CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers weren't necessarily surprised by Friday's announcement that safety Mike Minter's considering retirement before the start of what was going to be his final season.
But they'll definitely be short-handed on experienced players if he does choose to call it quits, the result of years of skimping at the position.
They insist there's no intention to under-fund, yet the Panthers have never spent high picks or high dollars on the last line of defense.
"I don't measure guys' abilities on the money," Panthers coach John Fox said Saturday when asked about the trend. "The reality is, we were seventh in the league in defense with the safeties we had (in 2006), and I'm hoping we've improved ourselves at safety. But time will tell."
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The current shortage of experienced players is no accident -- they've simply never committed draft picks or salary cap dollars to the back of the defense, despite their recent best intentions.
In franchise history, they've only used two first-day draft picks on safeties, Minter in 1997 and 2000 second-rounder Deon Grant. A more generous count would include Rashard Anderson (the 2000 first-rounder who was a cornerback when he was here) and Thomas Davis (the top 2005 pick, who spent a miscast year there before being moved to linebacker).
Instead, they've made do with low-round draft picks (seventh-rounder Chad Cota and fourths Colin Branch and Nate Salley) or cheap free agents of varying degree of utility (from Brett Maxie early to Brent Alexander, then Eugene Robinson through Marlon McCree and Shaun Williams).
Their strategy hasn't been that different from much of the league, though the increasing use of tight ends in the passing game over the years has led teams to seek out premier athletes at safety, guys such as Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu who go early in the first round.
That Minter has been a fixture the last 10 seasons makes the patchwork at the other spot less dramatic, but if he's gone soon, you'll see the results.
They still think Salley's going to be a contributor, who'll likely pair with recent trade acquisition Chris Harris if Minter's knee problems are too much to allow him to continue.
But the acquisition of Harris shines light on their apparent goals at that spot -- to get them young and cheap. They had to give up next year's fifth-round pick for Harris, but he's locked in for two more seasons at minimum base salaries for players of his experience, $435,000 and $460,000. To have landed a guy who's started 20 games over two seasons makes him a relative bargain.
Immediately after the draft, the Panthers began making calls to teams with depth at the position, exploring trades.
A call was made to Chicago, planting the seed for last Thursday's deal. But they didn't limit themselves, calling Seattle and Tennessee among others, looking for the best fit among teams who had either signed free-agent safeties or used high picks there.
And though he's been with the team for just three days, Harris might already be the best bet the Panthers have for future stability.
General manager Marty Hurney likewise denied that there was a reason they've never spent there. And, fact is, they wanted badly to draft one this year, knowing this was going to be Minter's final season, regardless.
Hurney said the team's encouraged by the development of seventh-round pick C.J. Wilson, and likes what they've seen from undrafted rookie Quinton Teal as well.
The plan was to find someone much earlier. However, the Panthers got caught on the wrong side of runs at the position in the first, second and fifth rounds of this year's draft, as has happened to them in the past.
They were eye-balling Texas' Michael Griffin and Miami's Brandon Meriweather for this year's first-round pick (not so much Florida's Reggie Nelson), but all of them were off the board when they picked 25th, so they went with holdout linebacker Jon Beason.
"It would have been an interesting conversation if those other guys would have been available," defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said last week. "That's not to say we still wouldn't have taken Beason. But believe me, we spent long nights beating our heads together as a staff talking about that (the safety position).
"It ended up being for naught because they were all gone."
Harris might be the guy who saves them, an instinctive, aggressive and talkative safety who could quickly become a leader back there once he learns everyone's names. Though no one questions Minter's leadership, the secondary has been a place that lacked a bit of fire, save the short burst of McCree that led to his free-agent payday in San Diego and departure after just one year.
But someday soon -- and maybe sooner than anyone realizes -- Minter's going to be gone, and the Panthers are going to be left with what they've always had there.
"I wouldn't say it's any philosophy that brings those results," Hurney said. "We went into this year's draft thinking we might use a high pick on a safety. But the closer we got, you could tell the opportunity might not present itself.
"It just hasn't worked out. We haven't said we're not going to spend money on that position, it just hasn't worked out that way."
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