NFC South: Mark Jones


Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


I’m pretty sure John Fox was just being John Fox when he threw out Steve Smith’s name as a possible punt returner Thursday.

Fox is a master at keeping all options open and not tipping his hand and he certainly has a dilemma at punt returner. Nobody really was able to hang onto the ball in the preseason and the Panthers tried to bring back Mark Jones, who failed a physical, and even took a look at Dexter Jackson.

Yeah, this might be a desperate situation, but not desperate enough to put Smith back there Sunday. There’s no doubt Smith could handle punt returns. He did it very well early in his career. If the Panthers were in a Super Bowl or even a playoff game, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw Smith out there for a return. He could break one at any time.

But this isn’t the Super Bowl or a playoff game. It’s a regular-season opener and Fox would be crazy to put Smith out there as a return man. The guy’s way too valuable as a receiver to increase his exposure to injury.

The Panthers would be wise to go with the unknown -- Captain Munnerlyn or Kenneth Moore. Yeah, they might botch a return or two and that could hurt. But it wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as getting Smith hurt for an extended period.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Say what you want about Carolina's silent offseason. At least the Panthers are in good company.

I was just reviewing what's happened around the league since the start of free agency and one thing really jumped out. The Panthers are one of only two teams that hasn't signed an unrestricted free agent from another team.

The Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers are the other. It makes a lot of sense to keep your team pretty much intact after winning a Super Bowl.

But the Panthers aren't in the same boat as the Steelers. Yes, they were 12-4 last season, but that playoff loss to Arizona was ugly and it showed the Panthers have needs.

The only real moves they've made since the end of last season were re-signing offensive tackle Jordan Gross and placing the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers. Keeping Gross was hugely important because he's the anchor of a good offensive line. The Panthers did what they had to do with Peppers, who has asked out of Carolina.

The franchise tag gives the Panthers some power over Peppers. They can pretty much force him to stay, if they want. They've also put themselves in a position where they can trade Peppers and get some decent compensation.

But those two moves have handcuffed the Panthers when it comes to the salary cap and kept them from playing in free agency. Gross, Peppers and quarterback Jake Delhomme are combining for about $38 million in cap space right now.

That's why Carolina hasn't really pursued any free agents. At the same time, they've lost players like kick returner Mark Jones and cornerback Ken Lucas. They've got alternatives at those spots, but they're still running the risk of losing long-snapper Jason Kyle and they need depth on the defensive line, in the secondary and at wide receiver.

Are the Panthers going to be able to fill all those needs in the draft? No, they'll take care of some spots, but not all of them. At some point, probably after the draft, the Panthers are going to have to make some moves in free agency. If they get rid of Peppers, someone like veteran defensive end Kevin Carter probably still will be sitting out there and could be a possibility. There are also some decent veteran cornerbacks available (and probably more coming after the draft) that could fill the nickel back role behind starters Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall.

Maybe they trade Peppers and free up $17 million in cap space. Maybe they extend Delhomme's contract and trim his cap figure for this year. Or maybe they restructure some other contracts.

But the Panthers have to make at least a few moves in free agency. The Steelers can go the route of not fixing what isn't broken. The Panthers still have some flaws that have to be fixed.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The Panthers lost Mark Jones on Thursday as the return man signed with the Titans.

Not a big surprise because the Panthers have virtually no salary-cap money to spend right now (thanks to the $17 million franchise tag on Julius Peppers) and they have other options in the return game.

Ryne Robinson, who missed the 2008 season with a knee injury, is expected back. Robinson was Carolina's main return man in 2007 and the Panthers are hoping he can step back into his old job.

One other possibility is running back DeCori Birmingham. With the release of Nick Goings, Birmingham has a chance to make the roster as a backup running back. He also has return skills and that could increase his opportunity to land a spot.

Refresher on free-agent lists

February, 12, 2009
2/12/09
1:44
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Another quiet day in the NFC South so far, but that could always change this afternoon as teams get ready for the start of free agency. Speaking of that, I've been getting a lot of people asking for lists of free agents.

I did team-by-team breakdowns back in January but decided to run the lists for all four NFC South teams here just to refresh everybody. Keep in mind, these are the guys who are prospective free agents at the end of the month and things could always change with teams re-signing their own players or using the franchise tag.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Michael Boley, defensive end Chauncey Davis, cornerback Domonique Foxworth, tackle Wayne Gandy, linebacker Tony Gilbert, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, defensive tackle Jason Jefferson, punter Michael Koenen, safety Lawyer Milloy, tight end Justin Peelle and linebacker Coy Wire.

