James Anderson will be an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers will look to re-sign him and add depth at linebacker. (AP Photo)
CHARLOTTE – If all goes as expected NFL owners will approve a new collective bargaining agreement with the players on Thursday in Atlanta, paving the way (finally) for the official start of the new league year.
As previously reported, teams will have about 72 hours to negotiate with their own free agents before the official start of free agency.
After that, all hell breaks loose.
This year’s free agency signing period is expected to be fast, furious and fun with millions of dollars thrown around as NFL teams look to upgrade and finalize their rosters before heading to training camp later this month.
So what can we expect from the Carolina Panthers?
Although the Panthers have not been big players in free agency for quite some time, look for this year to represent a change from the norm because, first, they potentially have more holes to fill (depending on which of their free agents they’re able to re-sign), and second, they have a new coaching regime that’ll almost certainly want to bring in some of its own players.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all of Carolina’s free-agent pickups are going to be big-name players that’ll knock your socks off. But there might be one or two that will catch even the avid football fan’s eye.
But most of their free agent additions will likely be mid-level guys, many of whom could be signed in the “second wave” of free agency when the market tends to cool off and asking prices begin to drop as players get nervous about not having a team to play for this year.
It won’t take long to reach that second wave with training camps fast approaching.
The fear for all players is when nobody calls requesting your services. That tends to get players nervous and leads to them lowering their asking price. Carolina general manager Marty Hurney has never been a big proponent of signing high-priced free agents, preferring to develop his own draft picks instead. When he does sign free agents they’re often later in the free agency period and considered role players rather than difference makers.
That said, let’s take a look at Carolina’s biggest needs in free agency and who they might look for as potential upgrades.
1. Defensive line. The Panthers spent a pair of third-round picks on defensive tackles in Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, but still could use a veteran starter to bridge the gap. Minnesota’s Pat Williams and San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin would bring name recognition, but the Panthers might be more apt to go after Matt Toeaina or Anthony Adams, both of whom played under current Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington last year in Chicago. Carolina could add a backup veteran defensive end if they dump Tyler Brayton and his $3.5 million salary, but clearly they have faith in young pass rushers Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Everette Brown so finding a starter isn’t a necessity. Defensive end becomes a priority if the Panthers aren’t able to re-sign Johnson, which would be a devastating loss. Ranked by CBS Sports as the second-best free agent in this class, Johnson should break the bank with a huge contract.
2. Cornerback. Carolina’s future at cornerback is cloudy at best as Richard Marshall is a potential free agent whom few think will return (including Marshall himself), while fellow starter Chris Gamble is set to make $6.75 million this season, which could make him a potential salary cap casualty. My guess is Gamble returns, but the Panthers will still need to fill the other spot as sources tell me the team would prefer to keep the undersized Captain Munnerlyn as the nickel back. The prize free agent this year is Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomugha, who’s expected to command top dollar on the market. It would be completely out of character for the Panthers to go after a guy like Asomugha, although Ron Rivera would surely love to have him. Who wouldn’t? Then again, who figured they’d go after tight end Jeremy Shockey? Atlanta’s Brent Grimes, Washington’s Carlos Rogers and Cincinnati’s Johnathan Joseph all figure to command big salaries and don’t rule out the Panthers getting involved, especially given the emphasis Rivera places on cornerbacks. If Carolina looks for a lesser known cornerback some options include Buffalo’s Drayton Florence, Miami’s Al Harris and Cleveland’s Eric Wright. Also in the secondary, don’t rule out the Panthers making a play for Chargers safety Eric Weddle, with whom Rivera worked closely with in San Diego and reportedly likes very much.
3. Backup quarterback. If the Panthers re-sign Matt Moore, they’re likely to forego signing a veteran quarterback. However, if Moore signs elsewhere look for the Panthers to find a guy who can potentially bridge the gap if Cam Newton is not ready to play right away. Make no mistake about it, the Panthers will not go after a veteran quarterback who expects to be a long-term starter, which would seemingly rules out soon-to-be released Donovan McNabb, Tennessee’s Vince Young and Seattle Matt Hasselbeck. San Diego’s Billy Volek would seem to make all of the sense in the world given that he’s played under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski the last three seasons and knows the system and has been content as a backup, but sources said the Panthers aren’t interested. That leaves Marc Bulger as a possible option along with, hold your breath here, Jake Delhomme. He’s likely to be released by Cleveland. There’s not much more out there, which may prompt the team to simply re-sign Moore.
4. Linebacker depth. Look for the Panthers to re-sign weak side linebacker Thomas Davis and make a run at bringing back strong side linebacker James Anderson, providing they agree to modest contracts. Davis is coming off two knee injuries and strong side linebackers are a dime a dozen, so the Panthers shouldn’t overpay in either case. However, with Davis and backup middle linebacker Dan Connor coming off injuries, the Panthers will almost certainly add some veteran depth here, preferably a guy who can play both inside and outside. There are dozens of options here including N.Y Giants’ Keith Bulluck, New Orleans’ Scott Shanle, Minnesota’s Erin Henderson and Jacksonville’s Kirk Morrison, but it’s really hard to pinpoint where they’ll go. But you can almost count on the Panthers adding some mid-level depth at linebacker.
5. Wide receiver (if Steve Smith leaves). The importance of upgrading this position will largely depend on what happens with Steve Smith. If Smith stays, they may not do anything at all. If the Panthers deal Smith – and I wouldn’t expect them to take anything less than a third-round pick – they’ll need to find a free-agent replacement. It’s hard to throw a guy like Newton out there with a couple of youngsters like David Gettis and Brandon LaFell. Sidney Rice and Santonio Holmes will likely be out of Carolina’s price range, Cincinnati’s Terrell Owens (injured) and Tennessee’s Randy Moss are too old and San Diego’s Vincent Jackson (two DUIs) and Plaxico Burress (just coming out of jail) come with too much baggage. An intriguing option would be San Diego’s Malcolm Floyd. He’s fairly young and talented and has played in this system last year. Green Bay’s James Jones is worth a look, too. Some other receivers in Carolina’s price range may include Minnesota’s Greg Lewis, Houston’s Jacoby Jones and Seattle’s Ben Obomanu. Of course, it all depends on what Smith wants. Here’s what Rivera last said about Smith’s future: “We’re planning, when this all breaks, to sit down and visit and come to a decision. One thing I did tell Steve is we’ll make a decision we feel is best for the team, and at the same time keeping in serious consideration what’s best for him as well. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. It might be in his mind (to leave), it might not. I do know we had a great conversation. He was honest and forthright. He did kind of leave me at a point where I was wondering exactly where did he want to go with this. But I’ll wait until we can sit down and talk when the time comes.”
6. Other potential areas of concern. If Carolina can’t re-sign DeAngelo Williams, adding a running back becomes an option, even though they have three good ones in Jonathan Stewart, Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton… The Panthers need to fill a hole at right guard, but likely will look within and go with Geoff Schwartz, Duke Robinson or Mackenzy Bernadeau... If Carolina’s can’t re-sign Dante Rosario, they will need to add help for Jeremy Shockey at tight end, but look for Rosario to seize on a golden opportunity to play in an offense that features the tight end and re-sign… Adding a return man is always a possibility, although the Panthers feel like they have some guys on the roster who can handle that duty.