The connection was bad and there was a lot of echo on the phone line, but Mike Tolbert’s still managed to make his message clear.
The fun-loving fullback said he re-signed with Carolina for less money than he was offered elsewhere because of the family-like atmosphere in the Panthers’ locker room and his belief that they’re poised to make another Super Bowl run.
“I left a little bit on the table to be able to come back here and be with my family. That’s one thing I wanted to do, maintain some type of camaraderie,” Tolbert said on a conference call. “My kids love Charlotte, my wife loves the area in Charlotte and obviously I love the team. So it’s just a perfect fit.”
On a day when teams like the Giants, Jaguars and Texans opened their wallets for big-name additions, the Panthers opened free agency Wednesday by getting a couple of their key cogs to come back on hometown discounts.
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Tolbert signed a two-year deal worth a little less than $4 million, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation.
Tolbert’s signing came a couple hours after defensive end Charles Johnson returned a few days after the Panthers cut him in a salary cap-related move. Johnson, who was set to count $15 million against the cap before his release, signed a one-year deal worth $3 million despite being offered twice that much by another team, according to his agent.
That both players were willing to accept team-friendly deals spoke to general manager Dave Gettleman’s shrewdness in roster-building and the attractiveness of a franchise that has won an unprecedented three consecutive NFC South titles.
After Tolbert’s signing was announced Wednesday, Johnson tweeted this message at his teammate: “gotta love when a plan comes together!! #congrats”
Tolbert said that plan is going after a Super Bowl ring again.
“I mean, we basically have the same team as last year,” he said. “We made it there. We obviously didn’t accomplish our ultimate goal, but we made it. So this year we’re planning to get back and win it.”
It won’t be exactly the same team, but Gettleman is trying to keep most of the main players in place. (Free agent punter Brad Nortman received a four-year deal from Jacksonville after the Panthers declined to meet his contract demands.)
Gettleman does not believe in spending big in free agency, but rather letting the market get established and then filling holes with what can best be described as middle-tier free agents. Those are often either ascending players who haven’t had a big payday yet (Mike Mitchell) or veterans willing to work on two-year deals (Roman Harper, Jerricho Cotchery, Michael Oher).
Free agent safety Eric Weddle, a favorite of Panthers coach Ron Rivera, falls somewhere in the middle. It was quiet on the Weddle front Wednesday in Charlotte, likely a case of Gettleman seeing what the market will bear.
Bringing Johnson back means the Panthers don’t necessarily need a free agent pass-rusher, several of whom found new homes Wednesday.
Johnson, 29, missed seven games last season with a hamstring injury and finished with just one regular-season sack. But he had a sack in all three postseason games and showed he can still be effective off the edge when healthy.
Johnson, second behind Julius Peppers on the Panthers’ all-time sacks list with 63.5, visited the Giants and Tampa Bay before re-joining the only team he’s ever played for.
“My heart was in Carolina,” Johnson said. “Once you put all that energy into it, I feel like I would have been wasting all that work had I gone somewhere else for some dollars. I’d rather be happy doing what I’m doing around people that I know, and I’m comfortable with. I can’t wait to get back to work.
Tolbert, 30, has been effective as a runner, blocker and receiver since joining the Panthers in 2012 following four seasons in San Diego. Tolbert’s original deal with the Panthers was four years and $10 million.
Tolbert has accumulated 878 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns with Carolina, while pulling down 84 receptions for 699 yards and five touchdowns. He’s been selected to the Pro Bowl in two of the past three seasons.
Rivera said he was glad to have Tolbert back for several reasons.
“He brings valuable versatility with the different positions he can play on offense and what he does on special teams,” Rivera said in a statement. “He’s been an integral part of what we do offensively and is one of our team leaders.”
In addition to what Tolbert and Johnson add from an Xs-and-Os standpoint, both are well respected in the locker room.
Tolbert is a gregarious sort who served as the team’s unofficial DJ during its 15-win regular season and all the way to Super Bowl 50, where he set up an alcohol-free “Club Shiznit” at the team’s San Jose hotel where players could relax in the days leading to the game.
Johnson is much more reserved, but the defensive captain brings a serious approach to practices and games that is not lost on his teammates.
“It was just something that (Dave) Gettleman and Mr. Richardson and coach Rivera are all about, maintaining the culture and keeping the right guys in the locker room,” Tolbert said. “I think that’s just proof in the pudding with myself and Charles being back this year.”