July 28, 2011
(Contributions from Charlotte Observer)
The Carolina Panthers showed Wednesday they were true to their word, agreeing to new contracts with three core players while sending a shock wave through the franchise and across the NFL by deciding to release 41-year-old kicker John Kasay after 16 seasons.
What was expected to be a busy day turned into one of the most dramatic in team history as the team reached agreements with several players, including running back DeAngelo Williams and linebackers James Anderson and Thomas Davis, while making a deal with former Seattle Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare to replace Kasay, a 20-year league veteran and the last remaining original Panther on the roster.
While there are still players to be signed – first-round draft pick Cam Newton isn’t yet under contract – the Panthers were at full throttle as the league came to life after the 4-month lockout.
So much happened during the course of Wednesday that the early agreement with Williams, a primary objective for the club, was almost overshadowed.
“We’ve said from the beginning we’re going to be aggressive, but we’re going to be aggressive at the right time. That’s to sign our own players,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told the Observer mid-day Wednesday outside Bank of America Stadium.
“I would bet Charles Johnson was in the top five free agents on the market. And I assume DeAngelo was high. … We will have probably, very quickly, our core players. We’re able to do it because we’re willing to be competitive and pay what it takes.
“We have such a compressed length of time. We’re moving as fast as we can, but I’m optimistic.”
The highlights of the Panthers’ activity Wednesday include:
Reaching an agreement with unrestricted free agent Williams, reportedly worth $43 million over five years with $21 million guaranteed;
Agreeing to terms with Anderson for a reported $22 million over five years with $8.5 million guaranteed, and extending the contract of twice-injured Davis;
Offering 38-year-old Mare a reported four-year, $12 million contract, effectively cutting ties with Kasay, who reportedly was surprised by the move;
Reaching an agreement with former Kansas City defensive lineman Ron Edwards for a reported $8.25 million over three years;
Collecting agreements with several other free agents, including former New York Jets tight end Ben Hartsock for two years and defensive backs Cletis Gordon and De’von Hall and tight end Richie Brockel. The signing of Hartsock may signal the end for Dante Rosario with the Panthers.
Newton has not yet signed, but Richardson said the Heisman Trophy winner’s contract will be based on a formula that came out of the new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, so he doesn’t anticipate a holdup in signing the rookie quarterback.
Coupled with the agreement announced Tuesday that the Panthers will keep defensive end Charles Johnson in Charlotte with a $72-million, six-year contract, the team had landed its two top priorities in the first 36 hours of the post-lockout talent grab.
And that was just the start.
“We have said for over a year that our plan through this whole thing was to re-sign our core players,” Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney said. “I think for the most part, we accomplished that.
“Our philosophy has been and will be core players.”
For a team that had done little in the free-agent market in recent years, the Panthers quickly began fulfilling Richardson’s goal by spending approximately $157 million on five new contracts, with at least $65 million guaranteed.
Hurney also called it “a high priority” to extend the contract of linebacker Jon Beason. He also said the team has had contact with wide receiver Steve Smith but declined to say where talks stand. Smith has indicated he would like to play elsewhere, but Hurney said only, “It’s something we’re trying to work out.”
In reaching a new contract agreement with Williams, the Panthers solidified their running game. Williams will again team with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, who began to blossom last season when Williams missed 10 games because of injury.
In 2008, Williams rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns, and he gained 1,117 yards on the ground in 2009.
“With what we’ve been able to do in the run game, I’d love nothing more than to have both Jonathan and DeAngelo back there,” center Ryan Kalil said upon entering Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday shortly before the Williams deal became public.
In an interview on ESPN on Wednesday evening, Williams was enthusiastic about the swirl of Panthers activity.
“I think through this free agency, we went out and got players who can help us win, and I think we’re going to be very, very competitive,” said Williams. “I think a lot of people who are Carolina Panthers fans are going to be very surprised this year.”
The Mare/Kasay deal was the most surprising event on a turbulent day. There had been no indication the Panthers were considering a change.
However, Hurney said the league’s recent rules change that moves kickoffs up 5 yards, and is likely to create more touchbacks, played a part in the difficult decision. The Panthers do not want to carry three kickers – a punter, place-kicker and kickoff specialist – this season, as they have in the past.
Kasay, 41, would be entering his 21st season. Mare, 38, is a 15-year veteran. Mare has made 81.4 percent of his career field goal attempts, including 25 of 30 last year.
Hurney said he had two conversations with Kasay on Wednesday about the team bringing in Mare. The Panthers are expected to release Kasay at 4 p.m. today.
“Just like anybody, he was surprised and had a thousand different emotions going through his body, like any of us would,” Hurney said. “It’s hard. This is the part of the job that is not very fun.”
Kasay could not be reached for comment.
Edwards, who started 15 of 16 games for Kansas City last season, is expected to be a run-stopper in the middle of the Carolina defensive line. New head coach Ron Rivera said he expects Edwards to be a starter up front.
“He’s a big, stout, physical guy,” Rivera said. “The one thing I said when I got here is we need to be more stout at the point of attack, so our linebackers can run and play more downhill and make plays.”
Richardson suggested the flurry of early activity, necessitated by the long lockout, was part of a long-term plan the franchise embarked upon when it became clear John Fox would not remain as head coach after the 2010 season. The plan was facilitated by the release of several high-priced players prior to last year, including quarterback Jake Delhomme.
With the reduction in the rookie wage scale through the new collective bargaining agreement, the Panthers had more money to spend on veterans.
“Two years ago we made a conscious decision that what we were doing – we weren’t having back-to-back winning seasons – wasn’t working,” Richardson said.
“We made a conscious decision to concentrate on young players. We have very good young players – extraordinary young players – and we’ve asked the coaches to make them better.
“The facts are the young players didn’t get better.”