Panthers enter free agency with plenty of holes to fill Print
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Friday, 29 February 2008 00:40
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 CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -DeShaun Foster, Dan Morgan, Mike Wahle and David Carr were sent packing. Jordan Gross received the franchise tag. Muhsin Muhammad was signed to shore up the wide receiver spot.
Now the Carolina Panthers, determined to return to the playoffs after two dismal seasons, begin the second leg of their busy offseason Friday when free agency begins.
``We have a lot of needs,'' general manager Marty Hurney said. ``We have a lot of areas that we want to improve in. It's just what comes up and is the right fit.''
Already this offseason is much different from last year when the Panthers, content with 21 of 22 starters returning, did little with their roster.
The plan didn't work as Carolina finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for a second straight year. While Hurney and coach John Fox were retained by owner Jerry Richardson, they face pressure to turn things around in 2008.
Hence the moves so far. Carr, the only major offseason acquisition last year, was jettisoned after being so ineffective he ended up the No. 3 quarterback.
The injury-prone Morgan was let go after seven seasons of unfilled expectations at middle linebacker.
Foster, the starting running back last season, was cut after averaging only 3.5 yards a carry. The aging Wahle, who started at left guard, was released to clear salary cap space.
It leaves the Panthers looking to fill holes on the offensive line, at defensive end and running back and maybe defensive tackle with Carolina likely shopping Kris Jenkins for a second straight offseason.
The question is how much money the Panthers can spend. They don't have a ton of room under the $116 million salary cap. Some of the big names available in a largely unattractive class - including running back Michael Turner of San Diego and Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith - will command big money.
``I think we're certainly going to try to help our football team via the free agency route,'' Hurney said. ``Whether it's the first day or whether it's kind of looking at it and going through it at a steady pace, we'll see.''
The Panthers prevented their biggest free agent from becoming an unrestricted free agent when they placed the franchise tag on Gross, guaranteeing him a one-year deal worth $7.455 million and forcing teams to give up two first-round picks if they sign the right tackle.
Travelle Wharton, who started at left tackle last season, was re-signed. But the Panthers could shuffle Wharton to left guard to replace Wahle, opening a spot at tackle.
The Panthers re-signed fullback Brad Hoover to a three-year deal late Thursday, keeping him off the free-agent market. The team also offered tenders to restricted free agents Geoff Hangartner and Evan Mathis, both offensive linemen and linebacker Adam Seward, meaning all three will likely return.
Among Carolina's unrestricted free agents are receivers Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and defensive end Mike Rucker. Muhammad's signing Wednesday means Colbert and Carter may not return.
It's uncertain if Rucker, a seven-year starter who turned 33 on Thursday, will be brought back. Even if he is, it may be in a backup role and force the Panthers to bring in a defensive end to start opposite Julius Peppers.
Another starting spot on the line could open if Jenkins is traded or released, although Damione Lewis, re-signed to a three-year deal, could fill that position.
The Panthers apparently won't be pursuing a quarterback despite Carr's release. Hurney believes starter Jake Delhomme will be ready after reconstructive elbow surgery. Matt Moore and Brett Basanez are expected to contend for the backup job.
``We're always going to look at every spot but we feel like with Jake and Matt and Brett that we have three guys who have now been here, know the system and we are very happy with,'' Hurney said.
Hurney and Fox believe that the draft is more important than free agency. The draft class is loaded with offensive tackles and running backs and Carolina has the 13th overall pick.
But the Panthers are expected to be aggressive in free agency after essentially taking 2007 off.
``You're looking to fill a spot and fill a need you probably don't think you can fill through the draft,'' Hurney said.
Note: The Panthers came to terms with reserve CB and special teams player Dante Wesley on a two-year deal Thursday, a day before he would have become an unrestricted free agent.

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