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Panthers owner: Re-signing free agents is team's top priority

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ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said Thursday that it's his priority to re-sign his team's free agents once the NFL lockout is lifted.

Richardson didn't mention anyone by name, but defensive end Charles Johnson clearly would be a priority. And Richardson could have a head start on the competition since, under the labor proposal that owners approved Thursday, teams would be allowed to begin negotiations with their own players as soon as Saturday. That's three days before other teams can get into the mix.

"First, we got to sign our own players," Richardson said. "We're going to concentrate on ours first. We're going to be aggressive in free agency. We're prepared to do what it takes to put the best team together."

Even before that, Richardson hoped the NFL Players Association would take the steps it needs for players to report to team facilities Saturday. With a new coach in Ron Rivera and a rookie quarterback in No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton, Richardson knows his team has an uphill climb because of such widespread unfamiliarity.

"Our coaching staff knows the names of our players, but they can't put the names with faces because they really don't know them," Richardson said.

Richardson also addressed the future of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith -- sort of -- who reportedly has asked to be traded.

"I love Steve, but I have to be honest with you: Steve hasn't been in the forefront of my mind," Richardson said, referring to his priorities with the labor committee to try and get a new collective bargaining agreement completed.

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