Panthers' needs few as free agency opens

The HeraldFebruary 26, 2009 

CHARLOTTE -- It's not that they don't have the money.

The Carolina Panthers don't have the need.

While they look for improvement every year, the Panthers' wish list entering free agency is short, which works out well. There are teams with $40 million-plus to spend in the market which opens at 12:01 a.m. Friday, the Panthers aren't one of them, and that's not the worst thing in the world.

When you look at the roster, you can see their needs are few.

It's not boasting, but when general manager Marty Hurney talked about their plans, he spent most of his time talking about guys already here.

"We're in a situation we have a good young core that's headed into or is heading into their second contracts," Hurney said. "It's a good situation to be in. We have good young players, and the focus is to keep those good young players as far as extending players now and putting ourselves into position to extend them in the future, and drafting well. That's what we've always liked to do.

"It's put us in a very good position."

It also gives the benefit of not scrambling for starters.

If franchised defensive end Julius Peppers and potential cut Ken Lucas are still on the roster this year, they'd have all 22 starters back from last season's 12-4 division champion, along with a number of key backups.

Some of the depth is going to change. It began with Wednesday's cuts of Nick Goings, Jeremy Bridges and D.J. Hackett. But that's a strong position from which to enter the offseason.

The problems aren't with the offense, which got better as the year went in 2008.

Even on defense, the linebackers seem solid, with all three starters returning, along with backups Landon Johnson and Dan Connor. The safeties look good in terms of starters and depth, perhaps the first time in a decade they've been able to say that.

What's clear is that they must fix the defensive line, whether or not they keep Peppers. They need another starting-caliber tackle, or two, and someone who's more game-ready to rush the passer than a project such as Hilee Taylor.

If you look at the line without Peppers, you see a solid starter in Charles Johnson, who appears ready to emerge and a guy who's better off backing up in Tyler Brayton.

So could they use a top free agent end, like Chris Canty or Antonio Smith? Of course, but those two will go quickly, and for more money than the Panthers have to spend unless they take Peppers off the books sooner rather than later.

There could be value in free agency in the middle, where a good crop of serviceable to above-average tackles exist.

But beyond fixing the line, it's hard to see many other glaring needs.

If they part ways with Ken Lucas -- and Hurney hedged mightily when asked -- they'll need another cornerback.

They have one side taken care of long-term thanks to their big extension for Chris Gamble, and are ready to promote Richard Marshall to the starting lineup. They like the potential of C.J. Wilson, but have no other realistic replacements.

Fortunately, the supply would groove nicely with any demand they might have.

The market was flooded with good starters at the position, through cuts over the last two weeks. Leigh Bodden, Chris McAlister, Patrick Surtain and Dre Bly are available, with more names filling the list before a decent crop of free agents can even be discussed.

Some will still get solid contracts, but this is another area where the market benefits the Panthers.

Most expect the usual land-rush Friday morning, with a number of players figuring to find big money quickly. But the Panthers weren't looking to spend $100 million on an Albert Haynesworth anyway, so that shouldn't affect them.

A more realistic possibility is they'll sit out early, and then pick through the leftovers.

Agents league-wide are already bemoaning what they see as a coming storm for their non-star clients.

"There will be no more middle class," said one agent who deals regularly with the Panthers. "The stars are going to get the big money right off the bat, and then everybody's going to wait to try to sign guys for nothing."

Such dumpster-diving has helped the Panthers.

Last offseason, the biggest deal was for Johnson, the linebacker who put up seven tackles for his $3 million signing bonus. That he took a pay cut to stay is illustrative.

For two years and $4 million, they landed Brayton, an energetic, workmanlike and perfectly solid fill-in.

It's worth noting that $2 million a year might sound like a haul, but it represents 1.6 percent of the $123 million salary cap for a guy who represents 1.9 percent of the 53-man roster.

Then they picked up receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Hackett for less than $2 million a year each. They signed a half-ton of free agent guards, and since Keydrick Vincent was the only one to get a signing bonus (a modest $350,000), they were none the poorer when they had to cut the two who didn't win jobs.

Such moves are again the m.o. for a team that dabbled in big spending at times, but came to regret many of those moves (Mike Wahle, Justin Hartwig).

So if you're waiting for the Panthers to make a midnight splash this year, you might be better off turning in early.

Because from the looks of things, that's what they're planning.

Darin Gantt - daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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