Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 1 of 5

Carolina Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney and Head Coach John Fox share a simple but effective approach to the offseason: build through the draft and sign value-priced free agents. It's a philosophy that has propelled the New England Patriots to their third Super Bowl in four seasons, and has served as an effective model for the Panthers. <br><br> But it hasn't always worked.

Though the 2004-2005 campaign fell short of expectations due in large part to a rash of injuries to key players, it could be argued that last spring's surprisingly poor crop of Panther free agent signees made it more difficult for the team to overcome a one and seven start than the injuries. Only two of Carolina's 2004 offseason free agent signees saw regular season action. As a result, Fox had to rely on rookies, first year starters and a string of practice squad call-ups just to get the team to finish a remarkable seven and nine.

Who knows what Fox could have really done with better offseason free agent acquisitions?

Of course that's not the whole story. The Panthers made wise financial commitments in the 2004 offseason to key portions of its core, namely superstar wide receiver Steve Smith and enigmatic quarterback Jake Delhomme. Deon Grant, cornerbacks Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin, and offensive linemen Jeno James and Todd Steussie all cashed in on the "Super Bowl" effect by signing for big numbers with other teams. Though it hurt depth and some chemistry, allowing these players to leave was probably a good decision.

Overpaying free agents is a bad habit to get in to. The George Seifert era was proof positive of that assertion.

But when key players are allowed to leave, you better have a good replacement plan.

The draft was kind to Carolina. Fox and Hurney only had to spend a fourth round choice to move up in the first round to snag cornerback Chris Gamble. The Panthers also got lucky in the second round when Southern Cal wide receiver Keary Colbert dropped. Third round selection Travelle Wharton became a fixture at left guard by season's end. Fifth round receiver Drew Carter succumbed to injury before training camp, but sixth rounder Sean Tufts and seventh round selection Michael Gaines both made contributions.

Getting three starters out of your first three selections and good contributions from the rest makes a successful draft in anyone's book. But it is not wise to rely on draft picks too much. A good free agent haul can temper the need.

Hurney's approach to free agency is slow and deliberate. He prefers to wait out the first few hot weeks of free agency, then methodically pick and choose the players he considers good value. This philosophy depends upon the presence of a stable core of players under long-term contracts, which, by design, leaves little salary cap space with which to sign free agents. Youth and athleticism is brought in through the draft and the occasional training camp gem. It's a solid, if unspectacular, offseason approach. With Fox managing the assets, the approach works, too.

Failure in free agency, however, can ruin even the best-laid plans.

The offseason mistakes of 2004 helped make the ensuing season a nine-month struggle for survival. The hope is that the spring and summer of 2005 will produce better results.

WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER

The cupboard in Carolina is not bare, so there's no reason to think that Hurney and company will change their offseason approach. Nor should they.

While the free agency losses of James, Stuessie, Grant and Howard, combined with injuries to key players Steven Davis, DeShaun Foster, Bruce Nelson, Adam Meadows, Kris Jenkins, Steve Smith, Rod Smart and Dan Morgan precipitated the early season swoon, the voids left by these players gave rise to youngsters Colbert, Wharton, Colin Branch, Gamble, Kindal Moorhead, Jordan Carstens, and Gaines. Others such as Joey Harris, Jamal Robertson, Todd Fordham and Casey Cramer made enough of an impact to give the Panthers a host of known talent to bring back for training camp.

The net result is that as the injured starters return to active duty, valuable depth has been created – depth that will allow the Panthers to be selective in free agency and the draft.

With everyone healthy, the Panthers are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL. Add another solid draft, a few key free agents and exercise wisdom with expiring contracts and the Panthers could be strong enough to return to NFC prominence, perhaps even NFL supremacy.

With parity in the league at an all-time high, the Panthers stand as good a chance as anyone at capturing a world championship.

To be continued later this week in part 2 of 5; "It is what it is" -- The Front Office and Coaching Staff

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