CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers began the new league year by releasing five players -- a group headlined by their starting quarterback of the last seven years, Jake Delhomme.
"I don't know whether there's a harder decision I've faced in my career," general manager Marty Hurney said. "He's been spectacular for us."
Carolina also parted ways with defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis and linebackers Na'il Diggs and Landon Johnson.
The moves were formally announced by Hurney and head coach John Fox at a press conference Friday morning at Bank of America Stadium.
"We obviously have made some difficult decisions with guys who have been with us for a while and mean a lot to us and done everything we've asked," Hurney said. "This time of year you have to make hard decisions, and this certainly falls into that category."
The voices of both men crackled with emotion when discussing Delhomme, who in seven years as the starting quarterback became the offense's emotional and spiritual leader while guiding the Panthers to a Super Bowl, two division titles and three playoff appearances.
"I don't know whether there's a harder decision that I've faced in my career," Hurney said. "He's been spectacular for us. He's the kind of player and person that we look for.
"It's hard not to get emotional when you talk about it, because he epitomizes everything we want. He's been an excellent player for us. He's been a leader."
Financial factors were "not at all" a factor in the decisions, Hurney said.
"I was taught a long time ago that the right thing to do is to make the right decision at that time for your football team," he said.
"A YOUNG MAN'S GAME"
The obvious thread among the Panthers' recent moves -- from Friday's cuts to the decision to allow Julius Peppers to test the free-agent market -- is the emphasis on giving younger players a greater chance to contribute.
"I think the common theme around it, as I alluded to last week, we have some young players who have shown the potential and the ability to step up and fill those spots," Hurney said.
"Sometimes you have to force yourself to give (young) guys that opportunity and that experience."
The five players released Friday averaged eight years of experience and 31.4 years of age, with only one (Johnson) younger than 31. The Panthers' eight unrestricted free agents average 9.6 years of experience and 31.9 years of age.
When factoring in the three restricted free agents to whom qualifying offers were not tendered, the Panthers now have 55 players under contract, down from 71 two weeks ago. The average age on the roster has dropped from 26.4 years to 25.1 years; the average experience has dropped from 4.10 years to 3.14 years -- or by 26.5 percent.
"It's a young man's game, and part of being successful is developing young players," head coach John Fox said.
For Delhomme, it's obvious. The reins of the offense were essentially handed to Matt Moore on Friday morning, with Hurney declaring that the three-year veteran who started the last five games of 2009 was the "No. 1" man at the position.
"It was time," Hurney said.
At linebacker, Johnson provided depth at all three positions after he failed to dislodge Diggs from the starting strongside position during a training-camp battle in 2008. Diggs remained with the first team throughout the last two seasons on the strong side, and Hurney indicated that a pair of third-round picks -- James Anderson (2006) and Dan Connor (2008) -- were ready to step into greater roles.
"They would be two pretty good options to get on the field in our opinion," Hurney said.
Anderson is a restricted free agent who was tendered at a third-round level this week. Both Anderson and Connor filled in for an injured Diggs last year: Anderson started on the strong side at Dallas in Week 3 while Connor played the entire game at New England in Week 14.
The release of Lewis and Kemoeatu and the unrestricted-free-agent status of Hollis Thomas leaves the Panthers with six defensive tackles who have a combined four starts with the team -- three from Nick Hayden alone. Four-year veteran Louis Leonard was acquired via trade last September and started once last year before breaking his ankle; he is a restricted free agent who was tendered at a second-round level. Another four-year veteran, Tank Tyler, was acquired in a swap with Kansas City last year and was tendered at a third-round level this week.
Rounding out the remaining tackles are 2009 third-round pick Corvey Irvin, late-season signee Derek Landri and February signee Ed Johnson, who played in coordinator Ron Meeks' defense with the Colts.
"What happened at defensive tackle was last year, in training camp after Maake went down (with a torn Achilles tendon), that was probably our biggest position of need," Hurney said. "We were very aggressive and went out and made a couple trades (of) draft choices and got Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler.
"We feel like we've got some young guys at defensive tackle who can step up."
The same is true at defensive end, where both of last year's primary starters -- Peppers and Tyler Brayton -- are unrestricted free agents, leaving 2007 draftee Charles Johnson and 2009 pick Everette Brown as the top players at the position under contract.
"They are two relatively high draft choices," Hurney said. "Charles has gotten better every year. Everette certainly came in and played a role for us last year, and I think showed a lot of ability."
But the answers to all the questions might not be on the roster yet.
"To say there will be no more change at any position, including quarterback, would be a false statement," Fox said.
"As John said, we have to look as we go and keep an open mind," Hurney said. "Obviously, anything we can do to add depth there, we will do."