Carolina Panthers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

Charles Edwards@@CEdwards80Contributor IMarch 7, 2014

Carolina Panthers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    The NFL free agency period is set to begin on March 11.  Many teams around the league will do everything possible to lock up key players before they are able to hit the open market.  The Carolina Panthers have made some noise and while the front office is still evaluating its roster, the start to this year's free agency has begun strong for the team.

    However, there remains a lot of work to be done and currently, Carolina has a little over $8.4 million left in cap room to make some moves.  Unfortunately, that means they will not be able to sign any marquee names that are in the market.

    It is far too early for fans to get apprehensive about the future of the team or the roster outlook.  A lot can still be done over the next few weeks to make the Panthers a competitive team and defend their divisional crown.

    Here are the things Carolina will need to do in order to win free agency in 2014.

     

    Salary cap figures via OvertheCap.com.

Starting Strong

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Carolina got off to an early, but effective start last weekend.  First, they were able to restructure the contracts of Ryan Kalil, Thomas Davis and Jonathan Stewart.  This allowed the Panthers to free up about $7.25 million in cap space.  Then, the team proceeded to make a couple of major moves.

    The team was able to re-sign kicker Graham Gano to a four-year deal and then a few hours later, defensive end Greg Hardy received the franchise tag. Both moves proved beneficial for everyone involved.  

    Gano took to Twitter to thank the organization and the fans after signing his new contract.

    Thank you everyone! I'm honored & blessed to be a part of the @Panthers organization! Time to get back to work. #BombSquad

    — Graham Gano (@GrahamGano) February 28, 2014

    Greg Hardy kept to his word and signed his franchise tag.  The deal will pay him $13.116 million for the season and while it is a little higher than previously expected, the Panthers should rest easy knowing they will still have two of the league's most formidable pass-rushers in the game.

    There is still a possibility the two sides can agree on a long-term contract but in order for that to happen, Carolina may have to restructure Charles Johnson's deal.

Restructure Charles Johnson's Contract

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    Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    The dilemma the Carolina Panthers could be faced with this time next year, will be whether or not they can keep both Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on the team.  Johnson's contract has him earning approximately $16.420 million in 2014.  That will be the kind of money Hardy is expecting when contract negotiations take place.  

    Carolina could feasibly keep both men beyond the 2014 season, but Johnson would need to restructure his current deal.  The money saved by doing this will allow the Panthers a better chance at extending Hardy's career in a Panthers uniform.  

    If a deal cannot be reached, Carolina will be forced to part ways Hardy. There is no way the team can afford to keep two highly paid defensive ends on the payroll.

    Johnson could be put in a position that could make him vilified by the fan base.  If he declines to restructure his contract, it could be perceived as a player being greedy and thinking more of himself than the well-being of his team.  The Panthers are still strong defensively without Hardy, so if 2014 is his last in Carolina, the team should have options going into the 2015 offseason.

Sign Viable and Affordable Free Agents at OT and WR

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    As noted in the introduction, Carolina lacks the funds to sign any big name players.  That does not mean they won't sign anyone in free agency.  They have a little money to work with and they could try to sign veterans at offensive tackle and wide receiver.  

    Jordan Gross is no longer with the team having retired last month.  There is a huge gap at left tackle with a glaring question mark facing the Panthers brass; who will protect Cam Newton's blindside?  There's a possibility that Byron Bell could be moved over, but he struggled at right tackle and it stands to reason he wouldn't be a great fit on the other side of the line.  

    An easier solution will be adding an affordable veteran wide receiver to the team and one name that is an intriguing option is former Seattle Seahawks receiver, Sidney Rice.  

    His addition is interesting in a couple of ways.  First, he could be very affordable as he has been limited by injuries during his professional career, but he still presents a big target for Newton to throw to on any given play.  Secondly, he played high school ball in nearby Gaffney, SC and later at the University of South Carolina.  

    A homecoming of sorts would be nice and if he can be bought at an affordable price and have a productive year in Charlotte, he could help improve the offense and serve as another quality signing by Dave Gettleman.

Roll the Dice with Captain Munnerlyn

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    It worked last year, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee success a second time around. Captain Munnerlyn entered free agency last season and after not finding any team willing to sign him long term, he remained with Carolina on a one-year deal.  He made the most of it and turned in his best season to date.

    There is a possibility that fortune will not favor the Panthers a second time.  Munnerlyn could find a team willing to pay him for the long haul and that would prompt Carolina to find his replacement either through the free-agent market or the draft.  

    Since tagging Greg Hardy took a big chunk out of the salary cap, the Panthers will be limited in what they can offer Munnerlyn.  If they decide to roll the dice and gamble on the possibility he will still be around late in the signing period, he could be had at a very cost-friendly deal.  

    It's unlikely he signs a one-year contract with another team.  If he does, he should be staying with the Panthers.  Munnerlyn put on a great show last year and could be rewarded for his efforts.  Carolina will be holding onto hope that other teams will deem his performance as a flash-in-the-pan and be hesitant to offer him a lucrative deal.

Repeat Last Year's Blueprint for Success

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    One thing Dave Gettleman did well in free agency last year was make the most with limited resources. Much like this season, he couldn't splurge on top names in the market and had to settle with signing a lot of players to one-year contracts.  The move paid off in regards to Captain Munnerlyn, Ted Ginn Jr. and Mike Mitchell.  

    The latter two will probably be back in Carolina for next season, but it's still early.  

    Gettleman will probably employ this strategy to find a viable solution at areas of need.  It served the team well in 2013 and as the saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

    Granted, he has managed to rub Steve Smith the wrong way with comments about him at the combine. Still, there is no questioning what he can do at the negotiating table and his knack for finding solid contributors from free agent cast-offs and those who went undrafted.

    Hopefully, the situation will resolve itself and allow the team to press on without any unnecessary distractions.  Gettleman's job is to build a winner and if he feels a free agent—veteran or otherwise—can be brought in at an affordable price and help contribute, he will not hesitate to pull the trigger.