The Panthers need to do better in free-agency than they did in 2012 when fullback Mike Tolbert was their biggest off-season signing.
For at least the past decade, the Carolina Panthers have been a team averse to big free-agency signings in lieu of building the franchise through the draft.
Now that Marty Hurney is gone from the front office after being fired earlier this week, that approach may change depending on who replaces him at the general manager position during the offseason.
Regardless, Jerry Richardson needs to open up his wallet to pay some of the league's best talent to join the Carolina professional football team the way he did with homegrown Panthers DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Charles Johnson in the past two seasons.
If the Panthers continue their horrid season after getting off to a 1-5 start in their first five games—they could easily be 2-7 or worse after facing the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos in their next three games—they will have a very high draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
However, the Panthers need to bring in at least two or three proven, quality NFL veterans this offseason to help turn the franchise around and to morph into the up-and-coming team everyone expected to see heading into the 2012 NFL season.
Here is a look at the top five NFL free agents the Carolina Panthers should pursue this offseason, along with their rankings among the top 50 free agents of 2013 according to NFLTradeRumors.com.
Dwaybe Bowe (82)
Dwayne Bowe wants out of Kansas City, this much we know.
According to Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole, the 28-year-old LSU product in his sixth season with the Chiefs wants out of KC "very badly."
Bowe has three 1,000-yard seasons—he came up five yards short in his rookie season and he missed five games in 2009—in his first five years in the NFL and he is on pace to eclipse that mark again this season.
Cam Newton needs a receiver other than tight end Greg Olsen who can move the chains consistently on intermediate routes, and the Panthers need someone who can help ease Steve Smith into retirement as the No. 2 receiver if he ever loses a step in the next few seasons.
The addition of the 6'2" Bowe would instantly give the Panthers the feared 1-2 combination of dominant wide receivers Carolina fans have coveted ever since Muhsin Muhammad and a young Smitty were both running fly patterns for Jake Delhomme near the turn of the century.
Bowe is currently playing out this season as KC's designated franchise player, and he is looking for a long-term deal with a team where he can finish out his career after failing to come to such an agreement with the Hunt family this offseason.
Could Carolina be in his mind?
Atlanta's Brent Grimes (20) makes a tackle against the KC Chiefs.
Brent Grimes, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons (No. 10 FA)
NFL teams rarely trade their star players to other teams within their division.
Remember when Brett Favre had to suit up for the New York Jets for an entire season before he finally got his way and moved across the NFC South to play his final two seasons for the Minnesota Vikings?
However, there is such a thing as free agency in which the players get to decide where they will land, and loyalty to NFL franchises often runs deeper among fans than it does for the players, especially when there are millions of dollars at stake.
Brent Grimes is this year's version of Nnamdi Asomugha, who was the league's most coveted cornerback in free agency in the 2011 offseason.
Can you imagine Grimes and Steve Smith going at it in practice every day?
Better yet, can you imagine Grimes lining up across the field from a healthy Chris Gamble (IR, shoulder) with Josh Norman playing the nickel in the Panthers' secondary?
Carolina needs another veteran cornerback to slow down the NFL's most dangerous receivers and to help ensure an unknown receiver like the Giants' Ramses Barden does not have another career day at Bank of America Stadium.
Henry Melton (69) did something this season the Carolina Panthers could not. He sacked Tony Romo.
Henry Melton, Defensive Tackle, Chicago Bears (No. 25 FA)
The Carolina Panthers' defense is ranked 19th in the NFL at defending the run (120.3 rushing yards allowed per game) and 17th in the league with 14 sacks, half of which came in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Though the Panthers' starting defensive tackles, Ron and Dwan Edwards, are an improvement over last season's rookie starters, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, they are no better than an average duo by league standards.
In order to return to the stature of John Fox's dominant defenses of four or five seasons ago, Carolina needs a stud on the interior line and a guy who Cam Newton will become very familiar with on Sunday. Henry Melton is the man for the job.
Melton is tied for second in the NFL among DTs with 4.5 sacks through six games—he is tied with Buffalo's Kyle Williams who has the same sack total in seven games—and his presence alongside Dwan Edwards in the starting lineup would instantly improve the Carolina defense.
Remember, just six months ago many analysts were projecting the Panthers to select a defensive tackle with the No. 9 overall pick of the draft.
And though Dwan Edwards is having a nice season of his own with 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks in six games, a dominant DT remains one of Carolina's most glaring needs.
Jake Long (77) always protects his quarterback's blind side.
Jake Long, Offensive Tackle, Miami Dolphins (No. 2 FA)
Offensive tackle was a position of strength for the Carolina Panthers as recently as a few seasons ago when All-Pro Jordan Gross and promising youngster Jeff Otah held down the offensive line's corner positions.
In 2012, Gross suddenly seems long in the tooth and the out-of-shape Otah was cut after a failed physical negated a trade to the New York Jets. A pair of undrafted tackles, Byron Bell and Garry Williams, man the entire right side of the line.
OT will likely be a position the Panthers consider very carefully in the 2013 NFL draft, but with one of the league's best playing his free agency season with the Miami Dolphins, Carolina would be remiss to not pursue Jake Long during the offseason.
Long, a four-time Pro Bowler and the No. 1 overall in the 2008 NFL draft, is one of the few offensive tackles to be taken so highly in the draft and actually live up to his potential.
The current incarnation of the Panthers' offensive line is in shambles, but the addition of Long and the return of injured All-Pro center Ryan Kalil would add instant stability and credibility to a unit that has fallen hard from the precipice after being one of the NFL's best just a season ago.
Jairus Byrd (31) is a playmaker in the Buffalo Bills secondary.
Jairus Byrd, Safety, Buffalo Bills (No. 24 FA)
It is a little known secret outside of the Queen City that Charlotte is home to a growing number of Buffalo Bills fans who migrated to North Carolina's warmer climes when factory jobs along the Great Lakes began dwindling several years ago.
Like many Charlotte-based companies with a transplanted work force, the Carolina Panthers are looking to hire someone to fill the job of free safety this offseason, and the best candidate for the job is another Buffalonian looking for a higher wage.
Bills free safety Jairus Byrd is a playmaker who set an NFL rookie record when he led the NFL with nine interceptions in 2009.
He has three interceptions and three forced fumbles already this season.
Byrd, whose $615,000 base salary in 2012 is 822nd among NFL players and 66th among safeties, stands to get a significant raise when he hits the free agency market this season.
Carolina's incumbent free safety, Haruki Nakamura, was acquired this past offseason from the Baltimore Ravens to improve the Panthers' kick and punt coverage teams.
However, he has often been the weakest link on the Carolina defense after beating out last year's starting free safety, Sherrod Martin, for the position.
Since Nakamura single-handedly cost Carolina a road victory at the Georgia Dome in Week 4, he has been splitting time in the defensive backfield with Martin, though there has not been a change in the starting rotation.
The Panthers have to address the free safety position this offseason with new personnel and Jairus Byrd is the man for the job.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on B/R.
You can follow me for random updates and pointed commentary on Twitter @JimmyGrappone.
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