With the NFL lockout seemingly coming to an end any day now, the Carolina Panthers are preparing to participate in what will be the most fast-paced free agent period in the team's history. Teams will have only 72 hours to negotiate with their own free agent players before they become free to roam the open market.
This places extra emphasis on prioritization inside the Panthers' front office to ensure that the players most important to the immediate and future success of this franchise remain here to do just that.
With that in mind, here are the top five unrestricted free agents that the Panthers need to keep on their roster.
This isn't going to be a very popular re-signing, but it is necessary. Hear me out.
With Jimmy Clausen, Tony Pike and Cam Newton on the roster, there is a combined total of two years of quarterback experience. It's highly unlikely that the Panthers will re-sign (or want) Brian St. Pierre or Keith Null, both of whom ended the season on the team's roster.
Since the number one overall pick in this year's draft was Newton, the Panthers aren't going to pursue a free agent quarterback who is going to want to be a starter, as Newton will be just that as soon as he is ready, if not right away.
The Panthers will be looking for a veteran if they aren't able to re-sign Moore, which basically leaves only guys like Marc Bulger, Todd Collins, Billy Volek and the recently marooned Jake Delhomme out there.
Volek would be an attractive option, considering he has worked in offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski's system for his entire career, if he hadn't already been all but removed from consideration by the Panthers' staff a while ago.
While Moore didn't have a stellar run in the 2010 season before forking over the reins to Clausen, he is still young, but has enough experience to be somewhat of a guide for Newton.
Already in his career, Moore has been through ups and downs that can be useful teaching tools for a high profile rookie quarterback with all the pressure in the world on his back.
James Anderson was the beneficiary of the injuries at linebacker last year, spending the entire season as a starter and leading the team in tackles. After being primarily a backup in his first few years in the league, Anderson proved that he is more than capable of being a starter in this league.
Depth at the linebacker position is one thing the Panthers have in their favor, but the importance of retaining the chemistry and effectiveness of the current group is paramount to defensive success.
A linebacker corps of Jon Beason, Anderson and Thomas Davis would rank among the best in the league. With Davis and Dan Connor both coming off injuries, their production capabilities are impossible to accurately forecast.
While it would be great if Anderson stayed in Carolina, the Panthers should not over-spend to keep him around. Strong-side linebackers will be available in droves when free agency opens. Anderson will likely command a large increase in salary after his 2010 performance, but if it is fiscally reasonable for the Panthers to pay him, they certainly should.
The most popular name on the list of the Panthers' 2011 free agents is definitely DeAngelo Williams, but he isn't their top priority.
After two consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Williams played in only six games last year before his injury, running for fewer than 400 yards and scoring only one touchdown.
Williams is a top-notch running back that would improve just about any roster in the league, but the Panthers have a solid core of backs behind him that could pick up the workload with little drop-off in production.
Jonathan Stewart, Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton are all more than capable, and though Williams is the best of the group, Goodson showed huge growth last season in an increased role.
Even without Williams, a two-back tandem will almost certainly be a necessity given Stewart's injury history, and although Goodson is a downgrade from Williams, he has the speed and outside ability that made Double Trouble so effective.
If the Panthers can use the money they would use to sign Williams on improving other positions that are in worse shape, then I think the team will strongly consider doing so.
However, Williams' talent, potential and character make it hard to think about him walking with no compensation, so only time will tell what happens with him when negotiations start.
It has been quite some time since we have seen Thomas Davis on the field for the Panthers, but his worth to this team has not diminished. Davis was off to a monster start in the 2009 season before he went out with a torn ACL, and missed all of last year with the same injury after perhaps trying to come back too soon.
Davis could have come back towards the end of last year, but with the season's outcome all but settled, the Panthers and Davis decided together that the risk of re-injury was not worth the reward of a few games for a helpless team. That decision shows that the Panthers have made at least some sort of commitment to Davis, and rightly so.
As I mentioned earlier, a linebacker corps of Davis, Beason and Anderson would rank amongst the best in the league. If he can stay healthy, Davis is a monster on the weak side and has great chemistry with Beason.
The Panthers certainly do take a risk in re-signing Davis, given the obvious injury past, but he is clearly the best weak-side option on the roster, and would be the best weak-side linebacker on the market if he were to get loose. There is no better move the team could make at that position.
Charles Johnson picked the right time to have a breakout year in 2010. One of the few bright spots in the Panthers' 2-14 season was that they found a defensive end that could put up Julius Peppers-like numbers without the criticism and drama that surrounded him.
Johnson notched 11.5 sacks last year, by far the most on the team. The Panthers are young at defensive end, with Everette Brown still coming into his own and Greg Hardy still learning the ropes in his second year.
Keeping this group together, along with veteran Tyler Brayton (if he returns) and the occasional contribution by Eric Norwood, would be a huge help towards rebuilding a once-dominant defensive line.
Re-signing Johnson to a high-dollar, long-term contract should, and likely will, be the Panthers' first order of business when the lockout is lifted. The only negative that could come of this is an Albert Haynesworth-type scenario, in which the contract-year performance is never again seen by the team that spends the big bucks.
Johnson is a top-class, hard-working player who has received and taken advantage of an opportunity to be the focal point of the defensive line, and will only continue to get better as the players around him on the line become more skilled.
There are a couple of names who have spent a considerable amount of time on this roster that didn't make it into this top five list, so I will briefly explain my logic on my choice to leave them out.
6b. TE Dante Rosario
I've never been a huge fan of Rosario's, and with Gary Barnidge (who is steadily getting better), the recently-added Jeremy Shockey and Jeff King all on the roster, he becomes very expendable.
I couldn't imagine the team keeping four tight ends, unless they kept Barnidge specifically for special teams, and I also can't imagine the team choosing Rosario over their young project in Barnidge. Most will rate Rosario as a higher need than I do, but I believe we can save the money and mold Barnidge into a formidable tight end.
6a. CB Richard Marshall
Marshall has said since shortly after the season ended that he doesn't expect to be back in Carolina, which leads me to believe he doesn't want to be back in Carolina, which leads me to feel like I don't want him in Carolina.
He was exploited several times last year and, unless the Panthers seriously consider letting Chris Gamble go, I don't expect them to make much of an effort to re-sign Marshall. There are several notable free agent corners coming on the open market, the Panthers have money to spend and they won't be afraid to shore up the secondary with a player better than Marshall.