Among the exchanging of jerseys, the signing of commemorative footballs, packing up lockers into black trash bags and throwing old cleats into cardboard boxes labeled “Old Cleats,” there was uncertainty for many in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room Monday morning.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn held back tears, receiver Brandon LaFell remained optimistic and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. was hopeful that next season they would all return, with new contracts in hand and an opportunity to have things end in February as opposed to January.
The Panthers have 21 unrestricted free agents this offseason, including eight starters, compared with 11 total unrestricted free agents last year, and it’s unlikely all will be back.
Nowhere is the team more affected by unrestricted free agents than in the defensive backfield and receiving corps.
Labeled the “Legion of Whom” earlier this year, Carolina’s cast of low draft picks, journeymen and undrafted rookies in the defensive backfield were cobbled together mostly by General Manager Dave Gettleman last offseason. He handed out one-year contracts to Munnerlyn, safety Mike Mitchell, safety Quintin Mikell and cornerback Drayton Florence – all part of the Panthers’ sixth-ranked passing defense.
Asked if he’s optimistic a deal can be reached this offseason, Munnerlyn, whom the Panthers drafted in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, said “kind of, sort of.”
“This is home for me,” he said. “We got something special going. I know the guys in the secondary, it’s a lot of us up, and I know people called us the ‘Legion of Whom,’ but man, those guys, I wouldn’t trade them for the world – for anybody. They played hard, they played tough and we played physical. I want to be back here.”
Munnerlyn signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal last year, and after the best season of his career, he’s hoping for something long-term. But he said that if the price was right for a one-year deal, he’d take that, too. The fifth-year cornerback started every game and totaled 73 tackles and two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Mitchell made it clear Sunday after the team’s 23-10 loss to San Francisco he wanted to come back. Mikell and Florence, both 33, are less likely to return to the team than Mitchell and Munnerlyn.
“We want to try and keep this together,” said Mitchell, who signed a one-year, $1 million contract last year. “I want to finish this the right way. … I haven’t played on a team with this type of coaches, these types of teammates, probably since I was a 17-year-old boy. I had a great group of guys and I want to finish this.”
Similar questions reside with Carolina’s receivers. Ginn and Domenik Hixon signed one-year deals last offseason, and LaFell is at the end of his rookie contract.
LaFell didn’t particularly stand out as Carolina’s No. 2 receiver in the final year of his deal, catching 49 passes for 627 yards, but he did have a career-high five touchdowns.
LaFell and his agent tried to work on a contract extension before the season but were told Gettleman wouldn’t give any new deals until after the year ended.
“I want to be back with these guys,” LaFell said. “But if not, I appreciate this organization taking a chance on me, drafting me, giving me every opportunity to become a good player in this league.”
Because of his versatility, Ginn is expected to be the higher priority. His 556 receiving yards ranked fourth on the team, but his kick and punt returns revitalized the return game.
Ginn, who had two catches for one yard in San Francisco in 2012, said the Panthers kept their word, giving him the opportunity to be the No. 3 receiver while also being the undisputed starter in returns. He wants to return the favor.
“I want to be able to give them the joy back by having me and sticking together,” Ginn said. “There’s nothing like being somewhere where you have good people around you.
“This squad was a great squad. What we brought as a team, it’s kind of hard to find. I wish that we could get everybody back and fight on this journey again next year.”