason.”
Q. At linebacker losing Thomas Davis obviously hurts, but are you concerned about moving Jon Beason to the weak side?
Hurney: “Not at all. I don’t think there’s a concern with Jon no matter what. I think he’s at a position where he’s going to make as many plays if not more than (when he played) in the middle. And again it’s all fluid right now, but if it works out the way we have it now Dan Connor is a very capable Mike linebacker. And that’s where you go back to your draft philosophy. We didn’t have a need at linebacker when we took Dan Connor in the third round, but he was the top player on the board. Now because of this injury that move might pay off. We’ll wait and see. But Dan Connor is an excellent football comfortable and I think we feel more comfortable with him in the middle.
“And we feel like in this defense Jon Beason will have a chance to make a boatload of plays. A lot of people forget that he’s played both. He’s played in the middle and outside and I think it’s a credit for Jon to do what was in the best interest of the team. You hate to lose a player like Thomas Davis but we’re fortunate to have some options.”
Q. Do you feel this is the best secondary you’ve had in awhile?
Hurney: “It’s the fastest. We’ll see how it plays out, but our corners – Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall and Captain Munnerlyn – seem to have taken another step up at camp. And at safety we have more overall speed there than we ever had. We will miss the experience and the leadership of Chris Harris back there but this is Charles Godfrey’s third year and we feel like he’s ready to step up and this is Sherrod Martin’s second year. We added a couple of veterans in Marcus Hudson and Aaron Francisco who are bringing experience back there and Jordan Pugh, who we drafted in the sixth round, is a guy who brings speed to the position. He seems to have good reactions and instincts back there.”
Q. You gave up a second-round pick in 2011 to get Armanti Edwards. He talked about this being a rough transition so far from college to the NFL and there have certainly been some growing pains there. Do you think you can get anything out of him this year, or is going to take more time than that?
Hurney: “Oh yeah, I think we will. But we’ll see. Anytime you switch positions, especially from quarterback to wide receiver… You go back to that first practice and he’d never run that much in practice before. What you see is what we saw in college and the workouts – incredible athletic ability and deceiving speed. He’s got incredible hand-eye coordination and reaction to the football. He locates the ball very quickly and snatches it. I think he has great vision.
“We’ll see how he does as a punt returner. I think you can see every day he’s improving. I think one of the things that struck us at the workout (before the NFL draft) is whenever (receivers coach) Tyke Tolbert corrected him on something, he didn’t make the same mistake twice. I think he’s learning and is making great strides very quickly. It’s hard to project a timetable on things but yes, we do hope he can bring something and help us this year.”
Q. When you look at the No. 2 wide receiver position, clearly that was an area that held you back last year. How do you see that playing out?
Hurney: “I think at receiver overall we’ve got good competition and feel like we might have some options. Dwayne Jarrett is having a very good training camp and again, what Dwayne gives you is a big guy who can post up and use his body. And he’s done very well. Brandon LaFell, who we got in the third round, is very polished for a rookie. He’s a very smooth route runner who is making plays and is in that mix there. I think Kenny Moore has taken advantage of an opportunity where he’s getting increased reps. He’s a polished route runner and I think he’s taken a step up this year.
“And we have the young guys. We mentioned Armanti and we have David Gettis, who is a big receiver who can run and is getting better every day. Trent Guy, when he was in there, flashed and showed separation as far as a slot guy. And Wallace Wright, who I always skip over, he’s an incredible special teams player but he can play receiver in this league and will be a contributor for us at receiver this year. We’ve got options and that’s what makes the preseason fun. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Q. And right guard?
Hurney: “I think you have several options there. With Geoff Schwartz having to play right tackle for Jeff Otah he hasn’t gotten in there yet. But Mackenzy Bernadeau and Duke Robinson are both doing well and have a shot. We have to see how that plays out. And C.J. Davis has also had a good camp.”
Q. It seems you made a conscious effort to bring in guys with more special teams experience, true?
Hurney: “I really do feel like we got away from our formula in that area and I feel like that falls on me. Despite the changes we made this offseason we believe we have a formula and running the ball is part of that, playing good defense is part of that, and playing very good special teams is part of that too. And I feel like we got away from putting an emphasis personnel-wise on that and I think that falls on me. We did go out and get a Wallace Wright, a Marcus Hudson and an Aaron Francisco in free agency. And not only did we do that but in the draft we got Eric Norwood who is an excellent special teams player. And I’m sure there are some guys I haven’t mentioned. But we feel like we had to target some of those guys. We’ve got some core guys and we feel like that is essential.”
Q. There’s been a lot written about coach John Fox going into his final year of his contract. How do you see that playing out?
Hurney: “I think we have a lot of people in that same situation and I think all of us are competitive people and want to win. Everybody here is going to give their best effort here to do that. It’s hard to project how things happen. You just let that play out. The most important thing is we’re devoting our energy to winning football games.”
Q. Still, are you concerned that you guys could have a great season and Fox could choose to go somewhere else next year?
Hurney: “I don’t think you concern yourself with… you know, right now I think that all of your focus is on winning football games. And if you’re in this business long enough you learn that everything takes care of itself eventually if you just focus on what you’re supposed to do at the moment, and that’s winning football games, then it all works out.”
Q. There are a lot of fans out there who perceive this is a rebuilding year, a throw-away year if you will. Your thoughts on that?
Hurney: “I start twitching when I hear that. Losing is too hard and you can’t look at it that way. Now we’re a young team but I know our coaches will do the best job with the talent we have. And I think we have some talent. Now it’s a different makeup. Joe Gibbs used to say that every team has a different makeup. Obviously with a young team you would think it would be important to get confidence at the start of the season and go. But I do feel like we addressed some things that we needed to improve upon.
“But you’re never going to hear me say ‘rebuilding.’ I think the key to this year is to retool without rebuilding. And one of the things we’ve done here with John and I and the scouts and coaches is we haven’t bottomed out. We haven’t had the rebuilding year. I think that is important and we feel like we can be competitive. But until you get in the preseason games and see these guys play you don’t know. But I would say after the first two weeks of camp there is cautious optimism.”