2011 is a critical rebuilding year for the Panthers, if they do everything (or even just most things) correctly, then the Panthers will have a solid winning foundation for the next 5-10 years. So far the Panthers have made all the right moves, from keeping the GM, to the right coaching hire, to a good draft (you almost have to be trying to mess up to miss on the #1 pick, and the rest are just OK). However, all the rest of the moves that usually take place during the offseason will be condensed into only around 2 weeks. So the Panthers soon will have a lot of work to do, and very little time to do it. Here are the steps the Panthers must take.
Sign UDFA's (Undrafted Rookie Free Agents)
First off, the Panthers must sign enough UDFA's to fill out their 90 man training camp roster, a 10 player increase over the 80 man rosters of the past. In the past teams have averaged signing 17 UDFA's each year, so the Panthers must rush out and sign around 30 UDFA's, as soon as the starters whistle blows, likely all in only a day or 2. These players aren't just worthless camp fodder, many Pro Bowl pplayers entered the NFL this way.
The Panthers must broaden and deepen their talent base, while raising the quality near the bottom of their roster. On a good team, almost every player cut should hurt, because they have filled their roster with good players. You can find no better example of the need for quality roster depth than that of the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who won the Super Bowl, though they had 19 players on IR. More often than not, when a player on a teams roster is injured, and goes on IR, the team will bring up a player from their Practice Squad, and then replace him on the Practice Squad with a player they cut during training camp.
I've recently been stunned by the post of so many fans writing that "We don't need to sign _________player, because we have 2 rookie 3rd round picks to start at DT", and simular comments. It's only natural for fans to overrate their teams talent, because what they hear from their teams, and local writers makes every player on their team sound like Superman. For that same reason, and that they may not have heard of many free agents, or players not at the top of other teams roster, knowing little about them, they most often undervalue these players unless they are stars.
The Panthers need to add depth at several positions, by signing 1 or more UDFA's at NT, DT, CB, S, OL, TE, RB, WR, and LB. I have posted the names of several of the players that I think the Panthers should sign as UDFA's before, and will again a few days before it's time to sign them, saving space in this post.
Re-signing The Panthers Own Free Agents
The Panthers have had lots of time to eveluate their own players, and should already know which players they hope to re-sign. The #1, absolute Free Agent that the Panthers must re-sign is DE Charles Johnson, he's almost the teams whole pass rush, with 11.5 sacks. No good fallback option exist if Johnson leaves as a Free Agent. They wil have to either have to paly almost as much as for Johnson to sign lesser talents, like Ray Edwards, or Mathias Kiwanuka, who has injury questions, or play DE Everette Brown as a replacement. Brown is a smaller DE, who has so far been a diapointment his first 2 years with 3.5 sacks in 2010, Starting at the other DE would be 2nd year player Greg Hardy, who had 2 sacks in 2010, and that's along with 2 rookie 3rd round picks likely starting at DT. Maybe you can think of a worse D-Line situation in the NFL this season, but I certainly can't.
The #2 Free Agent the Panthers must keep is C Ryan Kalil, who has already signed his Franchise Tag for $10 million, so lets all hope the new CBA doesn't change that.
The #3 most needed Free Agent the Panthers need to re-sign is really a 3 way tie, between RB DeAngelo Williams, OLB James Anderson, and OLB Thomas Davis. RB DeAngelo Williams ran for over 1,500 yards and 20 TD's in 2008, but has missed more time each of the next 2 seasons than before, and is 28 years old (close to the traditional point were RB's performance drops off a cliff at age 30). The Panthers would like to keep Williams,but they have another great RB in Johnathan Stewart, a good RB in Mike Goodson, and also a good backup RB in Terrell Sutton. The Panthers money needed to re-sign Williams can probably be better spent filling another team need, like DT or CB.
OLB James Anderson had a real breakout season in 2010, to the point that he ranked 3rd in Pro Football Focus rankings of all 4-3 OLB's, and will probably cost around $4-6 million. OLB Thomas Davis was having a Pro Bowl likeseason in 2009, until he tore an ACL in practice, and then re-tore it last summer. Davis hasn't played in 1 1/2 seasons, and is an injury risk, so though he may want more money, he should cost around $3 - 3.5 million. Both these OLB's are do it all type OLB's, who can stop the run, cover the pass, and blitz. If the Panthers lose 1 of them they do have some other options. OLB/MLB Justin Durant (6-1, 240, 4.51-40, 1.55-10) of the Jaguars is a 25 year old Free Agent (though it's said he's the #1 free agent of the Lions, and they are also interested in the Panthers Thomas Davis). Evan Silva described Durant as, "A poor man's Jon Beason, with even better speed", and he was the 2nd ranked run stopper among all OLB's in 2010. Silva also said the Saints are interested in Durant, and the price for Durant may be as little as $2.75 million. The Buccaneers OLB Quincy Black (6-2, 227, 4.40-40 at 240 pounds, 1.53-10) is a 27 year old free agent. Neither Durant or Black is very good in coverage or pass rushing. OLB/DE Antwan Barnes (6-1, 252, 4.43-40, 1.50-10) of the Chargers is a pass rush speciallist, ranking 2nd in the NFL in 2010, in Pass Rushing Percentage (22.28%).
