Since the start of NFL free agency on March 11, Carolina Panthers fans everywhere have been waiting for the big fireworks.
For the first ten days, they essentially got sparklers.
Friday, the Panthers signed two free agents, cornerback Antoine Cason to a one-year deal and wide receiver Tiquan Underwood to a two-year contract.
The signings come one day after the Panthers landed big unrestricted free agent receiver Jerricho Cotchery as the team continues to patch the holes left by departed players.
“These are players who have an opportunity to play a role with our football team,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. “I have experience with Antoine and look forward to working with him again. Tiquan has the kind of speed that helps any team and has shown good progress as a receiver.”
At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Underwood gives the Panthers a promising No. 3 receiving option after he showed increased production during his two years at Tampa Bay. Underwood had a career-high 440 receiving yards on 24 catches for four touchdowns for the Bucs last season, his fifth in the league.
A former seventh-round pick from Rutgers, Underwood was drafted by the Jaguars in 2009 and bounced from there to New England for a season before landing in Tampa Bay in 2012.
Underwood, known for his high-top hairstyle, brings competition to a young receiving group that has seen its top four receivers either be released or leave via free agency in just more than a week.
While Cotchery, in his 10th season, will likely serve as the de factor No. 2 receiver – and possibly in the slot – for the Panthers, who fills in behind him is still up for grabs. After Cotchery, Underwood is the most accomplished of the receivers, a group that includes Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and Kealoha Pilares, who is coming off a season on injured reserve in 2013.
Underwood has experience as a kick returner where he averaged 23.4 yards per return for the Jaguars in 2009, but according to a team source, the Panthers are looking to use him mainly as a receiver. Pilares and running back Kenjon Barner are the two returners on the roster following the loss of free agent Ted Ginn Jr. to the Cardinals last week.
The Panthers hosted both Underwood and Cason on visits Thursday and announced their signings together. Cason’s one-year deal is worth the veteran’s minimum of $730,000 with a $65,000 signing bonus. Terms of Underwood’s deal were not disclosed.
Rivera knows Cason, a sixth-year veteran, from when Rivera was a defensive coordinator in San Diego, which selected Cason in the first round of the 2008 draft. Cason has 14 interceptions in 96 career games, including 49 starts. His 96 consecutive games played is the third-longest active streak in the NFL at that position.
Cason, 6-foot-1 and 195-pounds, was most recently with Arizona. He lost the starting job in the preseason and did not start in a game in 2013, though he did have two interceptions.
He’s already a favorite to go into training camp atop the depth chart at cornerback. The Panthers lost Captain Munnerlyn to free agency, and there has been no sign the team will bring veteran free-agent cornerback Drayton Florence back next season. Melvin White, returns after starting 10 games last season as an undrafted rookie.
Panthers sign veteran QB Webb
Joe Webb has started in as many playoff games as Cam Newton, but don’t expect the former Vikings quarterback to usurp Newton’s starting job.
The Panthers signed Webb, 27, to a one-year deal on Friday, and Webb becomes the fourth quarterback – and third healthy one – on the team’s roster.
“Joe had a strong workout for us today. He is a young player who intrigues us and has a similar skill set to Cam (Newton),” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. “With Cam sidelined for the spring, it is an opportunity to get a good evaluation of Joe as well as Matt Blanchard, who was on our practice squad last year.”
The Panthers’ top two quarterback positions are set with Newton and Derek Anderson, a former Pro Bowler who re-signed with the Panthers last week for a two-year deal. Webb will compete with Blanchard for the No. 3 spot, as well as serve as the third quarterback for the team during spring workouts while Newton is sidelined recovering from ankle surgery.
Webb, who was an unrestricted free agent, played the past four seasons in Minnesota. Webb has 853 career passing yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. The Vikings selected Webb in the sixth round of the 2010 draft out of Arkansas-Birmingham.
Webb also plays receiver, and last year he caught five passes for 33 yards for the Vikings. But in a press release, the team made it clear it is bringing in Webb to be a quarterback.
Webb is best known for being the emergency starting quarterback in a wild-card game against Green Bay in the 2013 playoffs. He went 11-for-30 for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the 24-10 loss to the Packers.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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