The free agency period starts Tuesday in the NFL, but the Carolina Panthers’ biggest deals already have been made.
In the chaotic days after the lockout ended last summer, the Panthers moved quickly to make sure their core players wouldn’t go elsewhere.
Charles Johnson. DeAngelo Williams. James Anderson. Jon Beason. Thomas Davis.
You couldn’t walk into the Wofford cafeteria at the team’s training camp without bumping into a newly minted player. The Panthers weren’t done, either, as they gave extensions to center Ryan Kalil and safety Charles Godfrey before the first regular-season game.
The flurry of transactions was in keeping with owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney’s philosophy: Build through the draft and reward the best home-grown talent. The moves also are part of the reason the Panthers are a reported $9 million over the salary cap, which is expected to be close to the $120.4 million ceiling of a year ago, the first under the new collective bargaining agreement.
The Panthers’ cap situation – combined with the fact that their list of unrestricted free agents includes few big names – means the team will allow most, if not all, of them to hit the market.
There are only four starters from last season among the 11 free agents – tight end Jeremy Shockey, right guard Geoff Hangartner and linebackers Dan Connor and Jordan Senn, although Connor and Senn were in the lineup due to injuries to Beason and Davis.
The Panthers could re-sign some of their free agents to value deals if they don’t land elsewhere.
Connor started 19 games the past two seasons, but wants the chance to be a full-time starter and is not expected back.
Senn said Saturday the Panthers told his agent they would not re-sign him before Tuesday’s start of the new league year.
“What I took from it is they want to look around in free agency or maybe the draft,” Senn said. “I was disappointed to hear that. I thought we would get at least an offer before the league year was over. Hopefully I’ll have a couple teams call me.”
Hangartner, 29, who was cut by Buffalo at the end of last preseason, started 16 games at right guard for the Panthers after signing a 1-year deal worth $1 million following season-ending injuries in camp to Geoff Schwartz and Garry Williams.
It was Hangartner’s second stint with the Panthers, and he said he would like to stay in Charlotte. Eric Metz, Hangartner’s agent, has been talking with the Panthers about a new deal for Hangartner.
Shockey, 31, was the Panthers’ fifth-leading receiver in 2011 and was praised for bringing an attitude to the offensive huddle. But with tight end Greg Olsen, who turns 27 today, in his prime and under contract through 2015, the Panthers are not likely to pay Shockey the $4 million he made last year.
Meanwhile, Davis’ deal calls for him to receive an $8 million option bonus next week. The Panthers have said they have a plan to get below the cap before Tuesday, and restructuring Davis’ contract is likely part of that plan.
Davis, who is attempting to become the first player to return from three ACL surgeries on the same knee, said he expects to work something out with the Panthers. It figures to be an incentive-laden deal with little guaranteed money.
Hurney said recently that, given last summer’s signings, the Panthers will look now for free agents to complement the team’s core. That means Houston defensive end Mario Williams or Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan, two of this year’s highest-profile free agents, won’t be in the plans.
One possible free agent to keep an eye on is defensive end Luis Castillo, who was released by San Diego last week for salary-cap purposes.
Castillo, 28, started 79 of 82 games with San Diego, averaging three sacks a game in his six full seasons. Castillo broke his leg last year in the opener against Minnesota and missed the rest of the season.
The Panthers recently took a flier on another ex-Chargers defensive end, signing Jyles Tucker to a 1-year deal, with a base salary of $700,000. Tucker suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in 2010, and was released by San Diego after the lockout.