Dayton Fliers: Free agency marches forward

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the NFL's modern free agency system.

Two decades ago, who could have foreseen the period rivaling March Madness in the media spotlight?

It's a long way from something called Plan B free agency, the late 1980s version of the system that allowed a team to protect a certain number of players on its roster, leaving the rest as fair game for other teams.

There wasn't the headline frenzy of today, but it could be productive. In Washington, the Redskins signed a couple defensive backs – Martin Mayhew and Brad Edwards – who were starters on their last Super Bowl championship team. Mayhew now sees today's version of free agency from a different perspective as general manager of the Detroit Lions.

While it doesn't go by the same name, some teams still practice a form of Plan B free agency. The Packers, Ravens, and Giants appear to fall into that category, rarely pursuing the names in lights. The Panthers have also chosen to go off Broadway for nearly a decade with pretty good results.

In 2003, quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Stephen Davis and receiver Ricky Proehl came to Carolina as under-the-radar free agents and left a significant imprint. Safety Marlon McCree, defensive tackle Damione Lewis, and guard Keydrick Vincent are others who quietly signed and contributed. Most recently, Jeremy Shockey traveled a similar path in an unusual offseason, signing with the Panthers last year just before the work stoppage.

An aspect of free agency that sometimes gets lost is the value of re-signing your own players before they hit the market. The Panthers did this in recent years with defensive end Charles Johnson, center Ryan Kalil, linebackers Jon Beason and James Anderson, cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Charles Godfrey among others. Otherwise, all would have been near the top of any list of available free agents at their positions.

Neon names are alluring, and fans feel shut out when their team passes on them, though big contracts are not always a predictor of success. A splashy signing can create a natural envy, but it's only one path to adding players to the roster.

On last year's Panthers offense – which ranked fifth in points and seventh in yardage – eight of the 11 starters came to Carolina through the draft.  A ninth, rookie tackle Byron Bell, was a college free agent. The only two exceptions were the tight end tandem of Shockey and Greg Olsen, who was acquired in a trade with Chicago.

For all the excitement that can come in free agency, ultimately players are remembered by production, and sometimes the least notable additions can have sizable impact. Many years ago, five-time special teams Pro Bowler Michael Bates' arrival in Carolina was marked by a two-sentence release and a yawn. Before college free agent Brad Hoover was greeted by "Hooooov," it was "Who?"

Players come to a roster from every direction. In assembling the right cast of 53, the challenge is making wise choices – whether it is the number one pick in the draft like Cam Newton or a veteran player with a point to prove like Davis.

In the end, the difference is made by players who command the spotlight during the season. 

Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.

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