Bulk of Panthers roster under contract through '12
CHARLOTTE — Panthers general manager Marty Hurney's offseason workload should be significantly less stressful than a year ago when it comes to re-signing free agents.
With 57 players either under contract or set to be tendered — including 20 of 22 projected starters — the Panthers are in pretty good shape personnel-wise as they look toward a promising future behind quarterback Cam Newton.
They don't have nearly as many unanswered questions as a year ago.
After the NFL lockout ended last summer, the Panthers invested more than $200 million in their so-called "core players." They re-signed free agents like running back DeAngelo Williams, center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson and linebacker James Anderson, extended the contracts of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and safety Charles Godfrey and traded for and then extended the contract of tight end Greg Olsen.
With so many of the team's core players under contract, Hurney won't have quite as much on his free agency plate in the coming months.
But he'll still be looking to upgrade a Panthers team that went 6-10 this season and has plenty of holes.
As always, that starts with the focus on the Panthers developing their own players and won't be big players when it comes to signing free agents from other teams.
"It's been our philosophy for a long time to keep our core together and try to build through the draft and supplement through other avenues like free agency, the waiver wire and trades," Hurney said.
Most of Carolina's 11 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents are role players, although some like linebackers Dan Connor and Jordan Senn, wide receiver Legedu Naanee and guard Geoff Hangartner were forced into more prominent roles this past year due to injuries.
However, all of them face the likely prospect that the players they replaced in 2011 will be back to reclaim their starting job next season.
Connor has been a reliable backup for the Panthers over the past four years, but when Beason returns he'll lose his spot at middle linebacker to the three-time Pro Bowler.
The same goes for Senn if the team decides to restructure Davis' contract and bring him back after three torn ACLs in three years. Naanee started 10 games for the Panthers at wide receiver but the team has high hopes for David Gettis, a 15-game starter in 2010 before tearing his ACL in training camp last summer.
And if Hangartner decides to return to Carolina he'll face a stiff challenge from Geoff Schwartz, a restricted free agent who'd been expected to start at right guard before a hip injury sidelined him for the year in the preseason.
All four might have the option of going somewhere else and starting.
Connor, for one, said he wants to stick around, even if it means accepting a backup role in Carolina.
"I'd like to come back here ideally because I believe next year this team is going to be a top level team, a Super bowl caliber team, and I'd like to be a part of that," Connor said.
As far as playing time, Connor said injuries are a part of the game and points out that he's seen plenty of action over the last two years so he figures one way or another there's a spot for him on the team.
"It's tough when we have so many linebackers, but I would definitely like to be a part of it," Connor said. "Any depth we've had has ended up playing over the past few years because of injuries. So it's hard tough to think we just have three guys locked in. Maybe next year there would be a rotation if they want to keep me around. You never know how it's going to work out."
The most recognizable name on Carolina's list of unrestricted free agents is starting tight end Jeremy Shockey, who fits well in the offense but turns 32 in August. He had 35 catches for 477 yards receiving and four touchdowns in his first season playing opposite Greg Olsen.
Coach Ron Rivera likes what Shockey brings in terms of energy, but the Panthers are high on former draft pick Gary Barnidge, who broke his leg last year but might be better at stretching the defense than Shockey.
Other unrestricted free agents include backup quarterback Derek Anderson, defensive end Antwan Applewhite, linebacker Omar Gaither, guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, long snapper J.J. Jansen and cornerback Cletis Gordon.
Notes: The Panthers will pick either eighth or ninth in the 2012 NFL draft, depending upon the outcome of a coin flip with the Miami Dolphins. ... Former Panthers coach John Fox will be on the opposing sidelines next year when the Denver Broncos visit Charlotte.