Examining Every Free Agent at Four Key Positions

As we close-in on the opening of the new league year, next Tuesday, March 13th, there are Panthers fans who envision big-name free agent signings. They want house-hold names who can fix all of the Panthers' problems--and fix them in one offseason. On the contrary, the cynic would point to the two-year period before the lockout when the Panthers did not sign a single free agent, and would view that as a sign of things to come.

What will actually happen is somewhere in the middle of these opposing lunatic fringes...Will the Panthers sign Mario Williams, Cortland Finnegan, Lawrence Timmons, John Abraham and Paul Soliai to fix their floundering defense? Will they sign Mike Wallace, Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson and D'Brickashaw Ferguson to upgrade the offense to all-world status? No, they will not. Even with the cap-room, they would not target many (if any) of those players.

Conversely, will the Panthers ignore free agency all together, as they did in 2009 and 2010? No, they cannot. The foundation has been laid, and expectations have reached an all-time high in Carolina. But with the cap situation as it is, how will Marty Hurney and company handle free agency, while retaining enough cap space for the draft and for injury replacements? Let's take a look, after the jump...

You've probably heard the adage: 'address your holes in free agency, and take the best players in the draft.' So the first step in creating a free agency plan would be to identify your needs. This is certainly up for debate, but in order, the Panthers' most pressing needs are: DT, CB, S, and OLB. The next step in formulating a plan of attack is evaluating the available free agents at those four positions.

First, I will list all unrestricted free agents plainly, followed by their 2011 team (lists are from www.ProFootballWeekly.com). Then we'll take a moment to examine each position, in hopes of determining who might be a fit with the Carolina Panthers in 2012 (and perhaps beyond):

DT

Anthony Adams, Chicago
Rocky Bernard, New York Giants
Desmond Bryant, Oakland
Tim Bulman, Houston
Brodrick Bunkley, Denver
Nate Collins, Jacksonville
Jermelle Cudjo, St. Louis
Antonio Dixon, Philadelphia
Leger Douzable, Jacksonville
Fred Evans, Minnesota
Andre Fluellen, Detroit
Eric Foster, Indianapolis
Aubrayo Franklin, New Orleans
Antonio Garay, San Diego
Gary Gibson, St. Louis
Amon Gordon, Kansas City
Howard Green, Green Bay
Kelly Gregg, Kansas City
Letroy Guion, Minnesota
Tommie Harris, San Diego
Nick Hayden, Cincinnati
Jovan Haye, Tampa Bay
Albert Haynesworth, Tampa Bay
Sammie Lee Hill, Detroit
Jimmy Kennedy, New York Giants
Derek Landri, Philadelphia
Kyle Love, New England
Brandon McKinney, Baltimore
Steve McLendon, Pittsburgh
C.J. Mosley, Jacksonville
Amobi Okoye, Chicago
Jeremy Parnell, Dallas
Sione Pouha, New York Jets
Shaun Rogers, New Orleans
Brian Schaefering, Cleveland
Malcolm Sheppard, Tennessee
Pat Sims, Cincinnati
Paul Soliai, Miami
Marcus Thomas, Denver
Vance Walker, Atlanta

If the Panthers are looking for help at the position, it can certainly be found. It may not come cheap, but there is some talent there. The thing the Panthers can't afford to do is get into a bidding war over someone like Antonio Garay, Sione Pouha, Paul Soliai or Sammie Lee Hill (although Garay remains a possibility because of the Rivera connection).

The next group of guys--the good starters/solid rotational guys--are who the Panthers should focus on. Guys like Brodrick Bunkley, Amobi Okoye, Andre Fluellen, Kelly Gregg, Shaun Rodgers and Aubrayo Franklin. One of these guys could be affordable, and could come in and give us 30 to 40 snaps a game in a specific role.

The Panthers approach to this position could tell us a little more about their draft board. If they don't sniff a DT in free agency, then they'll probably look for one early in the draft. Or, I suppose they could stick their head in the sand and ignore the position all-together, citing the potential and development of underwhelming, ineffective rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain.

