Homecoming Time for a Veteran Free Agent Defensive End?

The Carolina Panthers, post lockout, have shown a willingness to spend money to retain their core players. The next step to building a team that can compete for a championship will be adding to, and building around that core group of players. The area of the team in most dire need of an upgrade, some contend, is the pass rush.

Drafting a pass rusher or two is well and good, but there is inherent risk involved when adding any college prospect. The safer, more financially responsible play here may be signing a veteran free agent or two. Assuming the Panthers can clear some much needed cap space, they may be presented with that opportunity.

Who on earth am I talking about? See who, after the jump...

I'm talking about veteran defensive ends John Abraham and Mario Williams. Signing either one of these players is a stretch, yes, but we should all dream, should we not? Let's take a look at the reasoning behind this pipe dream...

There are credible media members who believe that John Abraham will likely test the free agent market. Abraham has ties to the Carolinas. He was born in Timmonsville, SC, went to high school in Lamar, SC and played collegiality at the University of South Carolina.

The 6'4" 264 pound Abraham will be 34 in May. Despite his age, he was still very productive for the Atlanta Falcons last season...He appeared in 15 games, starting all 15 of them. He registered 35 tackles, 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Abraham has been a consistent pass rushing menace throughout his career (just ask Jordan Gross). He has a borderline Hall of Fame stat line with 112 career sacks and 36 forced fumbles. Abraham has missed only two games in the last five seasons.

At this stage in his career, Abraham is essentially a situational pass rusher--but a very good one. While the Panthers would have to carefully weigh the cost of adding a 12 year veteran and four-time pro bowler to the roster, a soon to be 34 year-old defensive end who plays 50-60% of the downs also has to understand his place on an NFL roster, and the salary that such a role commands.

Assuming John Abraham would sign for less than $4M per year, I think a deal could be worked out if both parties were willing to compromise a little. And yes, the Panthers would jump at 30 tackles and 7+ sacks for $4M a season.

As for Mario Williams: at this point it is purely speculation, but yesterday there was mention on this blog of a rumor that Williams said he would like to come back to his home state and play for the Panthers. Williams grew up in Richlands, NC and played his college ball at North Carolina State.

During his six seasons in the league, the 6'7" 283 pound Mario Williams has been a very solid player for the Houston Texans. In his career, the 27 year-old Williams has recorded 53 sacks and 11 forced fumbles. But during the last two seasons he has had some injury problems, playing in only 18 of the possible 32 games. In 13 games in 2010, Williams recorded 28 tackles and 8.5 sacks. In 2011, in only five games, he had 11 tackles and 5 sacks.

Williams' injuries during his last two campaigns, while unfortunate, might just benefit the Carolina Panthers. While he is still viewed as an elite or near-elite player, the fact that he has not been able to stay on the field recently will probably put off a number of potential suitors. This may lower his value a little bit if he does happen to hit free agency. If nothing else, seeing that he may be interested in a return to the Old North State, Mario Williams in Panther blue is a possibility, however slight.

There has been some grumbling about the Texans wanting to use the franchise designation on Mario Williams. And they very well may, since a technicality will allow them to do it for much less...In the Texans' 3-4 scheme, Williams is considered an outside linebacker. The franchise number for an OLB is about 65-70% of what it is for a defensive end. So in moving him to an outside 'backer position last offseason, the Texans may have saved themselves upwards of four million dollars if they decide to tag Williams. If they do tag him, then he won't be a free agent until the 2013 offseason--at the earliest.

Like Abraham, it's fun to project what Williams' role might be if he were to join the Panthers. One would have to think he would start at strong-side defensive end opposite Charles Johnson. With Greg Hardy and Thomas Keiser being solid young players, he wouldn't have to play 70 snaps a game, but I doubt that would lower his price tag in free agency. If signed (and if healthy for 16 games), I'd expect Williams to play about 50 snaps per game (roughly 75-80% of the total defensive snaps), and make about 45 tackles, 7 to 12 sacks and bat down and hand-full of balls at the line of scrimmage. He might also use his excellent size/speed combo to make some of those ridiculous splash plays this team has been lacking since Julius Peppers left after the 2009 season.

All of that sounds great, right? But what will Williams' price tag be if he does make it to free agency? Can the Panthers afford to sign such a highly coveted free agent? Obviously Marty Hurney, in the recent past, has shied away from signing this type of player. But if the Panthers were able to move some money around, restructuring the back-loaded deals for Jordan Gross, Steve Smith and Travelle Wharton, they might be able to sign a marquee player on defense (seeing as six of the eight highest-paid Panthers are offensive guys). But even with that, Hurney will still need to reserve enough cap space for other mid and low level free agents, as well as all of the 2012 draft picks.

The undeniable truth is: Mario Williams is going to command a huge salary, and the Panthers are already paying one defensive end an average of roughly $12 Million over the next five seasons. If Williams will sign a three or four year deal for $7 or 8M per season, it could be done, but there would still be some injury and production-related risks involved.

Overall, the chances of either player signing with the Panthers this offseason is slight, but if Marty Hurney and company are firmly committed to improving the pass rush, they have to expect to pay a high price. One thing Hurney doesn't want to do is hold back during the next three off-seasons, because in order to keep the Panthers' franchise QB in Charlotte for a second contract, he'll need to prove that he is doing everything in his power to make the Panthers a winner. Patience is no longer a word in the NFL vernacular.

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