Scott Fowler

Successful free agents for the Carolina Panthers? Start with this list ...

Ted Ginn Jr. (19) and Kurt Coleman are two of the best free-agent signings of the Dave Gettleman era for the Carolina Panthers.
Ted Ginn Jr. (19) and Kurt Coleman are two of the best free-agent signings of the Dave Gettleman era for the Carolina Panthers. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The NFL free-agency period is a time for hope.

So rather than concentrate on the dozens of free agents who have worked out poorly for Carolina in 22 years of shopping, here is my list of the 10 best free agents the Panthers have ever acquired on the open market that begins Thursday at 4 p.m. in 2017 – as well as three guys who could eventually bump somebody off this list if everything works out just right.

I have not ranked these players in terms of their overall NFL career. That’s why the lone current Pro Football Hall of Famer on this list, Kevin Greene, is not ranked No. 1. Instead, they are ranked in order of how much punch they actually provided the Panthers during their seasons in Charlotte.

10. KURT COLEMAN: Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman found Coleman languishing on the bench in Kansas City. Coleman has had 11 interceptions in two years as a starting safety for the Panthers and has developed into a strong leader.

9. TED GINN JR.: The Panthers actually signed Ginn as a free agent twice – to a one-year deal in 2013 and then again in 2015 to a two-year deal after he sandwiched in a bad season with Arizona. Ginn has basically been unproductive everywhere he has been except Carolina, where he has scored 19 touchdowns in three speedy seasons. Carolina would like to sign him to a third free-agent contract soon, if the price is right.

8. MICHAEL BATES: A five-time Pro Bowler as a special teamer, Bates was a world-class sprinter with toughness. He not only returned kickoffs masterfully but was also one of the best punt-coverage gunners I ever saw.

7. STEVE BEUERLEIN: The author of the famous draw play against Green Bay in 1999, Beuerlein turned 52 this week. He was a steady backup to Kerry Collins and then an accurate, tough starter at quarterback for Carolina in the late 1990s and early 2000s until George Seifert foolishly ran him out of town.

6. KEVIN GREENE: Now a hall of famer, Greene played just three of his 15 NFL seasons with Carolina. All came in the late 1990s, and in all three he regularly got to the quarterback (with an astounding 41.5 sacks in those three years).

5. ERIC DAVIS: People forget how good a shutdown cornerback Eric Davis could be. A key part of Carolina’s first playoff team in 1996, Davis remains second on Carolina’s all-time list with 25 interceptions.

4. JOHN KASAY: As one of Carolina’s first free-agent signings ever in 1995, he would epitomize grace on the field for the next 16 years in Charlotte. I would wager a lot that no one will ever eclipse Kasay’s scoring record for the Panthers (1,482 points, more than 900 ahead of everyone else).

3. WESLEY WALLS: Carolina has had two great tight ends in its history, and neither came through the NFL draft. The Panthers traded to get Greg Olsen, and Walls came in general manager Bill Polian’s remarkable free-agent class of 1996, which contained five players who would make the Pro Bowl with Carolina (Walls, Beuerlein, Davis, Bates and Greene).

2. SAM MILLS: When Mills signed with the expansion Panthers in 1995 toward the end of his own career, it was as seismic of an event in the Carolinas as it was nationally when Reggie White signed with Green Bay (White’s deal is the No. 1 free-agency signing of all time, according to NFL.com).

Mills was so well-respected that his signing paved the way for many others. Plus, the late linebacker was a darn good player, and he came up with the “Keep Pounding” motto during his struggle with cancer.

1. JAKE DELHOMME: In 2003, the Panthers thought they were going to try to win with Rodney Peete at quarterback. Delhomme took over late in Week 1 and held the job through a Super Bowl and three playoff appearances. Delhomme ranks second to Cam Newton in most key statistical categories for the Panthers and won five playoff games for Carolina at quarterback. Newton so far has won three.

And who might be next?

And three players who could join this “Top 10” list down the road if the Panthers can manage to sign any of them in the next few days:

MATT KALIL. Far more than just Ryan Kalil’s kid brother, Kalil is only 27 and could shore up the left tackle position that is so essential to the Panthers’ offense. But signing Kalil is a jump into the deep and expensive end of the free-agent pool, which Gettleman always views as, to use his word, “dicey.” I hope the Panthers make this splash, however.

KEVIN ZEITLER. A long shot for sure, since Carolina has more pressing needs than offensive guard. But Zeitler is a big-time hog molly of an offensive lineman and someone is about to pay him huge money.

JULIUS PEPPERS. I am cheating a little here, since Peppers was originally a Carolina draft choice and remains the team’s all-time sack leader. But if the Panthers can come to terms with “Pep” – and I know for a fact that Peppers is interested – then the symmetry would be sweet.

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