CB

Jason Allen, Houston
Will Allen, Miami
Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay
Will Blackmon, New York Giants
Zack Bowman, Chicago
Tramaine Brock, San Francisco
Phillip Buchanon, Washington
Jarrett Bush, Green Bay
Brandon Carr, Kansas City
Chris Carr, Baltimore
Michael Coe, New York Giants
Marquice Cole, New York Jets
Reggie Corner, Buffalo
Kennard Cox, Seattle
Travis Daniels, Kansas City
Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee
Domonique Foxworth, Baltimore
William Gay, Pittsburgh
Danny Gorrer, Baltimore
Corey Graham, Chicago
Kelvin Hayden, Atlanta
Roderick Hood, St. Louis
A.J. Jefferson, Arizona
Tim Jennings, Chicago
Kelly Jennings, Cincinnati
Bruce Johnson, New York Giants
Adam Jones, Cincinnati
David Jones, Jacksonville
Nathan Jones, New England
Justin King, St. Louis
Jacob Lacey, Indianapolis
Patrick Lee, Green Bay
Keenan Lewis, Pittsburgh
Roy Lewis, Seattle
Elbert Mack, Tampa Bay
Richard Marshall, Arizona
Sheratan Mathis, Jacksonville
Bryan McCann, Oakland
Brandon McDonald, Detroit
Bryant McFadden, Pittsburgh
William Middleton, Jacksonville
Antwaun Molden, New England
Paul Oliver, San Diego
Dimitri Patterson, Cleveland
Tracy Porter, New Orleans
Carlos Rogers, San Francisco
Aaron Ross, New York Giants
Benny Sapp, Minnesota
Lito Sheppard, Oakland
Reggie Smith, San Francisco
R.J. Stanford, Carolina
Donald Strickland, New York Jets
Terrell Thomas, New York Giants
Greg Toler, Arizona
Leigh Torrence, New Orleans
Justin Tryon, New York Giants
Frank Walker, Dallas
Lardarius Webb, Baltimore
Byron Westbrook, Washington
Jonathan Wilhite, Denver
Cary Williams, Baltimore
Eric Wright, Detroit

Cornerback is just as interesting. Could the Panthers make a run at Chris Carr, Cortland Finnegan, Tracy Porter or Carlos Rodgers? Probably not. But if they do, it means they don't have any of the top draft-eligible cornerbacks high on their board. The four guys mentioned above will command $6 or $7M per year, so we would have to do some serious restructuring with guys like Wharton, Gross and Thomas Davis, and then re-sign Steve Smith to get his 2012 cap number down. The Panthers need a viable number two CB. Singing one of those guys would provide a number 1a, right behind Chris Gamble.

A top-level free agent CB would probably be the way to go. The fact is, Chris Gamble is pretty good. QBs are going to ignore him and pick on our number two CB, as we saw in 2011 with Captain Munnerlyn. That means they need a second CB who is good in coverage more than anything else. Unfortunately, guys who can cover are guys who can demand more money than the Panthers will be willing to spend on any single free agent this year.

More likely, the Panthers will look at guys like Jarret Bush (who they cut four or five years ago in camp), Jacob Lacey, Aaron Ross and AJ Jefferson. This type of player would probably be an instant upgrade at the number two CB spot. Worst case scenario, these guys are a third or fourth CB. You need four solid CBs now, anyway. These four guys will require a yearly salary anywhere from $1.5 to $3M. The Panthers can afford to pay a starter that kind of money, particularly if he helps our defensive secondary.

Safety

Hamza Abdullah, Arizona
Husain Abdullah, Minnesota
Mike Adams, Cleveland
Jordan Babineaux, Tennessee
Alan Ball, Dallas
Dominique Barber, Houston
Atari Bigby, Seattle
Stevie Brown, Indianapolis
C.C. Brown, Jacksonville
James Butler, St. Louis
Erik Coleman, Detroit
Sean Considine, Arizona
Jon Corto, Buffalo
Craig Dahl, St. Louis
Brian Dawkins, Denver
Quintin Demps, Houston
Abram Elam, Dallas
Matt Giordano Oakland
Courtney Greene, Jacksonville
Steve Gregory, San Diego
Chris Harris, Detroit
James Ihedigbo, New England
Rashad Johnson, Arizona
Tyrell Johnson, Minnesota
Sean Jones, Tampa Bay
LaRon Landry, Washington
Reshard Langford, Kansas City
Bret Lockett, New England
Dwight Lowery, Jacksonville
Corey Lynch, Tampa Bay
Derrick Martin, New York Giants
Kyle McCarthy, Denver
Jon McGraw, Kansas City
Brandon Meriweather, Chicago
Jeromy Miles, Cincinnati
Ryan Mundy, Pittsburgh
Haruki Nakamura, Baltimore
Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati
Jarrad Page, Minnesota
Sabby Piscitelli, Kansas City
Brodney Pool, New York Jets
James Sanders, Atlanta
Bob Sanders, San Diego
Bryan Scott, Buffalo
Anthony Smith, Tennessee
Craig Steltz, Chicago
Darian Stewart, St. Louis
Madieu Williams, San Francisco
Gibril Wilson, Cincinnati
Tom Zbikowski, Baltimore

