Carolina Panthers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
The free agency period is upon us and the Carolina Panthers are exploring all of their options on whom they should target, whom they can afford and what positions take precedence.
While many theories have been suggested by the sports media, including those of us here at Bleacher Report, one of the most pressing questions is how Carolina can be successful in free agency despite having limited funds?
On Friday, the Panthers finally got below the salary cap after releasing cornerback Chris Gamble and can now focus on putting together the pieces of a winning team. Gamble is probably not the last player to be cut from the roster, but he should be the last significant release.
The key to winning free agency varies year to year. As the Panthers have shown during their short history, sometimes a couple of key signings results in postseason success (2003). While other times, such as in 2008, they have not made a move of major significance and still put together a great season.
How will this year's free agency play out for Carolina? More importantly, what needs to be done during the next few weeks to make their free agency period a winning one?
Sign Starters, Not Depth
Carolina is a team that has a few holes, some more glaring than others. On the surface, it appears that signing a quality starter at wide receiver, defensive tackle and cornerback would be an important first step. The Panthers have no need to add depth, so finding a proven starter will be more beneficial heading into the NFL draft.
While depth is important, those roles can be filled by rookies or journeymen veterans. The recent signings of WR James Shaw and DT Colin Cole are obvious depth signings, as both players may be more of a reserve than a contributing first-string player.
Carolina has a couple of players on its roster who are entering free agency, and they should do what they can to bring them back (more on that later) or find a veteran free agent who is not only solid at his position but affordable.
It will be surprising if the Panthers don't bring in a veteran starter, either by re-signing a free agent on their roster or signing a free agent, within the first several days of the signing period. Once the draft concludes, expect them to add depth to their roster and scout teams.
Target Team Free Agents First
The Panthers have several players entering free agency, but only a select few really should receive any serious consideration to be re-signed by the team. They are Dwan Edwards, Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Anderson.
The first two would be decent starters and should be brought back. Edwards had a great season that saw him accumulate six sacks. One can't overlook what he could do with a stud rookie defensive tackle lined up next to him and the sack tandem of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy coming from the edges.
Munnerlyn has a lot of detractors who don't want him to be the team's starting cornerback. However, there y is no evidence to suggest he can't get any better. After Chris Gamble was lost to injury last season, Munnerlyn did an admirable job filling in. He and Josh Norman were enough to keep opposing passing attacks in check.
Granted, with the talent of the quarterbacks in the division, the NFC South can be a nightmare for opposing secondaries. But Munnerlyn has one thing most other free agent corners don't have, and that's experience.
Unlike fellow free-agent corner Brent Grimes of the Atlanta Falcons, Munnerlyn may be the only one the Panthers can afford. If Carolina wants a starter at cornerback other than Munnerlyn, they might as well draft one and try to acquire additional picks in the process.
Derek Anderson is the only backup the Panthers should make a priority to re-sign. He has been Cam Newton's backup for the past two years and knows the offense. A lot of speculation has him returning to Cleveland. But nothing has been made official.
Carolina may not have many options in the market for a backup quarterback. And when you take into account their comfort level with Anderson, he is the only one who makes sense.
Essentially, the Panthers should continue with what works. These three players have proven themselves enough to warrant significant attention.
Bring in a Big-Name Free Agent
Even though the Panthers lack significant funds to sign multiple high-profile free agents, that doesn't mean they won't try to sign at least one.
Ron Rivera has hinted of the team's interest in Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. Having a playmaker of his caliber will not only take away double teams from Steve Smith, but it would provide the Panthers with another No. 1 receiver after Smith hangs it up.
Panthers GM Dave Gettleman will have to review the payroll to see what can be done to facilitate such a big move. Acquiring a player like Wallace may mean more restructured deals and a few more releases to free up the money necessary to make such a signing.
Honestly, this seems like a long shot. But stranger things have happened in the world of sports. If Carolina somehow pulls off a huge signing like this, it will be a huge offseason victory for the team and its fans.
Make the Team Appealing
Everyone who follows the NFL and has an understanding of the Carolina Panthers realizes the team is in a small market. While Carolina lacks prestige and history like Green Bay or Dallas, consistent winning like New England or being one of those teams that has a history of throwing asinine amounts of money at players, they do have potential.
The Panthers have a lot of upside and a few positions where where just the right piece can mean the difference between a playoff run and finishing dead last. Sometimes, the players currently on the team pay off as Mike Tolbert surprised many by signing with the Panthers last year and at a reduced price. Tolbert's agent Joel Turner had this to say to the Associated Press about his client's signing with Carolina last season:
He loves the idea of playing for Ron Rivera and being on the same team with Cam Newton. He just thinks it's a great fit.
With that being said, could lightning strike twice?
Perhaps. But fans shouldn't get too optimistic about the chances Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings taking a similar path. This is a money-driven league, and the Panthers just don't have enough to compete with some of the larger market teams.
Do Not Sign a Liability
Carolina can't afford to sign a player who is either injury prone or a locker room distraction. Fortunately, the latter is not much of a concern as Jerry Richardson expects a high standard of conduct from his players. However, the injury bug is nothing new to the Panthers.
Over the past two seasons, Carolina has seen its roster decimated by injuries to key players, forcing it to use a lot of patchwork lineups to get through the year. The last thing the Panthers need to do is bring in another Ron Edwards.
He was expected to anchor the defensive line but spent much of his time injured. As a result, an injury-prone player should be heavily scrutinized before an offer is made.
With Thomas Davis and Jon Beason two high-profile examples, Carolina has had its share of players sit on the bench because of injury. So it can't sign a player who will be visiting the team trainer more than he will the practice field.
If they are to be successful in this regard, careful attention needs to be made to a potential signee's training habits, history and whether his absence because of injury would have serious repercussions on the effectiveness of the position.