While the rest of the NFL went crazy Tuesday with marquee players changing teams through blockbuster trades or big free-agent signings, the Carolina Panthers had a relatively quiet day.
The team reached deals to bring back two of their own free agents, re-signing defensive tackle Dwan Edwards to a two-year contract and agreeing in principle to a three-year deal for No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson.
Dickson is expected to sign his contract Wednesday after passing a physical, his agent Marc Lillibridge said.
Those transactions might not have moved the meter on a day when New Orleans sent Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle for center Max Unger, and St. Louis was set to ship Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick Foles in a swap of quarterbacks.
But Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman continued tweaking the roster of a team that has won the past two NFC South titles and looks to be in good position to make a run at a third.
The Panthers seemingly gained ground by standing still Tuesday as the Saints dealt Carolina-killer Graham to the Seahawks and cut linebacker Curtis Lofton, and Tampa Bay released offensive tackle Anthony Collins, a free agency darling last year.
Gettleman had to do some housecleaning of his own. He made the DeAngelo Williams release official, and saved $2 million against the salary cap by designating Williams as a post-June 1 cut.
The Panthers, through no fault of Gettleman’s, had been paying two running backs too much for too long. Fozzy Whittaker’s two-year, $1.4 million contract gets Carolina closer to the going rate.
But Tuesday’s other important moves involved Edwards and Dickson, two part-time players who played big roles last season.
Dickson, 27, had a strong finish to his first season with the Panthers. After playing fullback for two months after a rash of injuries at the position, Dickson emerged as a reliable receiving complement to Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen over the final month.
Dickson had a touchdown catch in the division-clinching win at Atlanta in Week 17, and had a total of three receptions for 67 yards in playoff games against Arizona and Seattle. Dickson, who spent his first four seasons in Baltimore, had drawn interest from several teams, including Cleveland.
Edwards, who will turn 34 in May, had 39 tackles, four sacks and one interception last season, and played in all 16 regular-season games.
The Panthers viewed Dickson and Edwards as priorities among their own free agents. Carolina has re-signed four of its 11 unrestricted free agents: Dickson, Edwards, defensive tackle Colin Cole and No. 3 quarterback Joe Webb.
But they won’t be bringing back their most prolific free agent.
Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, embroiled in a domestic violence case, became a free agent at 4 p.m. on Tuesday and will not be re-signed. The NFL still has not announced Hardy’s discipline.
Gettleman, who pledged to move up from the “dollar store” this offseason, still has work to do and money to spend. The Panthers need another offensive tackle, a couple of defensive backs and a pass rusher.
But before free agency began, the third-year GM locked up Olsen with a long-term contract, signed a left tackle to replace Byron Bell and found a speed receiver/return specialist.
Whatever you think of Michael Oher and Ted Ginn Jr., they’re upgrades over what the Panthers had at those spots last year.
It’s been well established how terrible the NFC South was last year. Even so, the Panthers have been trending upward under Ron Rivera: 6-10 in 2011, 7-9 in 2012, playoff berth in 2013, playoff win in 2014.
Players – inside and outside the organization – notice these things.
“I wanted to finish what we started,” Edwards said Tuesday in explaining his decision to return. “I got here three years ago and the defense has been improving, we’ve made a couple playoff appearances and I want to see it through.”
Tuesday wasn’t a splashy start to free agency for the Panthers, but it felt like a couple of methodical steps in the right direction.
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