CHARLOTTE -- The bad news for the Carolina Panthers remains that they won't have as much money to spend in free agency as other teams or in previous years.
The good news? They largely don't need it.
While the Panthers are looking to improve in several areas, don't expect them to make the huge splashes in free agency they have in the past. That's partly because they've allocated their monies toward their own guys, and partly because there's simply not that much out there of benefit to them.
The free agency and trading period begins on Feb. 29.
With more teams using the franchise and transition tags (12 this year) and teams focusing on retaining their own players before other teams have the opportunity, there are fewer and fewer answers in the free agent market than ever before.
"It seems like every year, teams are doing a better job of retaining their own guys," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said.
Toward that end, the Panthers have spent much of their offseason so far taking care of their own: Re-signing Travelle Wharton and Damione Lewis and franchising Jordan Gross. They've shed veterans who were no longer part of the plan, releasing Dan Morgan, Mike Wahle and DeShaun Foster.
In the past, that would have set up a time of aggressive action, such as the first-day splurges on Ken Lucas and Wahle in 2005, or Maake Kemoeatu and Justin Hartwig in 2006, which was followed by a $6 million gamble on a year of Keyshawn Johnson.
This year, the spending will probably be more strategic on the whole -- a guided missile as opposed to a carpet bombing -- though there's still a chance they make one big move.
Entering the free-agency period, the most obvious need is for a defensive end who can ease the burden on Julius Peppers. While Mike Rucker wasn't the problem last year, he wasn't able to cover up for Peppers' career-worst year, which has them thinking about an upgrade.
There are opportunities to do just that, namely Tennessee's Antwan Odom and Cincinnati's Justin Smith, a pair of solid all-around ends with plenty of good years left.
The 26-year-old Odom, who posted eight sacks last year for the Titans, in many ways is reminiscent of Rucker six years ago, just before his breakout Pro Bowl season. He's good against the run, worked as part of a rotation with the Titans to keep him fresh, and still put up good pass-rush numbers. Smith's two years older, and perhaps more expensive, but remains a top option. He's been lost amid bad defenses with the Bengals, and his two sacks last year were a career low. He has 43.5 sacks in his seven seasons.
Those two will be expensive, and there are plenty of teams with more money to spend. But when you take a cold look at the Panthers' other needs, it's clear that's the only big-ticket item.
They could use another receiver, in a market full of acceptable second and third options. They need a running back to pair with DeAngelo Williams, but are fortunate to have timed that with the deepest draft at the position in recent memory. Another tight end would help, even though they quickly fell out of the running for former Atlanta star Alge Crumpler. Fullbacks are on the way, and they've made an offer to incumbent Brad Hoover to come back.
They could also use an upgrade at free safety, and perhaps another offensive tackle if they want to move Wharton inside to guard.
It's an important offseason, promised to be an active one by the owner. And when coaches graded out last year's performance, they suggested to the personnel department there were eight starting jobs that needed upgrading.
And while some free agents will doubtless be brought in, Hurney suggested that the bulk of those upgrades -- at least the important ones -- might not come until April.
"We've always said our philosophy was to build through the draft," Hurney said. "We're always looking at ways to improve the roster, but the key is to build the nucleus through the draft, and look at the other methods, whether it was free agency or the waiver wire or trades, to help fill in."
If they can hit in the draft, that's likely the best way, because the 2008 free-agent crop is thinner than ever, offering fewer avenues to improve with a wave of a checkbook.
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