Bob Leverone, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers have won four games over the past two seasons but don't expect longtime general manager Marty Hurney to hit the panic button.
That's not his style.
Hurney has never been a proponent of signing big-name free agents as a quick fix.
Although he wouldn't rule out the Panthers adding a few pieces in free agency to complement the roster, Hurney says the primary focus will be on adding depth — particularly on defense — while maintaining an emphasis on drafting well and re-signing core players.
It might not sound sexy, but Hurney believes it's the key to Carolina's future success.
Hurney believes that despite the team's 2-7 record, the Panthers are headed in the right direction.
"We have a plan," Hurney said. "Until you get there and start winning games, you always feel like there's a lot of work to do. And certainly there is."
That work includes upgrading a struggling defense.
While Hurney isn't going to ignore that offensive side of the ball next offseason, he realizes the focus needs to be on defense and building depth after a year in which injuries hit the Panthers hard.
Just nine games into the season, the Panthers already have 12 players on injured reserve, including six starters -- three on each side of the ball.
The Panthers have been able to adapt to the injuries on offense for the most part, but the defense has been more of a challenge. The losses of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis in the first two weeks of the season were crushing blows for the Panthers as they're two of the team's best players.
The Panthers wanted to be an aggressive, blitzing-style group under new coach Ron Rivera, but injuries to Beason and Davis have forced them to play less experienced backups. The Panthers have started eight different starting lineups this year on defense, and their lack of depth has been exposed.
"Obviously, continuity helps to define your identity," Hurney said. "We have had some changes there throughout. That's our job is to get depth good enough to where we can fill in in those areas. That's probably the area we need to address as much as anything. I think offensively we might have more experience and depth on that side of the ball than we do on defense."
If things remain the same the Panthers should have a pretty high draft pick in 2012, one year after taking Cam Newton with the No. 1 selection.
The Panthers should also have enough salary cap space to add some quality starters in free agency next year, although that's not something Hurney has typically done much of in the recent years.
Carolina's biggest free agent pickup last year was kicker Olindo Mare, who got a four-year, $12 million contract.
Instead, the Panthers devoted the labor-shortened offseason to re-signing free agents such as defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, center Ryan Kalil, safety Charles Godfrey and linebackers James Anderson, Beason and Davis.
"We felt like we needed to get a core and nucleus intact for several years and we feel like we have done that," Hurney said.
As for how aggressive the team will be in free agency next year, Hurney said he'll leave every avenue open for improvement. But he emphasized the Panthers plan to stick to their plan of developing their own draft picks rather than breaking the bank on signing free agents.
"It's our philosophy to draft well, re-sign your own players and complement through the other areas," Hurney said. "We have had more success doing it that way. When you draft well, normally you want to keep those players and there's a limited amount of resources you can use. If you're going to use those resources to re-sign your own players, it's hard to go out and pay big money for players outside the organization.
"That's why it is so critical for us to draft well. If you draft well you can maintain your core at your key spots. Then you can complement through other areas."
Hurney said the team expects to have Beason, a defensive captain, back next year. Beason tore his Achilles tendon in the season opener against Arizona, but is said to be ahead of schedule in his rehab.
"Players have come back from that with a fairly high rate of success," Hurney said.
Hurney said the team is also excited about the play of rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. He's also pleased with the play of their young cornerbacks, including Captain Munnerlyn and Darius Butler.
As for the offense, Hurney likes the explosive nature the Panthers have shown for most of the season.
"I think offensively we have shown the ability to change the momentum in games," he said. "Now we have to improve that in the other areas and start making the plays we need to make to win games."
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