The Panthers already have begun to make the first moves in what figures to be a very busy offseason: they re-signed defensive tackle Damione Lewis to a three-year contract and released linebacker Dan Morgan and guard Mike Wahle.
Those were the first transactions in what otherwise could be a wholesale revamping of the defensive line, along with a few other positions.
In no particular order, the Panthers have to decide what to do with defensive linemen Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, and Mike Rucker—plus quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and David Carr, and offensive tackles Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton.
Carolina recorded a mere 23 sacks, second fewest in the league, in 2007. Lewis led the linemen with 3.5 sacks, Rucker had three and Peppers and Jenkins each had 2.5. The Panthers almost got rid of Jenkins last offseason, so he probably won't be back this time. And Rucker will be a 33-year-old free agent, so odds are he won't return either.
Peppers is a bit of a conundrum because he is in the final year of a contract that will count $14 million against Carolina's $116 million salary cap. The Panthers can let him play out the deal and show that he can bounce back from his poor 2007 season, which ended with him on injured reserve because of a sprained knee. Or they can try to re-sign him now, which would lower his cap number in 2008 but require a long-term investment with about $30 million in bonuses.
The Panthers also have to decide what to do at quarterback. Vinny Testaverde, 44, retired after one injury-plagued partial season, and Carr surely will be released because he was so ineffective while trying to fill in for the injured Delhomme. The Panthers reportedly will save $2.8 million by cutting Carr, who otherwise would count $4.35 million against the cap next season.
As for Delhomme, he threw a football last week for the first time since undergoing elbow surgery in October. Granted, it was a Nerf ball, and Delhomme was limited to 20 passes at a distance of 10 yards. But it was a start as he attempts to come back and resume his place as the team's offensive leader.
"[The elbow] feels great, no pain at all," Delhomme told reporters. "I'd like to do more than 20, but they're not going to let me win that battle. We'll keep doing this and, hopefully, go to a big ball out on the field in about a month or so."
Delhomme hopes to be ready for training camp, but the Panthers will have to decide on a fallback option just in case. That option might already be on the roster in the shape of Matt Moore, the undrafted quarterback who led the Panthers to two wins in the final three games of 2007. If they're not confident in Moore, though, the Panthers will have to find a more reliable option than Carr or Testaverde were.
The Panthers also have to decide how they are going to protect their passers. Both tackles are set to be free agents. Gross, the right-side starter, appears to be the team's top priority. If they can't get him re-signed by Feb. 21, they probably will make him their franchise player, tendering him a one-year deal worth $7.455 million.
On Monday, the team cut Morgan, the injury-prone former first-round pick who played barely half the games the Panthers played (59 of 112) in his seven seasons with the team. Rookie Jon Beason took over for Morgan in Week 3 and led the team in tackles, so the team no longer needed to gamble on Morgan's health.
Wahle, 30, started 16 games last season, but he was let go because he had a high salary-cap number.
Now Rucker, Jenkins and Carr figure to join Morgan and Wahle by the end of the month. It's going to be a busy three weeks.