So now that it looks like the lockout will be lifted sometime this upcoming week, the next big thing to look towards is free agency. And unlike the last two seasons, where the Panthers biggest two moves during the offseason were signing Marcus Hudson last seasons and trading for long snapper J.J. Jansen, the season before, the Panthers are expected to be active, both signing their own guys and looking for free agents.
More so than any of the recent offseasons, this free agency period is critical for the Panthers and where this team is going in the next five years. The Panthers have always stressed that they love to build through the draft and then sign its players long term. This offseason will test that theory.
As of right now, the Panthers have five big name players that will be free agents, all who have played critical roles on this team since arriving. These players are defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, cornerback Richard Marshall and linebackers Thomas Davis and James Anderson.
So lets go through and break down these players each separately starting first with the easiest one, Thomas Davis.
Thomas Davis, Outside Linebacker:
- Age: 28, 6 seasons with the Panthers, 54 starts, 390 tackles, 11 sacks and 3 interceptions
I expect without a doubt for Thomas Davis to return. He has mentioned over the course of the offseason he has had talks with the front office and there is mutual interest from both parties for him to return. No to mention he will come relatively cheap due to his back to back knee injuries that have sidelined him for most of the past two seasons.
Getting a healthy Thomas Davis back will be crucial for this team. Since arriving in Carolina as the first round pick in 2005 out of Georgia, Davis has continually improved his game as he made the transition from safety to linebacker and that showed two seasons ago. Prior to his ACL tear in week eight of the 2009 season, Davis was having his best season in his career, racking up 61 tackles and 2 interceptions through his first seven games. So if Davis can get back to his pre-injury form of 2009, he will give this defense a huge boost.
- Verdict: Resigns with the Panther
James Anderson, Outside Linebacker:
- Age: 27, 5 seasons with the Panthers, 25 starts, 236 tackles, 6 sacks and 5 forced fumbles
While we are talking about linebackers lets get to James Anderson. After playing special teams and spot starting for most of his first four seasons, Anderson was thrust into the starting role when Davis went down in 2009. He finished the season strong with 65 tackles and carried that over into last season. Anderson was one of the few real bright spots defensively for the Panthers last season as he finished with a team high 130 tackles, while tying for second in sacks and forced fumbles. Anderson is a solid coverage linebacker who seems to have a knack for the finding the ball.
The Panthers lack a lot of depth in the linebacker position after Anderson, Davis and Jon Beason and by locking him up, he would give the Panthers one of the more formidable linebacker groups in the NFL. If the price is right I believe that Anderson comes back, but if some team goes out and overpays for him, giving him a Will Witherspoon esque contract, the Panthers won’t reach and will let him walk. But expect him to be back in the black and blue next season.
- Verdict: Resigns with the Panthers
Charles Johnson, Defensive End
- Age: 25, 5 seasons with the Panthers, 20 starts, 114 tackles, 21 sacks and 4 forced fumbles
In my opinion, Johnson is the most important player for the Panthers this offseason. I thought that the Panthers front office should have used the franchise tag on him earlier in the offseason instead of center Ryan Kalil because of what he did for the defensive line last year and because he will be such a sought after commodity in free agency. Johnson is the only threat the Panthers have on the defensive line as he lead the team in sacks last season with 11.5, the next closest Panther defensive player had 3.5.
Johnson is still very young, is huge and seems to be coming into his own and I believe his best seasons are in front of him. If I am Marty Hurney, I am throwing a huge seven year deal at Johnson to lock him up but I don’t even know if that will be enough. Johnson is from Hawkinville, Ga., went to Georgia University and the Falcons are suppose to be a big suitor for Johnson’s talents. I do think that is strictly a two team race for Johnson between the Falcons and Panthers, but I think the hometown allure gives the Falcons the edge right now. One thing is for sure, if the Panthers lose out on Johnson, defensive end will keeping become a top priority for Hurney in free agency, but lets hope it doesn’t come to that.
- Verdict: Signs with the Atlanta Falcons
DeAngelo Williams, Running Back
- Age: 28, 5 seasons with the Panthers, 37 starts, 4,211 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns
DeAngelo Williams is the most interesting free agent the Panthers have and arguably the toughest decision the Panthers will have to make. The positives, Williams is the team’s all-time leading rusher and one of the top running backs in the league when healthy. He has a unique combination of speed and power where in one single play he can break a couple tackles then simply out run the rest of the defense for a touchdown. Also, as we know you can never have to many running backs. Williams and teammate Jonathan Stewart are the best one-two punch in the league and can take over a games at times and are crucial to keeping both rested and fresh throughout the whole season. However, Williams will be expensive. He will be highly sought after by teams looking for running backs, such as Miami and Tampa Bay, and the Panthers have a surplus. Stewart is more than capable of carrying the main load and Mike Goodson has shown some flashes, especially working as a third-down back.
I love DeAngelo Williams, he has been on of my favorite Panthers over the last few years but the more I think about it, the more I convince myself it may be smarter to let him go rather then sign him to a huge deal. The one key factor is age. We all know running backs start to fall apart rapidly once they hit the age of 30 and Williams has a ton of mileage on him. At Memphis he carried the ball 969 times and set the NCAA’s all-time mark for all-purpose yards with 7,573 yards. Couple that with 841 carries with the Panthers, means Williams has taken some hits and there is a chance he may start to break down. So as much as it pains me to say it, the smart move may be allowing Williams to walk.
- Verdict: Let Williams walk
Richard Marshall, Cornerback
- Age: 26, 5 seasons with the Panthers, 46 starts, 423 tackles, 14 interceptions, 44 pass defends and 5 sacks
Since arriving in 2005 Richard Marshall as been a solid player for the Panthers. He has come to work every week and played well, just not well enough to be paid the money he will most likely be demanding. Marshall and the Panthers have seem to be at ends though it has never be officially reported, after Marshall went two straight seasons as a restricted free agent without being offered a better deal and he didn’t seem to like that very much.
Marshall has been important piece of the Panthers secondary over the years starting and playing the nickel position but I think the Panthers can do better at roughly the same price. They already have Chris Gamble, who I believe will bounce back under the new coaching staff, and Captain Munnerlyn. I think due to Munnerlyn’s size he is better suited at playing the nickel position, so if Marshall does leave the Panthers will need to address this position, possibly Bengals corner Jonathan Joseph, who has some Carolina ties. But in my opinion, most likeley Marshall is gone.
- Verdict: Marshall walks
There are a few other players that the Panthers will have to make decisions on outside of these five players. These players include Jeff King, Matt Moore, Dante Rosario and others but I don’t see those deals as being as important. With the signing of Jeremy Shockey, I think King is expendable but I do think Rosario will return. Playing under new offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski, who values the tight end, should interest Rosario. When former coach John Fox was here, he didn’t really like the tight end to do anything but block. However, under this new coaching staff expect the tight end to be an integral part of the offense, which I think will be enough to keep Rosario here.
So as you can see, GM Marty Hurney is going to have a busy few days once negotiations open up and that is just dealing with his own players. So lets all hope Hurney has a game plan and is ready for the challenge that lies ahead of him.
Check back later this week for a look at possible free agents that Panthers may be targeting.