Panthers aim to balance free agency under salary cap

Splash won't be as big as last season, but key pieces to puzzle on deck for Carolina

jperson@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 12, 2012 

— The Panthers don't have as many of their own free agents to sign as they did last year. And this year's group might not have the big names who will be eligible for free agency in 2013.

But several of the 10 players who can become unrestricted free agents when the league year ends March 13 made lasting impressions with their locker room leadership, as well as their play, during coach Ron Rivera's first season in Charlotte.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey was lauded by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and others for the nasty streak he brought to a team missing that edge throughout the two-win season in 2010. He was a nice complement to Greg Olsen, but Shockey will turn 32 in August and likely will be looking for a deal worth close to the $4 million he made this season.

That could be prohibitive to a team that is tight against the salary cap after last summer's spending spree. The Panthers locked up seven of their core players with long-term deals, including all three starting linebackers, defensive end Charles Johnson, safety Charles Godfrey, running back DeAngelo Williams and center Ryan Kalil.

The Panthers have a current cap number of about $123 million, right on a 2012 cap projected to range between $121 million and $125 million.

With Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart among the Panthers who will be unrestricted in 2013, the team will have to be judicious in free agency this year.

"We made a lot of aggressive moves to keep our own players, our core, like we said we were," general manager Marty Hurney said recently. "And with those aggressive moves, the bulk of our salary cap space is used with our core players right now, which is a good position to be in because when you look at our top-paid players, they're all core players. They're all very important players to us.

"Now we just have to make the right decisions as far as free agents go - our own and free agents from other teams - to complement those players and fit in both as players and into our salary-cap structure."

The Observer breaks down the Panthers' potential free agents into three categories - high priority, medium priority and low priority.

HIGH PRIORITY

TE Jeremy Shockey

Age: 31

Experience: 10 seasons

Last season: Shockey caught 37 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns and missed only one game to injury.

Outlook: Though not the same receiver he was a decade ago, Shockey still is a dependable target, particularly in the red zone. If his asking price is too high, Panthers could turn to Gary Barnidge, who was having a great 2011 camp before breaking his ankle.

DE Antwan Applewhite

Age: 26

Experience: 4 seasons

Last season: Made 21 tackles, with two sacks and four quarterback pressures in 12 games after signing in October after San Francisco cut him.

Outlook: Like Shockey, Applewhite was a strong presence in the locker room. He can play linebacker and defensive end, and Rivera knows him from San Diego and trusts him. Will not command exorbitant salary.

G Geoff Hangartner

Age: 29

Experience: 7 seasons

Last season: Started 16 games at right guard during his second stint with Panthers after Buffalo released him.

Outlook: Hangartner is a durable player who fits in well with Kalil, Jordan Gross and Co. on a close-knit line. Could be expendable with guard/tackles Geoff Schwartz and Garry Williams returning from injuries.

LB Jordan Senn

Age: 27

Experience: 4 seasons

Last season: A special teams player his first three years, Senn made the most of his opportunity and finished fourth on the team in 73 tackles in just seven starts. He was the league leader in tackles (35) over the final three weeks of the season.

Outlook: Panthers need linebacker depth with Thomas Davis and Jon Beason coming off major surgeries and middle linebacker Dan Connor expected to leave via free agency. Senn also is reliable on special teams.

MEDIUM PRIORITY

WR Legedu Naanee

Age: 28

Experience: 5 seasons

Last season: Panthers' fourth-leading receiver with 44 catches for 467 yards. Ended the season on injured reserve after breaking a bone in his foot.

Outlook: Was a nice fill-in after David Gettis blew out his ACL in training camp and Brandon LaFell was slow to get going. But with Gettis returning and LaFell maturing, Naanee might not be needed.

QB Derek Anderson

Age: 28

Experience: 6 seasons

Last season: Did not play until Week 16 in a blowout win vs. Tampa Bay. Former Pro Bowler attempted zero passes in the final two games.

Outlook: Given his background and ties to offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, Anderson was a proven insurance policy for Cam Newton. But the Panthers might be looking for a backup - former N.C. State signal-caller Russell Wilson perhaps - who can also run the option like Newton.

LB Dan Connor

Age: 26

Experience: 4 seasons

Last season: Finished third on the team with 87 tackles, including 53 solo stops.

Outlook: The Panthers nearly lost Connor last year in the Olsen trade. Connor, who always has been in Beason's shadow, said he wants to test the market and likely will look to go somewhere he can start.

LOW PRIORITY

LB Omar Gaither

Age: 27

Experience: 6 seasons

Last season: Battled a knee injury throughout the year and did not have a tackle after Week 10.

Outlook: The Charlotte native averaged nearly eight tackles in his four starts but couldn't stay healthy.

G Mackenzy Bernadeau

Age: 26

Experience: 4 seasons

Last season: Made one start in place of injured Travelle Wharton vs. Atlanta in Week 14.

Outlook: Bernadeau is a smart player who started a combined 19 games in 2009 and 2010. The Panthers, however, have a number of younger players under contract at his position.

CB Cletis Gordon

Age: 29

Experience: 5 seasons

Last season: Signed as a free agent, Gordon hurt his shoulder in camp and spent the year on injured reserve.

Outlook: Will not be back.

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