NFL Free Agency: What the Carolina Panthers' Moves Mean for the Future
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Over the last two and a half years, the Carolina Panthers have gone from being the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs to the worst team in football. Most people around the league thought this franchise was becoming a laughingstock, and even some Panthers fans were about to throw in the proverbial towel.
But this week has proven otherwise.
Maybe you agree with his plan or maybe you don't, but after the flurry of signings the last few days, no one can say owner Jerry Richardson didn't have a plan.
Because he did—and it might have been brilliant.
First Richardson Said It, Then He Did It
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Anyone can talk a big game, but we all know actions speak louder than words.
So when Jerry Richardson said the Panthers would be "aggressive" in free agency, no one really knew what that meant. We had to see it to believe it.
And boy, did Richardson put his money where his mouth is.
The first big signing of the week was announced Tuesday when the Panthers re-signed their much sought-after DE, Charles Johnson. Rumors were that the Atlanta Falcons were making a big play for Johnson, a Georgia native and former Georgia Bulldog, but they allegedly backed off after learning of the monster six-year, $72 million deal the Panthers offered Johnson. As a player, you have to feel pretty special when the head coach and GM fly from Charlotte to Miami to meet with you face-to-face on the first possible day they could.
Did the Panthers overpay him a little bit? Probably.
But better to overpay him a little bit than to lose him to a division rival.
The Panthers made another big splash a day later when they re-upped with starting RB DeAngelo Williams.
Rumors were that Denver and Miami were also in the mix for Williams' services, but DeAngelo had made a public statement earlier in the week expressing his desire to "retire" as a Panther. That obviously gave Carolina the advantage they needed, but I doubt they got a hometown discount, inking Williams to a five-year, $43 million agreement that hopefully does mean he will never wear another NFL jersey.
The Panthers Missed out on Luck, but They Ended Up with Plenty of It
Panthers fans are hopeful that Cam Newton will hoist another trophy soon, the Lombardi Trophy
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After a disastrous 2010 season that saw the team finish with a league-worst 2-14 record and their head coach of nine years, John Fox, not being retained, the team got even worse news when Stanford QB Andrew Luck decided to return to school for the fall of 2011.
Most experts had Luck pegged as the next John Elway or Peyton Manning, and a lot of fans saw Luck as the savior of the franchise. It was pretty gloomy for fans to get over the thought of missing out on a once-in-a-generation type player, but there was a silver lining to that cloud, and "Luck" would be on their side this time.
With the looming uncertainty of the then-unresolved CBA between the NFL and the players, one thing was pretty clear. Both sides seemed to agree on a new NBA-style rookie wage system that would keep teams from having to pay big bucks to an unproven player, and as a result, be able to shuffle that money to veterans.
If that aspect of the new CBA hadn't been in place, the Panthers would have almost certainly not had the cash to keep players like Charles Johnson and DeAngelo Williams because top pick Cam Newton would have gotten approximately twice the dollar amount he will receive under the new agreement.
Don't be too sad for Newton though; he will still have the chance to earn big incentives and a fifth-year option that will pay him close to what he will make in his first four years combined.
Keeping Their "Core" Intact
Jon Beason is the heart and soul of the Panthers defense
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Those who follow the Panthers are very familiar with the term "core." Owner Jerry Richardson and GM Marty Hurney have been working on a plan since before the dreadful night Jake Delhomme forgot how to play football (see: Panthers vs. Cardinals, Divisional round, Jan. 10, 2009).
Their philosophy went something like this: The owners are going to opt out of the CBA, and there will be major overhauls with the salary structures of the new agreement. Be ready for that day; we need to cut payroll, go young, recognize who our young talented players are, sign them long term and make strategic moves to fill in the holes.
In a nutshell, this is exactly what they have done.
Fans were outraged at the way the last two seasons have gone, and it was a tough pill to swallow, but at least for 2011, Richardson and Hurney could come out smelling like roses.
The front office has used the term, "core" players over the last two years. This is a group that includes DeAngelo Williams, Charles Johnson, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil and a few others as well. Williams and Johnson were the only free agents of that group, and they got them locked up this week.
Now the team will move on to Beason and Davis, who are both still under contract for this year, and try to lock them up with long-term deals as well.
Then, that leaves Kalil. Kalil was slapped with the franchise tag this year, so he is the Panthers' for 2011. However, Hurney will undoubtedly get to work on negotiating a long-term deal with him as well. Kalil has been to two straight Pro Bowls and is regarded by many as the best young center in the league.
The Elephant in the Corner
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Yes, that elephant in the corner of the room that nobody knows what to do with is Steve Smith.
Is he done in Carolina? Has he bought into what the team is doing?
We will probably know very soon what his fate will be. Pete Prisco of CBSports.com is reporting that the Panthers don't intend to deal Steve Smith.
Panthers fans can only hope Smith is on board with this. He has been known for voicing his opinion, even when his thoughts were negative. The last thing the Panthers need while trying to groom their QB of the future is a star WR who is making waves.
Smith is definitely a professional, and he understands the business side of things. If the Panthers weren't able to get for him what they felt he was worth, then why give him away? Smith and Cam Newton seem to be bonding quite well, so hopefully this will result in chemistry on the field—and a lot of touchdowns, too.
Win Baby, Win
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Drafting well and signing the right guys is a good start, but nobody hands out trophies to teams with good offseasons.
It is what the Panthers do in December and (hopefully) January that will be the litmus test for the moves the team is making right now.
Cam Newton could be the face of the franchise for the next 10-12 years, and if Newton is the QB for the Panthers in 12 years, I'd say that would mean that he did alright for the Panthers.
Jerry Richardson is not going to be around forever, but hopefully down the road Panthers fans will remember him for the work he did helping to craft the longest CBA in American sports history and building the team he is currently constructing—not for being the owner who went "cheap" in 2009 and 2010.
At the end of the day, the coaches and players will be judged for their ability to win games.