Assuming they get a new collective bargaining agreement done, NFL Free Agency is scheduled to begin on March 3, 2011. I'm going to go through every team between now and then and identify their top five free agents and determine what should be done with each player, be it resign them or let them walk. I'm going to go team by team in draft order, and that starts me with the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers have the first pick in the draft so it's safe to say their last season was a disaster. They went just 2-14 and finished last in the NFL in points per games, yards per game and passing yards per game. Making matters worse for them, of the little talent this team has, many of the better players are without contracts for next year.
New Head Coach Ron Rivera has a big job ahead of him trying to identify the talent level of this roster. He has to decide if he can improve his team by just adding a few guys, or if he should go the route Pete Carroll went with the Seattle Seahawks and overturn most of the roster. I've identified their five most important free agents and will decide whether these guys are worth keeping or need to be jettisoned from the roster.
Matt Moore only makes this list because he started the year as the quarterback for the Panthers. That technically makes him one of their top pending free agents. However, his level of play last year didn't justify this spot on the list.
He started the year as the starter but did so poorly in losses to the Giants and Bucs that he was benched for Jimmy Clausen. Luckily for Moore, Clausen, a rookie, then did badly enough for the Panthers to decide to go back to Moore. Unfortunately for Moore, upon returning to the lineup he was playing worse than he did the first two weeks. He likely would have found his way back to the bench if a shoulder injury didn't end his season outright.
Obviously, the Panthers should just let him walk. He supposedly wants to stay but there is no reason to pay Moore to be on the roster if he can't hold off Clausen. If they decide they like Clausen, they would be better served taking a quarterback in the middle rounds of the draft to back him up. That player would be both cheaper and have more upside.
Richard Marshall was the Panthers' best corner last year and one of their better defensive players overall. He started all sixteen games for them and was second on the team with three interceptions. On a team as bad as this, that sort of consistency is needed to help get them back to being competitive.
Marshall is a player that the Panthers should resign because they need to keep their good players at every position. Surprisingly though, Marshall doesn't expect to be back with the team next year. They have given him the indication that he won't be brought back and that seems like a poor football move. I'm assuming the owner just doesn't want to shell over the money to resign him because this team is starved for talent.
The offensive line is one of the few bright spots on this team. While they were last in the league in overall offense, they were still 13th in rushing offense, averaging 115.4 yards per game. Ryan Kalil is probably the second best player on the line after Jordan Gross and he has made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement in each of the last two seasons.
The Panthers' proved with Gross' 60 million dollar extension in 2009 that they are willing to spend on their offensive line and they shouldn't start to skimp now. Kalil should be much cheaper to resign because he plays center and it would be a prudent move for them to lock him up. Their biggest worry is likely that Kalil is a big fan of former coach John Fox and may be willing to follow him to Denver.
Charles Johnson burst on the scene over the latter half of this year posting 8 of his 11.5 sacks over the course of the last seven games. The Panthers needed someone to emerge on their defensive line after letting Julius Peppers go to the Bears as a free agent last year and Johnson stepped up in a big way.
The Panthers only managed 31 sacks as a team this year and Johnson accounted for 11.5, or 37%, of them. They should obviously attempt to resign him but they have to be careful with how much they are willing to pay him. He only has had one good year in his career, and it came while he was playing for a new contract. If Johnson's asking price is too high they should be willing to walk away. If they wanted to pay top dollar for a defensive end they should have kept Peppers last year.
The Panthers' are more stocked at running back than any other position, which is bad news for DeAngelo Williams. Jonathan Stewart is a former first round pick who has looked great when not dealing with injuries and Mike Goodson stepped in the middle of the year due to injury and proved that he could carry the load as well. Even fourth stringer Tyrell Sutton looked good in limited work.
Even though he is their highest profile free agent, and likely their most well known player at this point, the Panthers don't need DeAngelo Williams back. The price to resign Williams is going to be too high given the quality of the rest of the running backs already on the roster.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, that means letting a potential 1200+ yard back walk without getting anything in return. They could theoretically place the Franchise tag on him and attempt to trade him in order to get something for him, but that only seems like a good idea. NFL teams don't like to spend excessive money or resources for running backs and the Panthers could get stuck paying big money for a back they don't need if they franchise him.