|Mike McCarn / Associated Press|
|Drafting Cam Newton (left) and re-signing Charles Johnson (right) have strengthened a young roster with talent.|
The Carolina Panthers' strategy to dole out big money to retain several of their free agents -- DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson and Charles Johnson -- has many outsiders asking, what are they doing?
While keeping the core of a 2-14 team together seems preposterous, general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera might be onto something with their plan to rebuild the franchise from within.
Unlike some teams looking to rebound from dismal seasons, the Panthers have a talent-laden roster with playmakers still in their prime. The offense, in particular, has the depth and talent to consistently provide a challenge for opponents.
Although the unit's anemic production in 2010 would say otherwise, there are seven players expected to play a big role with a first-round pedigree -- Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. Key cogs Steve Smith and Ryan Kalil have both been to Pro Bowls, while Travelle Wharton has 83 career starts.
With a plethora of talent, the offense should be able to get off to a fast start under new coordinator Rob Chudzinski. The retention of veterans not only will result in the unit picking up a new system quickly, but also should help the team break in a young starting quarterback.
Newton or Jimmy Clausen will open the season as the starter, and they'll need the supporting cast to perform at a winning level. Newton, in particular, will rely heavily on those around him until he's up to speed.
Most teams attempt to protect their young signal-callers by leaning on a strong running game, and the Panthers will follow suit. Stewart and Williams were a productive tandem two seasons ago, when each topped the 1,100-yard mark and spearheaded the league's third-best rushing offense. Given the duo's production when together and healthy, it was imperative to re-sign Williams to a five-year, $43 million deal.
The Panthers didn't just spend on the offense. They spent money on locking up Johnson, Anderson and Jon Beason for $144 million combined, and also extended Thomas Davis' contract. While the sticker shock of the deals caught many off guard, they are sensible when you consider their value to the team. Each is an athlete with the potential to thrive in an aggressive scheme, and they will have the opportunity to make a ton of plays. Keeping the young nucleus of defenders together could allow the unit to make progress as the offense does the same.
It's rare a team gets better without making major additions from the outside, but the Panthers are going against the grain to rebuild. While Carolina will not go from worst to first this season, retaining several young veterans will help the Panthers exceed expectations in 2011.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.