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Carolina free agent rankings: No. 3

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No. 3 in my ranking and evaluation of the 21 Carolina Panthers scheduled to become unrestricted free agents is a player that became in many ways the attitude of the league's second-ranked defense.

Free safety Mike Mitchell.

He also may have been the most fined Carolina player. At one point the fifth-year player had five fines totaling close to $45,000. But it's his aggressive attitude that led to some of these fines that permeated through the team.

To rehash the rankings so far: No. 21 quarterback Jimmy Clausen, No. 20 wide receiver Brandon LaFell, No. 19 cornerback Drayton Florence, No. 18 guard Geoff Hangartner, No. 17 linebacker Dan Connor, No. 16 linebacker Jason Williams, No. 15 tackle Bruce Campbell, No. 14 cornerback James Dockery, No. 13 defensive tackle Colin Cole, No. 12 guard Travelle Wharton, No. 11 linebacker Jordan Senn, No. 10 quarterback Derek Anderson, No. 9 cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, No. 8 wide receiver Domenik Hixon, No. 7 wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., No. 6 tight end Ben Hartsock, No. 5 place-kicker Graham Gano and No. 4 strong safety Quintin Mikell.

On to No 3:

  • Mike Mitchell: How can you not re-sign a player willing to call out NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as Mitchell did regarding his fines in October? It takes a certain attitude to do that, and the one Mitchell brought to the defense played a big role in its success. You never want to see a player injured, but when starter Charles Godfrey suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the second game Mitchell stepped up big time. He moved from strong to free safety and had a career season. He led all safeties in sacks (4) and yards allowed per reception (8.1). He forced two fumbles and helped Carolina improve from 18th in the league in points allowed to second. He easily could have been the NFC Defensive Player of the Week with two interceptions and a sack in a victory at Minnesota that began the team's eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start. His 74 tackles ranked fourth on the team. Mitchell said repeatedly late in the season he wants to return and help the Panthers finish what they started this season. Here's the dilemma. Godfrey and a contract that will count $7.1 million against the salary cap is scheduled to return. Do the Panthers cut him, meaning they would have to count $5 million against the cap to save $2.1 million? Will Godfrey restructure, allowing Carolina to keep him and re-sign Mitchell? There will be interest in Mitchell from other teams for sure if he is allowed to test the market. That could drive him out of the price range of the salary-cap strapped Panthers. This one will be interesting to watch, but I believe Carolina will find a way to keep Mitchell.