One day in training camp Panthers owner Jerry Richardson drove his golf cart up to a group of his players on the sideline at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. He motioned to the four players standing in the front and said loudly enough for the ones in back to hear, "None of these men left. They all could have. But we treated them right, and they stayed, and they believe in what we're trying to do."
Middle linebacker Jon Beason came over and said with a big smile, "Hello, Mr. Richardson."
"Y'all stood up," Richardson said with a nod to Beason, linebackers Thomas Davis and James Anderson and defensive end Charles Johnson. "Thank you."
"Now we've got to hold up our end," Beason replied.
Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, with the eager approval of Richardson, committed $144.5 million in guaranteed money to seven players in the span of a month this summer—those four defenders plus running back DeAngelo Williams, center Ryan Kalil and the first pick in the 2011 draft, quarterback Cam Newton. Richardson hopes his Magnificent Seven will lead the franchise out of the wilderness after a 2--14 finish in 2010 and the firing of coach John Fox after nine seasons.
All those players are signed through 2015 or '16 except Newton, whose rookie deal runs through 2014, and it will take a couple of years at least to determine whether the Panthers spent wisely. If they didn't, it will be crippling. This is a division with upper-tier quarterbacks on every other team: Drew Brees in New Orleans, Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Josh Freeman in Tampa. Newton may have the talent to compete with them. But what makes all of those quarterbacks good is that they've got a score of good players around them. With huge payouts now on the books and a strict salary cap hovering around $120 million for 2012 and '13, Carolina isn't going to have the wherewithal to correct many mistakes.
Johnson, a fifth-year player out of Georgia, is the key on the defensive side. Carolina gave him the richest contract in 2011 free agency, six years for $72 million, even though he hadn't had a strong season until last year, his first as a starter. But rookie coach Ron Rivera, who's trying to return the team to defensive respectability, had to have him. "This is a passing league, and you just don't find 25-year-old pass rushers with [Johnson's] ability who defend the run," Hurney says. "If we'd lost him, it really would have set us back."
Last season offenses began to consistently either double-team the 6'2", 275-pound Johnson or use a chip-blocker to deflect pressure. That should free the linebackers to make more plays—provided they can stay healthy. Davis, who signed for five years and $35.5 million (though Carolina can get out after this year with minimal cap damage), is coming off an inactive year after twice tearing his right ACL.
An improved defense will take some heat off Newton; so will Williams and a clock-eating running game, but health is an issue there too. Williams, who re-signed for $43 million over five years, missed 13 games in the last two seasons with injuries and finished 2010 on IR with a right-foot sprain. At least Newton will also get a lift from the Panthers' best tight end talent since Wesley Walls a decade ago. Jeremy Shockey (free agency) and Gregg Olsen (trade from the Bears)—both former first-round picks from Miami—spent training camp becoming security blankets in the intermediate passing game for Newton and the quarterback he's trying to supplant, Jimmy Clausen. Carolina made a lot of high-priced signings, but those two guys could be as vital as Williams and his backup, Jonathan Stewart.
"Last year, at the end of the year, I remember sitting with Mr. Richardson, and he told me this is what we were going to do," said ninth-year tackle Jordan Gross, the leader of the offensive line. "There was a lot of negativity around the team in the community, and he told me they were going to re-sign our good players and be very aggressive in building the team. Two years ago I signed for six years, and what we've done now makes me very glad I stayed. I know what people think about our team, but I've seen it happen before. It has happened before. You can turn it around in a year."