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Panthers face free agent decisions, trades

Are you ready for some football?

Well, first get ready for a flurry of contract negotiations, free agent signings, trades, waiver-wire pickups and player physicals.

The NFL is back, and will waste no time getting restarted.

The league will try to cram four and a half months' worth of work into the space of a week, creating a frenzied few days of roster moves unlike the NFL has ever seen.

A day after players voted to approve a new collective bargaining agreement, ending the 132-day lockout, players can return to team facilities this morning for workouts and physicals. Beginning today, teams can also begin signing their draft picks and undrafted free agents, and start negotiations with their own free agents, as well as those from other teams.

Teams can begin making trades today. Training camp opens Wednesday for 10 teams, and clubs can start releasing players Thursday.

"Everything's going to be lumped in together," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "As far as signing undrafted players, working on your draft choices, signing your own free agents, signing free agents (from other teams) - I think that all comes at once. Everything's done together.

"There will be a lot of different irons in the fire, and I think we're organized to approach it."

The Panthers will report to their training camp in Wofford on Friday, the scheduled date for months.

Before then, Hurney and the Panthers' front office will try to sign quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in April, get the rest of the team's draft choices under contract, make offers to unrestricted free agents here and elsewhere, and try to fill out a training camp roster that has been increased to 90 players.

Hurney also has to figure out what to do with veteran receiver Steve Smith, who asked to be traded before the lockout started.

"We haven't even had a chance to talk to Steve or his agent up to this point," Hurney said. "We just have to work our way through that. I think we'll just have to see what happens."

The Panthers will make a big push to re-sign defensive end Charles Johnson, whose 11.5 sacks last season would be difficult to replace. Division-rival Atlanta also covets Johnson and could push the asking price into the stratosphere for a player with one year of starting experience.

Tailback DeAngelo Williams is the other priority among the Panthers' free agents. Williams, 28, is the franchise's rushing leader and is one of the top backs in the league when healthy.

Like Johnson, Williams will have other offers in hands by Friday evening, when teams can begin signing free agents.

"Obviously, we have several guys who hopefully we'll be aggressive with, and we certainly want to do everything we can to re-sign," Hurney said.

Signing Newton should not be as difficult as it might have been in previous seasons. Under the rookie wage scale that is part of the new CBA, Newton would make $22 million in his first four seasons with a team option for the fifth year that would pay him the average of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league (estimated at $14.3 million by the NFL Players Association).

There are also provisions in the deal designed to prevent long holdouts by high draft picks.

When the Panthers drafted Newton, it likely sealed the fate of quarterback Matt Moore, one of the team's 19 unrestricted free agents.

First-year coach Ron Rivera this summer mentioned Matt Moore as a possibility to stick around to mentor Newton and Jimmy Clausen, who was 1-9 as a starter last year. Moore was the Week 1 starter last year before turnovers and, later, a season-ending shoulder injury him sent him to the bench.

Moore said he would have a better idea of where he could end up after Thursday when teams begin releasing players.

"The quarterback position, I think there's always need out there. There's so many teams with so many different situations," said Moore, adding he has enjoyed his experience with the Panthers.

"I had great times here. I played with great players that are now friends of mine and will be for a long time," Moore said. "I experienced some highs and some lows. I was in an awesome place. Saying that, it's hard to think you'll be somewhere else as a player. But that's kind of how this business goes."

The Panthers also face decisions on cornerback Richard Marshall, linebackers James Anderson and Thomas Davis, defensive tackle Derek Landri and tight ends Dante Rosario and Jeff King.

Davis, coming off two surgeries on his right knee that cost him all or parts of the last two seasons, is likely to re-sign. Marshall said after last season he did not expect to be back.

"Now's when it starts," Hurney said of the series of personnel decisions that will unfold this week. "You have to assume that normally not everything works out the way you initially plan. And you have to make sure you have the scenarios to go with it. We feel like we have a pretty good plan of attack, and we'll see what happens."

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who chaired the labor committee in the CBA negotiations, wrote a letter to fans (see ad, page 3C), saying he understood their frustrations over last year's 2-14 finish and pledging to make the necessary investments to field a competitive team.

"I have learned timetables can be tricky," wrote Richardson, who predicted the Panthers would win a Super Bowl in their first 10 years of existence. "But I can promise we will continue to make a total commitment to building the championship team you deserve."

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