This is where the talent gets a little thin. It appears that teams are starting to value the safety position a little more than in the past. All of the top safetys who were set to be free agents in 2012 were either re-signed or hit with the franchise tag.

The best of the rest are LaRon Landry and his muscles, Haruki Nakamura, Reggie Nelson, and Steve Gregory. It would be great to add one of these guys, pair him with Charles Godfrey, and cut ties with Sherrod Martin. But all four of these players will be looking for several million dollars per season, so they may have priced themselves out of the Panthers reach.

The Panthers don't necessarily need to add a pro-bowler to the mix at safety...just someone who is good enough to beat out Sherrod Martin. Once again, the second-level player is who the Panthers will look at for competition at safety. Guys like Craig Dahl, Quintin Demps, Dwight Lowery and Tom Zbikowski fit that profile.

OLB (some of these guys are DEs in a 4-3 system)

Xavier Adibi, Minnesota
Russell Allen, Jacksonville
Patrick Bailey, Tennessee
Marcus Benard, Cleveland
Kevin Bentley, Indianapolis
Jerome Boyd, Oakland
Keith Brooking, Dallas
Cody Brown, Detroit
Bobby Carpenter, Detroit
Jonathan Casillas, New Orleans
Chris Chamberlain, St. Louis
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, New Orleans
Isaiah Ekejiuba, Detroit
Heath Farwell, Seattle
Omar Gaither, Carolina
Quentin Groves, Oakland
Gary Guyton, New England
Mario Haggan, Denver
Clark Haggans, Arizona
Geno Hayes, Tampa Bay
Erin Henderson, Minnesota
Leroy Hill, Seattle
Jason Hunter, Denver
Brandon Johnson, Cincinnati
Jarret Johnson, Baltimore
Bryan Kehl, St. Louis
Manny Lawson, Cincinnati
Rocky McIntosh, Washington
Brit Miller, St. Louis
Jarvis Moss, Oakland
Kenny Onatolu, Minnesota
Ashlee Palmer, Detroit
Mike Peterson, Atlanta
Brady Poppinga, St. Louis
Joey Porter, Arizona
Vincent Rey, Cincinnati
Matt Roth, Jacksonville
Jordan Senn, Carolina
Ernie Sims, Indianapolis
Dan Skuta, Cincinnati
Austin Spitler, Miami
Bryan Thomas, New York Jets
David Vobora, Seattle
Erik Walden, Green Bay
Philip Wheeler, Indianapolis
Tracy White, New England
Chavis Williams, Baltimore
Thomas Williams, Carolina
Mario Williams, Houston
Wesley Woodyard, Denver

Outside of Mario Williams, who would be a DE in the Panthers' scheme, there aren't really many stars in this list. Jarrett Johnson, Matt Roth and Rocky McIntosh are the second-level guys, and they'll all want to be starters on their new team (a position we can't promise them with TD still on the roster).

One of the more realistic signings would be a guy like Manny Lawson. Signing a guy like Lawson would be the Panthers' equivalent of making a splash in free agency. He would bring a few things to the table, as he can play either WLB or SLB and can be a rush-end in passing situations.

Gary Guyton is a solid coverage LB. He would be nice to have when we play teams with a great TE. The most likely course of action, however, would be re-signing Jordan Senn and Thomas Williams. They are both young, relatively healthy, they know the system, would be cheap and can both play special teams. Don't be surprised to see both of them brought back (but bringing them back as key reserves/TD insurance still leaves us weak in coverage).

So there you have it...A few names to monitor in the coming week. Keep any eye out for some Panthers news over the next five or six days. They have no choice but to cut, restructure or re-sign some players to get under the cap by the start of the new league year. The more Panthers news you see, the more free agents they like. It may be tough to see some guys go, but know that there is a plan in place.

(Can't wait to see how it shakes out.)

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