(Sports Network) - The Carolina Panthers won the NFC crown in 2003 with a solid formula for winning football. Head coach John Fox did an excellent job of pulling the team together and selling the group his strategy. Now that the game plan is in place for the next few seasons the Panthers will search for a few key pieces to get them over the top.
GM Marty Hurney made his first big post-Super Bowl move by signing kicker John Kasay to a five-year contract. Kasay was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 3. The 34-year-old Kasay is the Panthers' all-time leading scorer, and connected on 32-of-38 field goal attempts during the '03 regular season. He also made all eight of his extra points and 9-of-11 field goals in the playoffs. For a team that relies on field position and controlling the clock, a player of Kasay's caliber is worth his weight in gold.
Fox's aggressive defensive schemes present ample opportunities for defensive backs to make big plays. Ricky Manning took advantage of the front seven's pass-rushing abilities by picking off three passes in the 14-3 NFC Championship Game victory over Philadelphia. The coaching staff has entertained thoughts of taking advantage of Manning's aggressiveness by moving him into the slot. However, Carolina must add a talented young player to replace unrestricted free agent Reggie Howard and incumbent Terry Cousin, who isn't a strong one-on-one cover man on deep routes.
Steve Smith enjoyed a career year in 2003, but help is needed in the receiving corps since Jake Delhomme has shown the ability to be an effective downfield passer. The Panthers might have a tough time signing Smith, a restricted free agent, to a long-term contract after last year's negotiations turned sour. Muhsin Muhammad could become a cap casualty, and Kevin Dyson is an unrestricted free agent. Wideout is a priority in both free agency and the draft.
Tight ends Kris Mangum, Jermaine Wiggins and Marco Battaglia are unrestricted free agents. Mike Seidman, a third-round pick last year, is coming off knee surgery but could figure in the starting mix if the team doesn't re-sign one of its veterans.
Jordan Gross proved to be a solid first-round pick, but the offensive line needs a few upgrades. Starting left guard Jeno James is an unrestricted free agent and could receive a better offer elsewhere. Bruce Nelson, who was drafted in the second round a year ago, will step into the right guard slot vacated by the retired Kevin Donnalley.
Fox also has some concerns about his linebacking corps. Mark Fields will be given every chance to return from his bout with cancer, but Greg Favors is going to test the free agent market. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins has developed into one of the best in the game, but fellow starter Brentson Buckner is aging. The team wants to re-sign DE Al Wallace, who is an excellent player off the bench.
KEY UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: TE-Kris Mangum, TE-Jermaine Wiggins, TE-Marco Battaglia, WR-Kevin Dyson, OG-Jeno James, OT-Matt Willig, OG-Tutan Reyes, OT- Melvin Tuten, DE-Kavika Pittman, DE-Al Wallace, LB-Greg Favors, LB-Lester Towns, S-Deon Grant, CB-Reggie Howard, LS-Jason Kyle.
KEY RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: RB-Rod Smart, FB-Nick Goings, WR-Steve Smith, LB- Brian Allen, S-Jarrod Cooper, S-Travares Tillman.