With all the activity that is about to take place over the next few weeks it is easy to forget that most of these teams already have solid game plans heading into free agency, but what will really separate the winners from the losers is their ability to react when things don't go there way.
No front office will face more pressure immediately than the Carolina Panthers. Coming off the worst record in the NFL, the Panthers have a new coaching staff and need to move on from the John Fox era— and do so quickly.
Getting a game-changing quarterback was the first step but, Cam Newton may not be ready come the first week of the season to really take over, especially as a rookie. The Panthers must take steps on both sides of the ball with potential losses like Charles Johnson, Richard Marshall and DeAngelo Williams all real possibilities.
The Panthers will have to add some key pieces in some very key spots if the wish to contend. Here are the top 10 on their wish list.
The Bears cut Harris due to injury concerns. So what? The Panther shave cleary made it a point of emphasis this offseason that the defensive tackle position is not going to be one that they leave unaddressed.
Not a single one of the defensive tackles from last year is worth hanging around for starting and long term purposes. This does not mean that Harris is that solution but teams with Sione Fua, Ed Johnson, Nick Hayden adn Terrell McClain, Harris could at least mentor and would add depth.
His addition would not set the world on fire but would add some stability to a terrible situation.
THe Panthers might also consider veterans Chris Hovan and John Henderson as potential mentors to their young defensive line.
Continuity will be key for most teams, so re-signing their free agents will be a high priority. With the lack of OTAs and hastened training camps, teams will look to have players who are comfortable with their teammates return.
Carolina is no different despite their poor record. Having Marshall would give the Panthers stability in the secondary. Marshall is not an All-Pro but is a good starter and has shown his value to the organization. Not giving him a solid offer would be foolish.
It's not necessary that the Panthers pickup Mike Sims-Walker per se, but they need to add some experience at the wide receiver spot.
Sims-Walker brings the experience of being a No. 1 receiver in Jacksonville as well as four years of adjusting to NFL defenses. Sims-Walker might have a bit of history getting injured, but he should come relatively cheap and would make a solid No. 2 receiver.
The Panthers seem to have some talent at the receiver position in Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, but neither one has the experience to step in right away and help Cam Newton adjust. With a new quarterback both may take a step back before taking a step forward.
Other potential targets at receiver include Sam Hurd, Steve Breaston, Steve Smith (NYG) and Mike Furrey.
If anything, last year showed that once the Panthers front line offensive lineman go down, they don't have much backing them up. The Panthers would be wise to add a flexible lineman like Robert Gallery to the mix in order to keep the quarterback of the future off the ground in case injuries do arise.
Jeff Otah and Travelle Wharton both were injured last year, and their backups, Geoff Schwartz and Garry Williams, weren't quite cutting it.
Gallery is a former No. 2 overall pick and should carry a hefty price tag. He can play guard or tackle, so his versatility would definitely be welcomed, but if the Panthers line is completely healthy, who is the odd man out?
There are other options out there if the Panthers feel like they need to bolster their line. Khalif Barnes, Alex Barron, Max Jean-Gilles and newly release Rich Schubert are all players the Panthers could go after to add depth.
Hasselbeck probably won't want to go to a team unless he knows he will get a shot at the starting job. The one thing the Panthers can guarantee is a shot at starting.
There is no guarantee that Jimmy Clausen will be allowed on the field again after last year's performance, and Cam Newton will not have enough time with his teammates and coaches to truly understand the offense.
Hasselbeck knows what winning looks like. He backed up Brett Favre and led his own team to the Super Bowl. This is a stop gap measure, but the Panthers roster is filled with questions at quarterback, and this would provide at least one answer.
Hasselbeck may not want to spend his last season or two on a team that is likely not making the playoffs. If that is the case and the Panthers don't feel confident in Clausen or Newton stepping up, they may re-sign Matt Moore. Moore probably won't want to be a stop gap quarterback, which he certainly would be.
Troy Smith, Billy Volek and even Bruce Gradkowski all have had relative success (yes, relative, in as much as they are still in the league), all have been comfortable with this role in the past and may look to do so again.
With Thomas Davis and Dan Connor again down with injuries, the Panthers had James Anderson come out of relative obscurity and have a breakout season. With 130 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception, his play was nothing short of spectacular.
The Panthers defense has always been the pride of the team ever since the first season. Play like the Anderson exhibited is a big reason why the Panthers even won the two games they did.
With the linebackers health situation still unsettled, the Panthers would be making a mistake in letting Anderson walk.
Thomas Davis should hang them up. Two blown knees is not a way to go through an NFL season. Most guys have a hard enough time coming back from one ACL tear, never mind two. Davis was expecting to be a unrestricted free agent, but under the new CBA, he will not be.
Davis is not short on courage. It is known that he would like to come back and play again this season, but it's not a good idea. The Panthers need to move on and find a healthy linebacker to take his spot.
There are plenty of options out there, too. In no particular order:
Bobby Carpenter, Stewart Bradley, Tully Banta-Cain, Manny Lawson, Kawika Mitchell, Kirk Morrison, David Thornton and Piso Tinoisamoa are all guys who have experience that could add some depth to the linebacker unit.
Bradley, Morrison and Lawson would be the three at the top of the list.
There is a legitimate shot that Richard Marshall takes his talents elsewhere, and that might leave the Panthers without one of their starting corners. Most teams will initially make a push for Nnamdi Asomugha if they are targeting a big name corner.
The Panthers have no shot at Asomugha, but they might have a shot at Johnathan Joseph if they show interest first and show him some money. With the Panthers so far under the cap, they can afford to overspend on at least a couple of free agents. Joseph would be worth overpaying for.
There is the possibility that neither Joseph signs nor Richard Marshall re-signs, and then the Panther would likely have to look at other options. Philip Buchanon, Fabian Washington and Lito Shappard are all corners who still may be able to add something on the right team.
Outside of Steve Smith, no Panther is more known to casual fans than DeAngelo Williams. Williams has had a brilliant start to his career, but last year was slowed by injuries.
This should not taint fans' view of him though. He needs to be a high priority to the Panthers. The Panthers can pretty much roll out most any running back and make him successful, but Williams has an elusiveness to him, coupled with a power that makes him special.
The Panthers have Jonathan Stewart as a back up plan, but most teams need two solid rushers anyway. When Williams went out Mike Goodson stepped in admirably, but he does not have the success or longevity that Williams has had as a Panther.
The main reason Williams needs to be a Panther is that if he is let go, this will be the second season in a row Jerry Richardson has let a franchise cornerstone walk. It's bad for business. There is no reason the Panthers can't offer him a sizable contract to keep him around. There is plenty of cap space and not many places the Panthers need massive upgrades.
This is a must do in the coming weeks.
When you are able to find someone who can step into Julius Peppers' shoes and fill them, you sign that person.
Having a strong pass rush is the key to any defense. The Panthers have found a future Pro Bowler in Charles Johnson and need to keep him. Plenty of teams will be knocking down his door with big money, but the Panthers need to top all of them.
Much like DeAngelo Williams, letting Johnson walk would be a slap in the face to fans. After letting Peppers walk to save money, there is no excuse now. There are no real next-best options for the Panthers either; it's really Johnson and then a huge drop off as far as the Panthers are concerned.
Johnson is a young pass rusher who could be around for years to come. No one else on the market offers that. It would be a giant error to not find a way to keep him in a Panthers uniform for years to come.