Honestly, I have no idea whether there will be an NFL Players Lockout in 2011. Regardless, The Panthers will have to make some serious decisions about their current personnel sometime between February (hopefully) and October (at latest). Let's leave out possibilities for the Draft and other team's Free Agents for a moment. Here is my take on what we need to do with our current players:
1. Re-sign Center Ryan Kalil. He's one of the best centers in the league, and let's be honest: our offensive line, outside of Jordan Gross and Kalil is a big question mark. We need to keep our potential Pro Bowlers as best as we can, and Kalil definitely fits that category.
2. Sign LB Jon Beason to a 5-6 year contract extension. Like Kalil, Beason is one of our best former draft picks. He's one of the top ten linebackers in the league, no questions asked, and he's also one of the few true leaders we have left on the team after last year's veteran purge. There's no sense in waiting until he's a free agent. Signing him as soon as the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) is decided will send a message to the team: if you perform at a high level, you'll reap the benefits.
3. Placing the Franchise Tag on DeAngelo Williams, then trade him for a #2 or #3-and#5 pick. I know that this goes against the last sentence of the previous paragraph. That said, honestly, Mr. Richardson is not going to re-sign everyone. The NFL landscape demands two quality running backs for a playoff-caliber team, and we have two in Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. DeAngelo is a 5-6 million dollar a year man, and we need to spend that money elsewhere. Takers might include the Patriots, Dolphins, Colts, Broncos, and Giants.4. Signing LB Thomas Davis? The question mark indicates that this move has risks. The Good: Davis is only 27 and he's a Pro Bowl caliber player when healthy. He's also well-liked by the other players and is considered a team leader (by example). The Bad: He's had two ACL surgeries in the last 15 months. My sense is that the Panthers need to offer Davis a 2-3 year deal with major incentives. If he plays like a Pro Bowler, he gets paid like a Pro Bowler. If he gets injured again, then he gets paid a million a year (that's the risk, folks). Another team might try to make a play for him, but I think he'll try a 2 year deal with the Panthers.
5. Let LB James Anderson walk. I like James Anderson. I think James Anderson is a solid NFL linebacker. I also think that we need to spend our money in a lot of other places, especially considering that half of all NFL defensive snaps (in a 4-3 alignment) start only two linebackers. The other 50% of snaps hold five defensive backs. At linebacker we'll have Jon Beason, Dan Connor, perhaps Thomas Davis, definitely Eric Norwood, and definitely a 3rd or 4th round 2011 pick.
Obviously, the choice comes down to Anderson or Davis. I choose Davis. I think Ron Rivera will choose Davis too.
6. Decide whether Steve Smith is a Hines Ward or a Terrell Owens. If Smith decides to be a Hines Ward, let's keep him and make him commit to being a real team captain. If he's a Terrell Owens (and he certainly acted like it at times this past year), then let's trade him to Baltimore, Washington, or San Diego for a #3 pick. I am certain that if I were Smith I'd be frustrated with this past season, but if I'm a team captain I'm not telling a reporter that the quarterback owes me an apology, and I'm not yelling at a rookie quarterback every week on the sidelines. I'm not a fan of Jimmy Clausen, but that said, perhaps Smith should ask himself why Clausen approached Jon Beason with an apology and not Steve Smith. Answer: Jon Beason is a leader. Smith, currently, is not. The Panthers could get a valuable #3 pick with a Smith trade, and honestly, Smith need to ask himself whether he'd be happier elsewhere.
7. Decide if signing DE Charles Johnson is worth it. No doubt, Charles Johnson has improved significantly with each year he's spent with the Panthers. It's possible -- and likely, actually -- that the new NFL Players Contract will keep 5th year players with their current teams. If so, then both Charles and Kaili (and TE Dante Rosario and DT Nick Hayden) will be with the Panthers for another year. That said, the Panthers need to ask themselves, regarding a massive contract for Johnson: Are we good enough with GregHardy/EveretteBrown/TylerBrayton, and could we instead better improve our team by signing 2-3 other team's free agents?... (And also, because we're stuck with the #1 pick and with QB Andrew Luck not entering, should we just simply jettison Johnson and pick DE Da'Quan Bowers?)
Personally, I think we should sign Charles Johnson to a big contract, though that would be big contracts for Kalil, Beason, and Johnson. The last might be the odd man out.
7A (Bonus)... Say goodbye to QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, and CB Richard Marshall. All three are free agents. I really appreciate all three, and I think that each of them will contribute to other teams for the next 3-6 more years. That said, they're each backup-quality, and it's time for Panther upgrades at all three positions.
I look forward to comments. I hope this post was helpful in some way. Also, I'm excited about the Ron Rivera hire! Go Panthers!