Panthers' roster shapes up

A truckload of transactions aimed at positioning the Panthers for long-term success became official Friday, when the NFL's free agency period began.

Many of the moves revolved around making commitments to the team's core free agents.

The Panthers re-signed running back DeAngelo Williams - the leading rusher in franchise history - defensive end Charles Johnson and linebacker James Anderson to long-term deals. They also locked up linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis - who already were under contract - with extensions.

Those moves are in addition to the placing of the franchise tag on center Ryan Kalil in February, a move that assured that another key potential free agent would remain in the fold.

"Coming out of last season, with Ryan Kalil, Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams and James Anderson - I think any list that you looked at that listed free agents had those four guys either at the top or near the top," Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney said. "I heard a lot of people say we wouldn't be able to keep all those guys, but we have said for a year our intention was to keep our core players. You feel good when you can accomplish that."

Carolina also is wrapping up the process of taking care of its newest crop of talent, signing No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton to a contract Friday evening. Seven of the Panthers' eight draft picks - all but defensive tackle Terrell McClain - have signed on the dotted line.

The Panthers also made some splashes with free agents from other teams. They signed a potential starter for the middle of the defensive front in tackle Ron Edwards - formerly with the Kansas City Chiefs - and acquired a versatile veteran in former Seattle Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare. They also signed linebacker Omar Gaither, previously with Philadelphia, and defensive back Sean Considine, previously with Jacksonville.

Mare, signed to a four-year deal, will take over for legendary kicker John Kasay and will handle both field goals and kickoffs. Edwards, a 10-year veteran who signed a three-year deal, could anchor a young defensive interior.

"I think Ron's influence and impact in that room will be very solid for our young guys, and on the field he's going to help our linebackers," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a big, stout, physical guy One thing I said when I got here was that we needed to become more stout at the point of attack so our linebackers can play downhill. Watching Ron on tape, that excites you."

Turning the linebackers loose should be a sight to see, with Beason as proven as they come, Davis itching to come back from two knee injuries and Anderson coming off a career year. And there's still Dan Connor, who broke out in place of Davis last year, plus the addition of Gaither.

"It's good. There's a lot of talent out there, and we've all played together for three years now," Connor said of himself along with the trio of Beason, Davis and Anderson. "It's nice to have that unity, and there's good depth there - a good solid position that you can build a defense around."

The defensive line will be built around Johnson, who signed a six-year deal after ranking in the top 10 in the NFL with 11.5 sacks a year ago.

"I like that type of pressure," Johnson said. "It's all good. I'll just take that and use it as motivation and just work hard - like I always do.

"I'm excited. Mr. (Jerry) Richardson gave out some money this year to a lot of players. I'm pumped."
And Rivera is pumped about Johnson.

"We feel like he's really going to be important to what we want to do defensively," Rivera said. "Anytime you have an opportunity to get a rush guy that can get double-digit sacks but also a guy that can control the line of scrimmage at the point of attack and handle the run, that's huge."

Speaking of running, Rivera expressed much the same enthusiasm about Williams in the offensive backfield.

Just five years into his NFL career, Williams ranks first in Panthers history in rushing yards (4,211), rushing touchdowns (31) and 100-yard rushing games (15). The 28-year-old also ranks second among current NFL running backs with a career average of 5.0 yards per carry.

"He's had a great career here," Rivera said. "We look forward to him getting back on track and being the impact running back that he's capable of being."

In 2009, Williams and teammate Jonathan Stewart became the first tandem in NFL history to rush for 1,100 yards in the same season. In 2010, Williams played in just six games before suffering a right foot injury in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers, but he played in 58 of 64 games in his previous four seasons.

"We really and truly believe that after missing part of last year, he's going to be healthy and fresh," Rivera said. "This team has had two guys rush for 1,100 yards. If we get back to that form with our offensive line healthy and together again, that's going to take a tremendous amount of pressure off our starting quarterback."

In addition to re-signing several of their own free agents and signing a few from other teams, the Panthers signed several veteran free agents. They went heavy in the secondary with cornerback Cletis Gordon and safeties De'von Hall and Kevin Payne, and they also signed tight end Ben Hartsock and fullback Richard Brockel.

Most of the roster work is now taken care for the Panthers' front office, but some more is still to come on the eve of training camp. Teams will carry 90 players this year rather than the 80 they did last year.

So far, so good.

"We have said for over a year that our plan was to re-sign our core players. We have accomplished that," Hurney said. "What we've done over the last year-and-a-half has created the room to allow us to keep all these players and to do some of these things.

"We knew we had a lot of young players that were going to be very difficult to keep, but basically the situation was that while some teams had to get under the salary cap, we had enough room to keep our core players and add some of other players."

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