Foster signs; draft picture takes shape

CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers took a major stride in their quest to return to the NFC Championship, re-signing running back DeShaun Foster to a three-year contract worth roughly $14.5 million over the span. The Panthers made no secret that Foster was their man, tagging him with the transitional tag earlier in the off-season in case he wanted to shop the market.

When healthy, Foster has been productive, but the fact remains that his three out of four seasons with the Panthers have ended prematurely after he sustained a season-ending injury each time. The team continues to bank on Foster's potential.

Although the Charlotte Observer reports the Panthers currently have roughly $13 million in cap space available due to contract restructurings, the team isn't banking on signing LB Will Witherspoon, who has garnered a great deal of interest around the league. The team feels that they drafted a suitable replacement last season in Thomas Davis, and are prepared to let Witherspoon leave if he chooses to do so.

Darin Gantt of the Rock Hill Herald reports in today's paper that the Panthers are hoping to be major players in the market for Raven's DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu. The team has long sought a hefty, run-stuffing tackle to plug the middle, and they think that Kemoeatu has what it takes to be that guy. They aren't the only team seeking his services, however. The Miami Herald is reporting that the Dolphins will make a strong run at Kemoeatu, and the Canton Repository reports that the Browns will be in the mix as well. has Kemoeatu ranked as the second-best DT available in free agency.

If the Panthers can land Kemoeatu, a college team-mate of RT Jordan Gross at Utah, and Witherspoon signs elsewhere, the prospect of the team drafting a linebacker early increases significantly. The 2006 Draft is stocked heavily with linebacking talent, and a player like D'Qwell Jackson, DeMeco Ryans, Bobby Carpenter, Ernie Sims or Thomas Howard would ease the pain of losing Witherspoon and provide a cheaper alternative. Keep this in mind – since 2000, the Panthers have only drafted an offensive player in the first round once, (OT Jordan Gross, 2003), but have drafted an offensive player in the second round every year in the Fox era thus far, (RB DeShaun Foster, 2002; C Bruce Nelson, 2003; WR Keary Colbert, 2004; RB Eric Shelton, 2005).

The Panthers could continue this trend again this year, targeting a center like Greg Eslinger or Ryan Cook or a tight end such as Marcedes Lewis, Anthony Fasano or Dominique Byrd. 2005 starter Jeff Mitchell is a free agent, and the Panthers haven't made a strong effort to re-sign him, per reports from his agent. TE Kris Mangum is getting older, and neither Mike Seidman nor Michael Gaines has stepped up to claim the starting spot as the team had hoped, necessitating an influx of talent this season at that position.

The re-signing of Foster pushes down the possibility of drafting a running back in the early rounds, but the team could be prompted to select a player like Joseph Addai, Jerious Norwood or Maurice Drew to add to their stable and add insurance to a position that's been riddled with injuries the last couple of seasons. Drew is an interesting option because he would also double as a kick and punt returner.

As free agency progresses, we'll get a more clear picture of where the holes in the roster will be heading into the draft. At least, we think.

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