Restricted free agents: Tackle Tyson Clabo, guard Harvey Dahl, safety Jamaal Fudge and center Ben Wilkerson.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Donte' Curry, tackle Jordan Gross, offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, return man Mark Jones, long-snapper Jason Kyle, tackle Frank Omiyale, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Adam Seward and defensive tackle Darwin Walker.

Restricted free agents: Defensive tackle Gary Gibson, tight end Jeff King, safety Nate Salley and linebacker James Anderson.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Unrestricted free agents: Cornerback Aaron Glenn, quarterback Joey Harrington, receiver Devery Henderson, defensive tackle Antwan Lake, guard Matt Lehr, running back Aaron Stecker, tackle Jon Stinchcomb and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Restricted free agents: Guard Jahri Evans, receiver Lance Moore, receiver Courtney Roby, defensive tackle Montavious Stanley and offensive lineman Zach Strief.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Unrestricted free agents: Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, cornerback Phillip Buchanon, defensive end Kevin Carter, receiver Michael Clayton, quarterback Jeff Garcia, receiver Cortez Hankton, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, safety Jermaine Phillips, defensive tackle Ryan Sims and tight end Jerramy Stevens.

Restricted free agent: Tackle Donald Penn.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Our next stop on our team-by-team look at potential free agents is the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina's list of players who can become unrestricted free agents includes linebacker Donte' Curry, tackle Jordan Gross, offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, return man Mark Jones, long-snapper Jason Kyle, tackle Frank Omiyale, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Adam Seward and defensive tackle Darwin Walker.

Carolina's restricted free agents are defensive tackle Gary Gibson, tight end Jeff King, safety Nate Salley and linebacker James Anderson.

Overview: It's going to be a very interesting offseason in Charlotte and the Panthers are going to have to make some tough decisions on keeping some of their own free agents. One decision appears to already have been made for them with Peppers saying he wants out. The Panthers still may put the franchise tag on him and try to trade him or else they'll just have to let him walk and get nothing in return.

Peppers' situation probably helps the chances of Gross returning. If the Panthers aren't paying Peppers big money, they should have room to get a deal done with Gross. That's critical because he's the focal point of a good offensive line.

Gross and Peppers are the only big-name free agents here, but the Panthers face tough calls on some guys who have been crucial role players. Hangartner is a versatile and very solid backup and the Panthers want to keep him. But that may be difficult because he's talented enough to get a shot at a starting spot somewhere else.

The special teams is also an area to keep a close eye on. Jones had a solid season as a return man, but the Panthers are expecting Ryne Robinson to come back from injury. Kyle is one of the best long-snappers in the league, but his veteran status makes him costly even if he plays for somewhere close to the minimum. Kyle is as dependable as they come, but the Panthers have a lot of other issues to deal with and not a lot of salary-cap room. Keeping a high-priced long-snapper might be difficult.

Panthers make WR Jarrett inactive

September, 21, 2008
9/21/08
11:51
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

MINNEAPOLIS -- Interesting move by the Panthers. With Steve Smith returning from his two-game suspension, Dwayne Jarrett has been declared inactive.

Jarrett

That's not a good sign for Jarrett's career. Drafted in the second round last year, Jarrett was inactive for much of his rookie season. Coaches didn't feel comfortable putting him on the field because he was slow to learn the playbook and there were questions about his work ethic.

But Jarrett drew praise in training camp and the team was hoping he had turned a corner. He got some playing time in the first two games, but produced only two catches. Smith and Muhsin Muhammad presumably will be today's starters with D.J. Hackett as the third receiver.

The injured Ryne Robinson also is on the inactive list. Mark Jones, who is Carolina's primary return man, is the fourth active receiver.

Panthers pick up return man Jones

September, 1, 2008
9/01/08
1:27
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Jones

With Ryne Robinson recovering from a knee injury, Ricardo Colclough waived after being charged with driving while impaired and Steve Smith suspended for the first two games, the Panthers didn't have many options in the return game.

They went out and added one today, signing Mark Jones, who recently was cut by San Diego. Ironically, Jones will probably handle return duties in the regular-season opener against the Chargers on Sunday.

Jones previously has spent time with the Giants and Buccaneers. This may be only a short-term solution until Robinson gets healthy. The Panthers would like Robinson to handle all return duties. Rookie running back Jonathan Stewart can return kickoffs, but the Panthers would like to let him concentrate on his primary role. Smith and cornerback Chris Gamble also can return punts, but the Panthers don't want to over-use them.

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