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2010 NFL Free Agency Preview, Carolina Panthers

Coach John Fox was on the hot seat for much of 2009, and he's going to need to turn things around in 2010 if he wants to stay in Carolina. The first step in that process is the off-season, and like everybody else the Panthers have plenty of decisions to make concerning their future.

The most pressing issue is presented by Julius Peppers' imminent free agency. Peppers has been a fixture on the Panthers defensive line, and he has played a big role in making their Tampa-2 scheme successful. Carolina's defense relies on pressuring the quarterback with their front four, and Peppers has proven himself to be amongst the league's most explosive defensive ends. Despite this it seems likely that he has played his last game as a member of the Panthers. If the team does not use the Franchise tag on him, then Peppers will likely become one of the most sought after free agents this off-season.

While Peppers has been grabbing all of the headlines, Carolina also has holes along the interior of the defensive line and at the wide receiver position. Look for the team to focus on those position via the draft and in free agency.

Let's take a look at which Panthers are eligible for free agency after the jump...

Free Agents

OLB James Anderson (RFA) - Anderson started the season on special teams, but was thrust in the starting role due to injury. He recorded 65 tackles.

DE Tyler Brayton (UFA) - Brayton recorded five sacks for the Panthers in 2009, and he is expected to re-sign with the team. Carolina loves the veteran's high energy playing style.

LB Thomas Davis (RFA) - Davis was having a career year before injury his knee and missing the rest of the season. Although he only appeared in seven games he notched two sacks, two interceptions, and 61 tackles.

QB A.J. Feeley (UFA) - Feeley is not expected to return after spending the entire season as the team's third string quarterback.

DL Nick Hayden (ERFA) - Hayden spent some time on the first team after Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down with injury. He was eventually replaced by Marlon Favorite. He gives good effort but his small frame limits his ability to stop the run.

DT Louis Leonard (RFA) - Leonard emerged as a starter on the interior of Carolina's line before braking his ankle after just two games and going on injured reserve.

K Rhys Lloyd (UFA) - Lloyd served as the Panthers' kickoff specialist in 2009.

CB Richard Marshall (RFA) - Marshall was solid in his first year as a starting cornerback. He is a sure tackler and also recorded three interceptions.

WR Kenneth Moore (ERFA) - Moore will be on the roster bubble if he returns to Carolina. He only managed six catches in 2009, but he did show some potential as a kick returner.

QB Matt Moore (RFA) - Jake Delhomme appears to be a shell of his former self, which makes Moore the likely choice to open the 2010 season as the Panthers' starting quarterback. Carolina has made no attempt to sign him to a long term deal as of yet, which probably means they want to wait and evaluate him as a starter next season before making a commitment.

DE Julius Peppers (UFA) - The 30 year old superstar has spent his entire career in Carolina, but it's looking more and more like he has played his last game with the team. Peppers is expected to hit the market as a free agent with Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New England being rumored as possible suitors. It is also rumored that the Panthers could place the franchise tag on him once again, for the sole purpose of trading him away. Some personnel people believe that Peppers' inconsistent effort could make him a bust if a team signs him to a big free agent contract.

T Rob Petitti (RFA) - Petitti spent time in the UFL before being signed as a backup.

DL Hollis Thomas (UFA) - Thomas did an admirable job filling in on Carolina's defensive line, but at 36 years old it is unlikely that he will return to the Panthers.

DT Tank Tyler (ERFA) - Taylor showed potential as a run-stopper after coming over from Kansas City in the trade. Expect him to play a role on the interior of Carolina's line next season.

S C.J. Wilson (RFA) - Wilson spent time in the defensive backfield during nickel and dime coverage packages.

Needs

Wide Receiver - The Panther's third leading wide receiver in 2009 was Dwayne Jarrett with 12 receptions. They desperately need to improve at this position if they are going to have any hope of developing a competent passing attack. Look for them to add more explosiveness and depth to their receiving corp.

Defensive Tackle - Carolina was unable to consistently stop the run this season. Many of their interior linemen are getting up there in age, so this has to be a big priority going into the offseason. The Panthers will likely add several players at this position in the hopes of developing a capable interior rotation.

Offensive Line - Offensive line remains an area of strength for the Panthers, but they would do well to protect their investment in the running game by adding depth. Injuries kept starters Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah out for parts of 2009, and should serve as a reminder that you can never have enough solid linemen, especially when you emphasize the run as much as Carolina. No need to acquire a starter here, but more depth is necessary.

Outside Linebacker - Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis has played well and is expected to be back with the team in 2010. On the other side however, Na'il Diggs has been ineffective. The Panthers are expected to look for someone with more playmaking ability this offseason.

Quarterback - Carolina has not committed to Matt Moore as the starting quarterback for 2010. As of now there is expected to be an open competition between Moore and the Jake Delhomme to decide who will start at the position. Look for the team to bring in another young quarterback to compete for the job as well.

Defensive End - With the likely departure of Julius Peppers, the Panthers are going to need to add some bodies at defensive end. It seems likely that they will look to acquire a mix of veteran and young players who can help replace Peppers' production by committee.

Summary

Defensive end Julius Pepper presents the biggest decision for Carolina this offseason. According to Peppers' agent the team has made no effort to sign him to a long term deal, and Peppers himself has gone on record saying that he does not want another big contract from the Panthers. All of this points to his likely departure this offseason.

The question is whether Carolina will just let him walk, or will they use the Franchise Tag with the hope of trading him. Once they make a decision on Peppers they can start to address the rest of the issues facing them this offseason.

Defensive end is not the only question mark for the Panthers' defense. They were routinely gouged by teams running the ball straight at the interior of their line. If they are going to improve their run defense, it is vitally important that they acquire more linemen with run-stopping ability. Interior linemen have historically taken a long time to develop at the NFL level, so this could be an area that the team focuses on during free agency if they are looking for immediate results.

The emergence of Matt Moore late in the season means that Carolina does not have to focus on quarterbacks during free agency and the draft. I expect the team will give Moore a long look during 2010, but they will likely acquire a quarterback at some point late in the draft to groom for the future.

No matter who is playing quarterback, the team needs to give him some more playmakers to throw the ball to. The Panthers have an excellent ground game, but their lack of a passing attack has taken away their big play ability. Teams are able to focus their coverage on Steve Smith because he is Carolina's only viable deep threat, and if they shut him down they can usually limit the Panthers' passing ability. Wide receiver is definitely a position of need that should be addressed during free agency and via the draft.

Who do you think should start at quarterback for Carolina in 2010? What would you do with Julius Peppers? Will John Fox survive another season as the team's head coach?

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