Re-signing RB DeAngelo Williams (at the right price) is a priority for the Panthers. (AP Photo)
To our readers: Today, in the fourth of a five-part series on the state of the Carolina Panthers, we discuss the team’s focus heading into free agency, including the importance of re-signing their own free agents as well as their philosophy in the open market. On Friday, we’ll concentrate on the upcoming NFL draft and what they might do with the No. 1 overall pick.
CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers’ approach to free agency hasn’t changed much over the last few years and isn’t expected to vary much this offseason either.
The focus continues to be re-signing their core players, while filling in holes in free agency with mid-level moderate-priced veterans.
Sure, there’s a chance the Panthers, coming off a 2-14 season that has left them with a few glaring holes, could make a splash by signing one or two big-name players in free agency, but don’t expect them to go hog wild and accumulating high-priced talent.
Instead, the first order of business – once the owners and players union agree to a new collective bargaining agreement – is to re-sign their top free agents, the guys who they’re most familiar with.
“I think we’ve said all along we have a core we think is very important to keep,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “That’s what we’re going to do. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out who that core is.”
Although Hurney wouldn’t say which free agents he views as the top priorities to re-sign, it’s expected the focus will be on re-signing the “Big Four, a group that includes defensive end Charles Johnson, center Ryan Kalil, weak side linebacker Thomas Davis and running back DeAngelo Williams.
Quarterback Matt Moore, tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario, linebacker James Anderson and cornerback Richard Marshall are also potential free agents, but each come with questions making it hard to label them priorities.
Moore is coming off shoulder surgery and the Panthers have already said they hope to add a potential starter from outside the organization. With Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike under contract, Moore could be the odd man out.
Likewise, the Panthers are looking to upgrade at tight end with a guy who can “do it all,” as coach Ron Rivera suggested in his initial press conference, which could make King and/or Rosario obsolete.
Anderson, who had a breakout year in 2010, is a guy the team would like to have back, but it’s unlikely they’re going to overpay for a strong side linebacker since they’re generally not that difficult to find in the free agent market and the team has so many other pressing needs.
Marshall is in a different situation altogether, already telling reporters his agent Drew Rosenhaus informed him the Panthers don’t plan to re-sign him, something Hurney wouldn’t confirm.
Hurney refutes the idea that the Panthers have a deal in place with any of their potential free agents, or even that they’ve discussed contract parameters while waiting for a new CBA to be finalized.
Of the Big Four, Williams is the biggest question mark.
He might want to test the free agent market to get his last big contract as the shelf life for most running backs doesn’t go beyond 30, and he knows there will be a good market for him as several teams like Miami, Denver and New Orleans could use a quality running back.
It’s possible the Panthers might slap the franchise tag on Williams or Johnson. They have until Feb. 24 to do so.
“It’s a possibility,” Hurney said of using the franchise tag. “It is something we will have to decide. But you have to realize our coaching staff is probably going to be together for the first time this week, so we’ll start hashing through things. There are some options there. There are some ideas about how to use it if we do use it all. But I can tell you there hasn’t been a final decision yet.”
The team could also use the transition tag, although league sources said it would have to be on someone with at least six years experience. None of the Big Four have that much vested time in the league.
For those hoping the Panthers break the bank in free agency and go after a host of high-priced free agents, you need to first study this team’s history and remember that has never been Hurney’s preference.
That said, he’s always been one to keep his options open.
“I think our philosophy is to build through the draft and complement through free agency,” Hurney said. “I think you keep with that philosophy. But with that said you never stay hard and fast with anything. If there is a right fit that comes up and someone you think will help your football team then I think you do it.”
There’s one other burning contractual situation on Carolina’s plate this offseason and it’s a big one.
Although three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason is under contract through the 2011 season, he’s clearly outplayed his contract and is woefully underpaid by league standards.
Expect the Panthers to lock Beason up with a long-term deal worth more than the going rate of $5 million per season.
“Jon is under contract through 2011, but part of our philosophy is to keep our core players,” Hurney said. “And he is obviously one of them so I think that is something you address down the road.”
Hurney said the team’s three biggest needs this offseason are quarterback, defensive tackle and cornerback, especially if Marshall doesn’t return. Finding a tight end will also be a priority.
Some of those needs will be addressed in the NFL draft, which we’ll discuss tomorrow in Part 5.