Carolina Panthers

RANKING THE NEEDS

With free agency set to begin Feb. 29, here's a look at the Panthers' top needs and the players at those positions which make sense:

1. Defensive end

Big ticket: Antwan Odom, Tennessee; Justin Smith, Cincinnati.

Others worth looking at: Bobby McCray, Jacksonville; Travis LaBoy, Tennessee; John Engelberger and Ebenezer Ekuban, Denver; Josh Thomas, Indianapolis; Mike Rucker, Carolina.

Bottom line: With Jared Allen (Kansas City) franchised, there aren't many difference-makers past the first two. Still a few guys who are good in situational roles.

Best bet: This is the one spot where they desperately need to get better. If they could land Odom or Smith, they're immediately better on defense, and they'd have time to develop Charles Johnson and Stanley McClover. If they miss on one of the top names, there's still a chance there's a spot for Rucker. Odom's the best fit, but McCray's a sleeper pick, who's played in a similar system with some success.

2. Offensive line

Big ticket: T Flozell Adams, Dallas; G Alan Faneca, Pittsburgh.

Others worth looking at: G Jamar Nesbit, New Orleans; G Floyd Womack, Seattle; T L.J. Shelton, Miami; G Jake Scott, Indianapolis.

Bottom line: All the tackles worth signing were tagged, other than Adams. Past Faneca, there's not a high-level guard available. And they're lousy with centers, so that's not a need.

Best bet: Think the first round of a tackle-rich draft for more help here. If the right one's available, they could move Travelle Wharton to left guard and upgrade in two spots. That's probably what they're thinking, since both free agency and the draft is bad for interior linemen this year.

3. Running back

Big ticket: Michael Turner, San Diego.

Others worth looking at: Julius Jones, Dallas; Derrick Ward, N.Y. Giants; Michael Pittman, Tampa Bay; Chris Brown, Tennessee; Rock Cartwright, Washington; Musa Smith, Baltimore; DeShaun Foster, Carolina.

Bottom line: If they're serious about starting DeAngelo Williams, then there are a number of guys they can get to platoon with.

Best bet: A guy like Brown or Ward would be a cheap-enough add at a position where quantity is best. Turner would be good, but his free agency has created its own momentum, and somebody's going to back the truck up. That money's better spent elsewhere for the Panthers.

4. Free safety

Big ticket: None

Others worth looking at: Erik Coleman, N.Y. Jets; Gibril Wilson, N.Y. Giants; Eugene Wilson, New England; Madieu Williams, Cincinnati.

Bottom line: As usual, there are a bunch of guys here. Most of them can play well enough. Unless you spend for a difference-maker, as they already have, the majority of them live in the great middle class. Once Dallas franchised Ken Hamlin, there wasn't really a big-name left out there.

Best bet: The typical Panthers strategy is to throw a bunch of names in a sack and pull one out. They've had mixed results with this approach, enjoying the hits (Marlon McCree, Chris Harris) and enduring the misses (Shaun Williams, the utterly functional Deke Cooper).

5. Wide receiver

Big ticket: Randy Moss, New England; Donte Stallworth, New England; Bernard Berrian, Chicago.

Others worth looking at: Drew Carter, Carolina; Muhsin Muhammad, Chicago; Bryant Johnson, Arizona; Ernest Wilford, Jacksonville; Andre Davis, Houston; D.J. Hackett, Seattle; Marty Booker, Miami; Devery Henderson, New Orleans.

Bottom line: They've already got a Steve Smith, so don't even waste time thinking about Moss. There are enough guys here that will work.

Best bet: The Panthers hope their second receiver next year is Dwayne Jarrett, so don't expect them to overspend here. Muhammad makes a level of sense, otherwise they need to add guys in bulk. Davis is intriguing because he'd add some pop to the kick return game.

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