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Panthers executing free agency plan

Posted Mar 20, 2013

The Panthers have yet to make any headline-grabbing moves in free agency, a disappointment to some fans hoping they would make a major splash.

The addition of a big-time wide receiver or offensive lineman certainly would excite fans, but it's easy to forget that the Panthers did just that in the recent past – with a duo that's played in eight Pro Bowls between them.

Less than a year ago, the Panthers signed wide receiver Steve Smith to an extension heading into the final year of his contract. Less than two years ago, they extended center Ryan Kalil.

Same goes for defensive end Charles Johnson, running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, and safety Charles Godfrey.

If Carolina hadn't re-signed those players, they'd be making headlines by signing with other teams.

The Panthers took an aggressive tact when it came to re-signing their top performers in recent seasons, a decision that has forced a conservative approach in free agency. In today's NFL, you can't have it both ways.

As a result, new general manager Dave Gettleman inherited a challenging set of circumstances in regard to the omnipresent salary cap, meaning that slashing rather than spending was his first order of business.

Gettleman should be praised for how he got the team under the cap without inflicting a lot of bodily harm to the Panthers' prospects for success.

Few believed the Panthers could keep "Double Trouble" intact, yet Stewart and Williams were still on the roster when the new league year began March 12. Many thought the departure of a top-flight runner would be just one of a multitude of major losses forced by the cap, yet Gettleman essentially got there by parting ways with just a couple of players.

Cornerback Chris Gamble is the franchise's all-time leader in interceptions and was a valued leader at a young position group. But his contract – and the progress of younger corners – was such that the Panthers could have considered cutting ties even if there wasn't a salary cap issue.

Gamble, who has since expressed through his agent that he might retire, missed the final 12 games of 2012 with a shoulder injury. But rookie Josh Norman showed promise while starting the first 12 games of the season, and youngsters Josh Thomas and James Dockery emerged late as the pass defense got stronger as the season went on.

Carolina also released defensive tackle Ron Edwards, a space-eater in the middle. But given his age (33) and the fact that he missed the final five games of 2012 and all of 2011 with injuries, this was a move the Panthers could have made regardless of the cap.

Then, after getting under the cap, the team released linebacker James Anderson, a move designed to help ease cap constraints going forward. Anderson was designated as a post-June 1 cut, meaning the Panthers got no immediate cap relief but will benefit from it both later this summer as well as next year.

Gettleman has said he wants to improve the cap situation not only for 2013 but also for 2014 and beyond. Who can blame him? It won't be that long before the Panthers will have to start working toward making sure quarterback Cam Newton, for example, doesn't start making headlines elsewhere.

Gettleman is doing his best to control a situation that ultimately is out of his control – that is out of every general manager's control – as no decision no matter how smart it seems at the time is guaranteed to work out.

Smith, Johnson and Kalil have continued to excel since re-signing, and the faith shown in the oft-injured Davis was rewarded in 2012. But who could have foreseen that Beason, who barely missed a down let alone a game over his first four record-setting seasons, would have been stricken by significant injuries two years running?

The reality is that every move isn't going to yield maximum return. But don't forget that the same holds true for teams that spend heavily in free agency.

To date, the Panthers have signed two quality free agents who should upgrade the secondary. Former Chicago Bears cornerback D.J. Moore is an intriguing young prospect who picked off 10 passes over the past three seasons. Veteran corner Drayton Florence, who played for the Detroit Lions last season, has 18 career interceptions and a knack for making them at crucial times.

Around the league, the first week of free agency was at its typical level of craziness, with a multitude of big-name free agents finding new homes. No, the Panthers haven't added any truly big names, but no big-name Panthers have moved on, either.

The free agent frenzy will settle down as time goes on, as will the price tag for players still out of work. Gettleman will continue searching for players that work for the Panthers, players that can make a difference while also making sense from a financial standpoint.

Because at the end of the day, Gettleman's goal isn't to make headlines related to winning bidding wars. He wants to make headlines related to winning games.