While the Super Bowl winner lost its second quarterback in less than a week, the loser of the big game held on to two key performers.
With Peyton Manning retired, his supposed successor Brock Osweiler heading to Houston, defensive end Malik Jackson going to Jacksonville, and linebacker Danny Trevathan now in Chicago, the Denver Broncos clearly have been weakened. At least Super Bowl MVP Von Miller has been franchise tagged and won't be going anywhere.
Carolina, which fell 24-10 to Denver in the Super Bowl, meanwhile retained All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert and re-signed defensive end Charles Johnson to a lower salary Wednesday.
All-Pro running back Doug Martin re-signed with Tampa Bay for five years, Indianapolis released veteran receiver Andre Johnson, and center Alex Mack chose Atlanta over Cleveland in other major moves on the first day of free agency.
Johnson, cut last week, received a one-year contract worth $3 million to return to the NFC champions, according to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. He said Johnson turned down an offer in excess of $6 million from another team.
Johnson, 29, would have cost the Panthers $15 million in 2016 under the cap before he was cut.
"My heart was in Carolina," he said. "Once you put all that energy into it, I feel like I would have been wasting all that work had I gone somewhere else for some dollars. I'd rather be happy doing what I'm doing around people that I know, and I'm comfortable with. I can't wait to get back to work."
Johnson has played nine seasons with Carolina and his 63½ sacks are second most in franchise history, behind Julius Peppers' 81.
Tolbert also said he accepted fewer bucks to return to Carolina.
The top player at his position on the market, Martin will get more than $35 million, with $15 million guaranteed, from the Buccaneers. Martin, 27, has had two outstanding seasons with the Buccaneers and two injury-plagued years. In 2015, he rushed for 1,402 yards, second in the NFL, and six touchdowns. His 4.87-yard average was the highest in team history.
Johnson was a mainstay in Houston for 12 years, making two All-Pro teams. But he was a disappointment with the Colts in his only season in Indy with 41 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns. He and caught 1,053 passes for 14,100 yards and 68 touchdowns, often as the only true receiving option for the Texans.
Mack opted out of his deal with the Browns and gets five years from the Falcons., who have had instability at center since longtime starter Todd McClure retired following the 2012 season.
Headed to Miami was DE Mario Williams, and his signing after being released by Buffalo led to the Dolphins removing the transition tag from Olivier Vernon, who then agreed to terms with the Giants. The transition tag was for $12.734 million; Williams got $17 million over two years from Miami.
The 2006 No. 1 overall pick struggled last season in Rex Ryan's defense with the Bills, and even criticized how he was used.
"You have bumpy roads," said Williams 31. "We all do. There's nobody that can go out there and have a smooth path that is perfect. But I can honestly say that road is still going. We haven't hit the end in the road, and that's what gives me so much excitement."
The Dolphins also finalized a trade to acquire cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso from the Eagles, who will receive a draft pick as compensation.
-Star tight end Antonio Gates is remaining in San Diego with a two-year deal that will allow him to retire as a Charger. He'll get $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed, to keep his terrific combination with quarterback Philip Rivers going. The 2016 season will be Gates' 14th with the Chargers. He signed as a rookie free agent in 2003 after starring in basketball at Kent State. He turns 36 on June 18.
San Diego also agreed to terms with Seattle DT Brandon Mebane.
-Linebacker Rolando McClain is returning for a third in season in Dallas. The 26-year-old McClain got one year at $5 million. He also has been with Oakland and Baltimore.
-Tight end Benjamin Watson, coming off a productive season in New Orleans, joined Baltimore.
-The Giants significantly strengthened their porous defense by adding DT Damon Harrison from the Jets and CB Janoris Jenkins from the Rams.