Free Agency, Injury and Draft Updates

Because the Panthers have already locked up many of their core players for the long term, they don't have many high profile unrestricted free agents this year with the exception of outside linebacker Mark Fields.<br><br> Discussion about the Panthers' free agents, Coaching Carousel, Draft tidbits, and injury updates on <b>Bruce Nelson</b>, <b>Steve Smith</b> and <b>Deshaun Foster</b> INSIDE!

Because the Panthers have already locked up many of their core players for the long term, they don't have many high profile unrestricted free agents this year with the exception of outside linebacker Mark Fields.

But from what Fields said Monday, it doesn't appear the Panthers will have any problem re-signing him. Fields said he feels a sense of loyalty to the Panthers because they supported him through his battle with Hodgkin's disease.

"This team could give me two dollars and I'm inking," Fields said. "That's it. There's nothing more discuss. ... If they throw two dollars in my face, it's a done deal. For this organization, I'd do it. No question."

When told of Fields' comments, general manager Marty Hurney laughed and replied, "Well, I've got $5 on me right now."

Most of Carolina's other unrestricted free agents are replaceable role players such as special teamer Karl Hankton, fill-in offensive tackle Matt Willig, kick returner Rod Smart, guard Rich Tylski, linebacker Brian Allen and defensive end Kavika Pittman.

Of those, Hankton would be the guy they want back because he's so valuable on special teams.

The Panthers also must determine whether to give restricted free agent Will Witherspoon a contract extension or a one-year qualifying offer and then try to extend the deal at some point next season.

"The personnel people, scouts and coaches will get together and spend the week going over our roster, what we think our needs are, and address the guys that are free agents for us," Hurney said. "Obviously, guys like Moose will be a priority. There is a lot of work ahead. I think we are probably in better shape this year as far as we don't have as many guys free. We'll address them as soon as we can."

Panthers head coach John Fox believes there was a silver lining in Carolina's injury-plagued 2004 season.

"We brought a lot of players through our football team, so we were able to evaluate a lot of guys," Fox said. "Like all offseasons, there are always going to be tough decisions to be made. You're always trying to better your football team. But I think in the long run, part of what happened to us injury-wise helped."

Fox spoke to his players one last time Monday morning and thanked them for their effort this season. He told them they should leave the stadium with their heads high.

COACHING CAROUSEL: Head coach John Fox remains on solid footing with the team's ownership even though the Panthers did not make it back to the playoffs after going to the Super Bowl in 2003. Owner Jerry Richardson knows injuries depleted what Fox had to work with and that 7-9 was pretty good, all things considered. Also, Fox gets credit for not allowing the team to go in the tank after a 1-7 start.

As for the coaching staff, Fox said he doesn't anticipate many changes this offseason. Long time Special Teams Coach Scotty O'Brien retired on Thursday, and may be replaced from within by special teams assistant Danny Crossman.

FREE-AGENT UPDATE: LB Mark Fields (likely to return, says he has a sense of loyalty to the organization that stuck by him during his battle with Hodgkin's disease), OT Matt Willig (started 10 games but likely done after 13 seasons); WR Karl Hankton (a valuable special teams player adored by assistant coach Scott O'Brien), DE Kavika Pittman (spent last two years on IR; tough to come back now), LB Jessie Armstead (better days probably behind him, not likely to come back), RB Rod Smart (Carolina likes "He Hate Me," but he may be expendable with Nick Goings having played well in '04), LB Brian Allen (saw action mostly on special teams and could return in that role for cheap price), OG Rich Tylski (came out of retirement but lost starting job; may return as a backup). The Panthers will look to keep their top RFA, LB Will Witherspoon, no matter what it takes.

FEELING A DRAFT: After going 7-9, the Panthers will pick in the middle of the pack in '05 -- 14th.

As of right now, the top priority for the Panthers would be an offensive tackle, but that could change depending on what they do in free agency.

MEDICAL WATCH: Running back DeShaun Foster said he anticipates being 100 percent for minicamp and is eager to put season-ending injuries in 2002 and 2004 behind him. "It happens," Foster said. "I've been in some freak accidents, but hopefully we'll get that out of the way."

WR Steve Smith said he expects to begin running in about a month. He said he should be 100 percent for next season after breaking his leg in the first game of '04.

Another player figuring to back in the spring is guard Bruce Nelson, who spent all of 2004 rehabbing from two hip operations. Although the hip problem could be degenerative, Nelson, a former second-round draft pick is hoping for the best. "I'm hoping to get to a state where I'm healthy enough and strong enough where I can continue to play here," Nelson said. "They have not indicated that it will be a reoccurring thing. Everyone is thinking positive."

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