The Panthers seem lukewarm about re-signing DT DereK Landri (6-2, 290 - 4.96-40), even though he had 3 sacks, and tied for the NFL lead among DT's with 8 TFL's. His price may be around $1.5 to 2 or 3 million, and if it's on the low end the Panthers may re-sign him. The Panthers may re-sign QB Matt Moore, but the going rate for a veteran backup QB is around $3 million a season. Other than Matt Moore the best options (if you can call them that) are 27 year old Trent Edwards (6-4, 231, 4.76-40), who has 33 career starts (including a very good 2008, 65.5%, 11 TD's, 10 ints), and 27 year old Tyler Thigpen (6-1, 224, 4.78-40) a running QB from Winsboro SC, and Costal Carolina, who started for the Chiefs in 2008. The rest of the available QB's are either worse, or more expensive than the Panthers can afford. Other than that it's Jimmy Clausen as #2 QB, and Tony Pike at #3 QB, with Keith Null on the Practice Squad.
Sign Other Teams Free Agents
The Panthers have serious needs for a quality Free Agent at NT, next CB, and at WR if Steve Smith is traded. I've already mentioned a few Free Agents, and will make another post on that topic very soon. Until then, Here are a few more names of the best available Free Agents that might interest the Panthers.
DE Mark Anderson (6-4, 255, 4.62-40, 1.64-10), 28, ranked 14th in 3rd & 4th down QB pressures in 2010, 4.5 sacks
NT Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311, 5.15-40, 1.71-10), 26 years old
DT Barry Cofield (6-4, 306, 4.95-40, 1.68-10) 27 years old, a good inside pass rusher, who can play both DT spots
CB Johnathan Joseph (5-11, 190, 4.31-40, 1.53-10) 27, the 2nd ranked Free Agent CB
CB Eric Wright (5-10,190, 4.36-40, 1.48-10) 25, his play has declined since his rookie season
WR Steve Smith (5-11, 195, 4.44-40, 1.46-10) 26, he's coming back from knee surgery, 107 catches in 2009
WR Mike Sims-Walker (6-2, 214, 4.35-40, 1.54-10), 26, catch totals of 16, 63, and 43
WR Sidney Rice (6-4, 202, 4.51-40, 1.47-10), 26, catch totals of 31, 15, 83, and 17
WR Steve Breaston (6-0, 189, 4.46-40, 1.49-10) 28, catch totals of 8, 77, 55, and 47
WR Malcolm Floyd (6-5, 229) 29, catch totals of 3, 0, 15, 7, 27, 45, and 37
The Supplemental Draft
The Supplemental Draft will be held at some point, and the only player of interest to the Panthers might be Ohio St QB Terrelle Pryor (6-6, 235, 4.38-40 to a 4.42-40). Pryor is very raw, but he's like a Cam Newton clone, and would be the perfect backup QB for Newton in time. It's expected that Pryor will be drafted somewhere from the 3rd to 5th round, with the team drafting him giving up their same round pick in the 2012 draft. With his size and speed some think that Pryor could become a better NFL WR than a QB.
At some point soon trades will be allowed, and the Panthers may have to make a trade if WR Steve Smith still wants out of the Panthers. We all hope Smith has changed his mind, because the Panthers need a #1, go to WR, to help Newton. Smith has suggested 3 teams he might like, the Chargers, Ravens, and the Patriots (suggested by others), but most of these deals would only be for around 2012 3rd round draft picks. Perhaps they could talk the Patriots into including 2nd year NT Myron Pryor (6-0 1/4, 319, 5.01-40). If Steve Smith is traded, then the Panthers will have to sign a good #1 WR, but would it be a big WR, or a small / fast WR like Smith. The Giants Steve Smith has had the biggest season by far, with 107 catches in 2009, but he's coming back from a serious knee injury. WR Malcolm Floyd has never been more than a 3rd receiving option. WR's Sidney Rice (hip), Steve Breaston (knees), and Mike Sims-Walker (knee 4 years ago) have had injuey issues as well.
The Panthers, if possible should also try to trade some of their players who are on the fringe of their roster before they have to cut them, if they can find a trade partner.
Open Training Camp
This is the first time working together for most of the coaching staff, and organizing a training camp in theory may be a little different in practice. On top of that the normal training camp activities, and all the OTA's will have to be compressed into about half the time.
The Final Roster Cutdowns
Hopefully the final Panthers roster cuts may be painful (if they have done a good job of signing UDFA's), then some good players will be cut even though it's rumored that rosters may be increased by 3 players to a total of 56 roster spots. The Panthers have a huge advantage over other teams, thanks to their 2010 reacord, if rules stay the same, the Panthers will have first claim on any players cut by other teams through the regular seasons first 4 weeks, and they need to take advantage of it. The Panthers might be able to pick up a NT, 3rd or 4th WR, DB, or maybe a veteran QB.