The overarching plan for the Carolina Panthers will be to build their roster through the draft and retain their drafted talent, this much we already know. While this method may take a longer time to see results, ultimately it creates a sustainable and balanced organization. We have seen this from Green Bay, New England, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, all of whom have spent the better part of a decade in the playoffs due to the manor in which they have created teams with a 'next man up' mentality where there is always a player ready to step in and fill a gap when a player is lost to injury or free agency.
Even with this sound line of thinking there is a need to support the roster with talent brought in via free agency, and this is where the Panthers will need to be most careful during the 2012 off-season. There are big names set to hit the open market, and a variety of players at need positions who could be had for the right price. While Marty Hurney stresses the importance of making the right decision in the draft, it will be of equal import to ensure free agency is handled correctly. After the jump I'll look at the top three players to hit free agency at WR, CB, DT and S to see what pitfalls away in this year's FA class.
There is no FA group more stacked than the receivers. The headliners are Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace and Wes Welker, however there are a cadre of other receivers like Mario Manningham, Vincent Jackson and DeSean Jackson all of whom will likely hit the open market.
With the Arizona Cardinals awarding Larry Fitzgerald a mammoth contract the way the WR position was viewed changed. Now elite #1 receivers are getting more money than ever, and this causes a trickle down effect throughout all players. New NFL draft rules make drafting a WR far more prudent than paying top dollar for one. Look no further than Sidney Rice's 5 year, $41 million deal as the cautionary tale for overpaying a WR in free agency. As much as I like Bowe, Wallace and Welker none will be worth the $50 million some team will be willing to throw their way.
Unlike the WR group there's less overall talent from the defensive tackle position. At the top we have Calais Campbell, Paul Soliai and Kendall Langford, but in this free agency grouping we see a dominance from 3-4 players, rather than traditional 4-3 guys. Of the players left it's the Seahawks' Red Bryant who represents the best player for a 4-3, but at 28 years old you're looking at taking a significant financial risk on a player without too much left in the tank.
It's here where Marty Hurney and company will need to be their most careful. Need would facilitate a desire to get a DT no matter what, but the talent at the position from top to bottom is fairly weak. Desperation needs to be set aside, even if it means starting the same DTs in 2012 with the addition of Ron Edwards coming off injury. Personally, I wouldn't touch any of this DT class as it would be trying to fit mediocre over-priced square pegs into round holes.
If you're in need of a cornerback and have deep pockets then this is the time to splurge on one. We saw madness ensue with Nnamdi Asomugha last season, and Jonathan Joseph was ludicrously overpaid even though he's a lockdown corner. This year we're likely to see huge contracts to the top three CBs on the market, Brandon Carr, Ladarius Webb and Cortland Finnegan. All three players are on the better side of 30, and corner tends to be a position players can maintain a high level of play at, provided they're technique based- like these three are.
Following these three there are still extremely talented corners like Brent Grimes, Carlos Rodgers and even (dare I say) Richard Marshall. However, with the continuing onus on passing in the modern NFL there will be a lot of money flying around these players. In the end I don't think the Panthers can play this game and will hold their money for now.
This is where I think it would behoove the Panthers to strike in FA. Unlike other positions there wasn't a bellwether to set the contract price last year. While Eric Weddle demanded a huge contract there's no Eric Weddle in this free agency group. There is, however, a large group of slightly flawed players with a lot of upside who the Panthers could gamble on with little true risk. The headliners are Michael Griffin, Tyvon Branch and Dashon Goldson, however it's former top-10 pick LaRon Landry who I'm most interested in.
The risk with Landry is that he's unable to stay healthy, as he's played less than 20 games in the last two years. However, if he's able to come back at play at a high level he is just the kind of hard hitting SS the Panthers need, which would enable Charles Godfrey to stay at his more natural FS position.
The overall outlook for this free agent class is one fraught with big risk and big money, but if the Carolina Panthers can navigate the positions correctly and not over extend themselves they will add valuable pieces to the team while not mortgaging the future. Unfortunately this front office aren't gifted at playing the FA market, but time will tell how this team is added to.