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Panthers lack of free-agent aggression makes task ahead tough

With the vast majority of top free agents off the market, the big spending is just about over. Although unsigned players aren't necessarily on the verge of panic, you can rest assured that they're calling their agents about getting a deal done now.

The annual NFL owners meeting starts March 21, which usually signifies the end of real interest in free agents until after the draft.

One team that seems to have passed on free agency is the Carolina Panthers. They could definitely sell a few available veterans on getting an opportunity to play in Carolina. Coach John Fox and general manger Marty Hurney are in a tough situation right now. How will they compete in 2010 if they don't get some experienced players on the roster?

Every coaching staff and front office faces the challenge of replacing talent with talent. Carolina's roster has been hit hard by free-agent departures, contract terminations and eroding skills. The skill lost must be replaced, and no position has a young, rising star sitting behind the starter.

The Panthers lost defensive end Julius Peppers in free agency, released quarterback Jake Delhomme, linebacker Na'il Diggs, defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis, as well as fullback Brad Hoover. They probably will lose defensive end Tyler Brayton and maybe even guard Keydrick Vincent. Veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad is also a free agent. Even though some of those names don't sound like stars, they were starters. At this point, the Panthers are going to ask at least six young players to fill the void and start.

Ultimately, the club will likely ask upwards of nine inexperienced players to start for the departed veterans. The young talent pool has a combined 26 career starts and would be possibly replacing nine starters who made 114 starts between them last season.

Consider for their whole career that quarterback Matt Moore (eight starts), receiver Dwayne Jarrett (three), guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (seven), ends Everette Brown (one) and Charles Johnson (four), defensive tackles Louis Leonard (one) and Corvey Irvin (zero), linebacker Dan Connor (zero), and fullback Tony Fiammetta (two) now move into starting roles. So ask yourself the next critical question: Who replaces this young group as the quality reserves on the roster?

Don't overlook the fact that replacing talent off the bench with more talent is also critical with all the potential injuries during the course of a season. A deep roster is usually the only way to success. The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl with multiple starters on injured reserve.

Carolina is without a first- and fifth-round pick from previous trades, which currently leaves it with only five draft selections, pending the announcement of compensatory picks. On top of that, the Panthers have only signed special teams contributor Wallace Wright in free agency. Does that mean the team will have four undrafted rookies make the team as backups? That almost sounds like an expansion team.

The Panthers ranked No. 8 in overall defense last season, but with five of the front seven players not projected to return, how can they maintain that top 10 status?

Leaders aren't assigned in the NFL by management; they emerge as they prove they can play and inspire others. Who are the 2010 leaders of the Panthers?

There's no doubt this is an exciting time for the young players on the Panthers. However, as Brown said to me last week, "It will be different in the locker room this year."

That might be an understatement. Not one of the players being asked to step up was even a first-round pick.

Granted, it was time for some of the veterans to be shown the door, as is the case with teams every year. But these wholesale changes are going to put too much pressure on a great coach like Fox and a real smart GM like Hurney.

It's not too late to fortify this roster before free agency completely dries up. Go get guys looking for work, like a possible backup QB in Derek Anderson or veteran guard Bobbie Williams and hope you don't lose a corner like Richard Marshall in restricted free agency.

The Arizona Cardinals have been hit hard in free agency, but at least the team traded for safety Kerry Rhodes when Antrel Rolle left. Without some key draft picks, the Chicago Bears have similar problems to the Panthers. However, they used free agency to bolster the roster. The champion Saints are in the NFC South with the Panthers, and that just makes things even tougher.

Fox and Hurney always take the high road and you will never hear a peep out of them about the challenges ahead. Still, here's a team that needs a starting receiver, a real No. 2 QB, some veteran help on the interior of the defensive line, an elite pass rusher, and more players for special teams. A handful of draft picks aren't going to be enough to get the job done.

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