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NFL Draft

3 Offensive Free Agents Panthers Should Target

  • The Draft Network
  • February 12, 2021
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All things considered, the Carolina Panthers were impressive in 2020. With a first-year head coach in Matt Rhule making the big jump from Baylor to the NFL, plus with a very young defense and an offense that was moving on from their franchise quarterback to work with, their 5-11 finish really wasn’t that bad—I would argue it was a good first year for the new regime.

The Panthers will get Christian McCaffrey back this season, which will feel like an added bonus to any other additions they have in free agency or the draft, but they’ll need to infuse more talent into their roster if they want to make sure year two puts them on an upward trajectory.

According to Spotrac, the Panthers are projected to have about $17 million in cap space. When looking at potential contracts to move on from to give them some more spending money, the big one is Kawaan Short. Short was one of the best players on the Panthers’ defense in their heyday, but Short will be 32 years old and has only played in five games over the last two years. The team can save about $8 million by moving on from him. Beyond Short, outside of maybe a Teddy Bridgewater trade, most of the rest of the money is spoken for. They could move on from defensive end Stephen Weatherly and save about $5-6 million in cap. They could save $8 million by moving on from wide receiver Robby Anderson, but I don’t think that will happen. The last one is center Matt Paradis, who the Panthers would like to have playing at a higher level, but that hasn’t been the case lately and cutting him could save an extra $5-6 million. With a Short cut and nothing else, the Panthers will likely be looking at about $25 million in cap space, but they could be flexible for more.

When it comes to offense, the top “need” for the Panthers is quarterback. Bridgewater is fine, but that’s just what he is: fine. The Panthers don’t want fine; they want upside, they want youth, they want their next franchise guy. The other major area of need is at left tackle. The Panthers have Greg Little and Russell Okung, but need to improve the spot opposite Taylor Moton in order to make sure their offense gives them the time to do what they need to do. You could then look at the interior offensive line and tight end for the next spots to upgrade after that.

As far as unrestricted free agents, the Panthers’ big ones are Moton, wide receiver Curtis Samuel, and perhaps Okung, depending on how you see it. They have a handful of interior offensive line guys in John Miller, Michael Schofield, and Ted Larsen who they could bring back, but the priority on them could depend on what they do with Paradis. Ultimately, I think the Panthers bring back Moton and Samuel, or at least try to, which would probably cost them close to that $25 million they’d have after cutting Short—Samuel is projected to get around $12 million per year and Moton could command around $14 million per year.

I give all that context not just to point out team needs, but also to say that if Carolina wants to bring back the top guys who are unrestricted free agents, they probably won’t be big players for other fish in the pond. They’ll have their go at whatever talent they can—Rhule and owner David Tepper don’t seem like the kind to let salary numbers in the moment stop them from getting better—but it might not be the crown prospect at each position.

We’ll leave defensive additions for another article. For now, here are three offensive guys I think are realistic targets that could help them.

Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers

Projected AAV: $18 million

Trent Williams might be out of the Panthers’ price range, but this would be a great move for them if they can make it happen. Signing Williams would give them two rock-solid offensive tackles in Williams and Moton, while still giving the Panthers the freedom to use their No. 8 overall pick to target a new young quarterback. Carolina would have to get creative with their books, but if they can make this happen, they should look into Williams.

Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers

Projected AAV: $11 million

Hunter Henry is likely the best pass-catching tight end in this upcoming free agency class. The Panthers signing off on spending this kind of money for a tight end would depend on how they want to use it. If they want their top tight end to be a focal point of their offense, Henry is their guy. If they want more of a blocking tight end and someone who can be more of an addition in the trenches, they could look to our next target.

Jonnu Smith, TE, Tennessee Titans

Projected AAV: $8 million

Smith presents more of a blocking profile than a guy like Henry. Smith hasn’t been emphasized as much in the passing game, but this past year he had his most productive season yet with eight touchdowns while giving the Titans that plus blocking ability to keep him in on early downs for play-action work. If the Panthers want to be a play-action heavy team, Smith would be a great upgrade at tight end.

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