The Carolina Panthers made a big splash last summer when the NFL lockout ended. They signed their star players to big contracts at a dizzying rate and traded for tight end Greg Olsen to give their rookie quarterback a security-blanket target it turned out he didn’t need.
Free agency this year hasn’t been about big splashes; it has been about filling needs.
While bringing in offensive linemen and special teams players doesn’t make for sexy headlines, the Panthers have accomplished three things:
• They addressed a special teams unit that was among the worst in the league in 2011.
• They added offensive line depth by re-signing Geoff Hangartner and acquiring Bruce Campbell and Mike Pollak, who could take over the left guard spot vacated by the release of Travelle Wharton.
• They brought another weapon to the Cam Newton-led offense with the signing of versatile back Mike Tolbert.
Though the defensive players the Panthers acquired were more complementary players, team officials hope the return of several injured starters – linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards – will add teeth to a defense that finished 28th in Ron Rivera’s first season.
The Panthers also will look to the draft for defensive help. Most of the players they appear to be eyeing for their first-round pick are defenders.
While most of their needs fall on the defensive side, the Panthers also want to continue adding to an explosive offense that finished among the top 10 last year behind Newton and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
“On our offensive side, our philosophy is we’ve got to put athletes and play-makers around Cam Newton,” Rivera said last week at the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.
The Tolbert signing is Exhibit A in that philosophy of making your strength stronger.
Other than quarterback, running back was arguably the position of least need for the Panthers, on the surface anyway. They have a pair of former 1,000-yard backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart under contract, and had trouble finding enough touches for them last season when Newton attempted 517 passes.
But Rivera and Chudzinski, who were in San Diego with Tolbert, knew about his versatility as a runner, blocker, receiver and special teams player. Plus, Tolbert serves as insurance if the Panthers aren’t able to re-sign Stewart next year.
“If you look at what happened last year with our offense, we didn’t have a pure, true fullback in terms of a guy that has the ability to not just block, but go out into the routes, run the flat route and catch the ball, run the pivot route and catch the ball, pass protect on a consistent basis,” Rivera said.
“Everybody keeps saying he’s a tailback. But he’s a fullback to us. Because again, we saw how we had used him in San Diego. We just thought this is a guy we’d love to have. … If you can put an athletic, play-making fullback there, I think it helps you.”
The Panthers feel like they helped their special teams by adding Tolbert, former Minnesota linebacker Kenny Onatolu and ex-Baltimore free safety Haruki Nakamura. All three were among the leading special teams tacklers on their former teams, and immediately should boost the Panthers’ coverage teams.
The Panthers released punter Jason Baker after he had an NFL-worst 34.1-yard net average in 2011. But that figure was hurt by a coverage team that allowed a franchise-high three returns for touchdowns.
The Panthers will bring in a punter who is younger and cheaper than Baker, who had a cap figure of nearly $2 million this year.
“We’ve got some options, whether it’s in veteran free agency or the draft or rookie free agency,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “We feel like we’ve got some options there that we can be patient.”
In addition to Nakamura’s special teams background, the Panthers believe he can compete with Sherrod Martin for a starting spot after Nakamura backed up Pro Bowler Ed Reed for four years in Baltimore. Martin will go to camp as the incumbent, but he will have someone pushing him after his disappointing 2011.
“We feel like we’ve addressed some areas, brought in some guys that can compete to start,” Hurney said. “And I think you see a theme that all of them will be able to help on special teams.”
In unloading running back Mike Goodson to Oakland, the Panthers got something in return for an extra back who might have been cut, and added a big body along the offensive line in 6-foot-6, 315-pound Campbell.
The Goodson trade was one of two moves the Panthers made Friday. They also re-signed defensive end Antwan Applewhite for the veteran minimum $700,000 – a good deal for a team that remains tight against the salary cap.
The Panthers will continue to look for other value signings. They remain in talks with tight end Jeremy Shockey, although Drew Rosenhaus, his agent, said last week he thinks Shockey will end up elsewhere.
Shockey made $4 million last year, and the Panthers are not interested at that price.
The Panthers’ focus will shift to the draft. They are more likely to trade down than up from the ninth selection, in an effort to add picks and fill needs – on both sides of the ball.
“I think we can use help in a variety of places. Obviously, we need to improve our defense to make that stronger,” Hurney said. “But we also want to constantly put weapons around our quarterback and make our offense as strong as it can be in a time where offenses sort of dictate games. You have to be able to score in this league to be able to compete, especially in our division.
“I think we’re going into the draft like we did free agency. We didn’t go in with any agendas. We just sort of monitored the free-agent market and came up with what we thought were good football players that could help improve our team. I think that’s the same approach we’ll take in the draft.”