Carolina Panthers fans are frustrated with their team’s offense, and rightfully so. The Panthers don’t have a franchise quarterback and there are glaring holes along the offensive line. A series of miscalculated trades, free-agent signings, and missed opportunities in the draft has led to an underwhelming depth chart at quarterback and along the offensive line. Fixing both positions is a critical need to address this offseason for the Panthers in what is likely a make-or-break year for head coach Matt Rhule. The frustrations of the fan base have been heavily communicated to me whenever I release a 2022 mock draft. While the need for a quarterback is obvious, if I mock one to Carolina, it is met with spirited comments about how it’s a waste of a pick because the team doesn’t have enough talent on the offensive line to give the quarterback a chance. Other fans are disappointed that I didn’t project them to trade back and recoup the draft picks used in the trades for Sam Darnold, Stephon Gilmore, and C.J. Henderson. But what is lost in releasing a mock draft is any other potential transactions made by the team outside of a single first-round pick. As we know, there are more ways than a first-round pick available to help improve a football team. The good news for Panthers fans that are craving an upgraded offensive line is that both general manager Scott Fitterer and Rhule have made comments since the close of the regular season that were direct about their intentions to get serious about upgrades in the offseason. “We’re not going to be blind to the defense,” Fitterer said. “We’re not going to be blind to the quarterback position. But we absolutely know we have to fix the offensive line. We can’t have all this leakage. We need to build this the right way. We need to build this up-front.” “Until we can control the line of scrimmage, it will be hard to win,” Rhule said. Let’s examine a series of realistic moves that can be made by the Panthers this offseason to fortify the offensive line while also finding an exciting direction at the quarterback position. Cap Space As things currently stand, the Panthers are estimated to enter the offseason with $24 million in available cap space, which is not enough to aggressively sign free-agent offensive linemen, sign the draft class, and consider extensions for expiring contracts in Donte Jackson, Stephon Gilmore, and Haason Reddick. Right off the bat, let’s earmark $10 million in cap space to be used to sign the draft class and have some money available for in-season signings. That brings the available cap space down to $14 million. To create additional space, the first step is to restructure the contracts of Taylor Moton and Shaq Thompson. As long-term fixtures, those two players are logical candidates. The restructure includes reducing the base salary of the player to the veteran minimum and pushing the remainder into a signing bonus that pro-rates over the remaining years on the deal. A Moton restructure creates $11.2 million in cap space while Thompson frees up $5.1 million. The restructures bring Carolina to $30.3 million in cap space to invest in free-agent upgrades. Other moves can be made to clear up cap space if necessary. Robby Anderson can be restructured to free up $4.5 million. Cameron Erving can be cut to save $2 million, Morgan Fox would save $3.1 million, Pat Elflein $2.1 million, and A.J. Bouye for $3.5 million. In considering extensions for Gilmore, Jackson, and Reddick or other additions at other positions, those options are available if more cap space is needed. Free Agent Moves When Fitterer was asked if his top priority this offseason was the offensive line, he didn’t mince words. “Absolutely. Both sides of the ball, but the offensive line, that’s how you build a team.” Let’s take him at his word. I believe the Panthers need three new starters up front. Moton is obviously the answer at right tackle and I’m penciling in Brady Christensen as the starting right guard. He showed plenty of promise as a rookie and even showcased himself well at left tackle in the final two games of the season. That said, he projects more favorably to a guard position and Rhule’s comments about his arm length are well-documented. So now it’s time to find a left tackle, left guard, and center with the $30.3 million in available cap space. The Panthers have had a different primary starting left tackle in every season since 2013 and that has to change. The top options set to hit free agency are Terron Armstead, Orlando Brown Jr., Duane Brown, Eric Fisher, and Trent Brown. Any of those players would represent a massive upgrade for Carolina. I believe the best value comes in either Duane Brown or Fisher. Pro Football Focus estimates Brown will sign a two-year, $20 million contract with $14.5 million guaranteed. An NFL starting left tackle since 2008, Brown is still performing at a high level at age 36 and has been the model of consistency. Given the success of Jason Peters and Andrew Whitworth late in their careers, there’s no reason to believe Brown doesn’t have a few good seasons left in him to stabilize the left tackle spot for Carolina and buy more time to secure a long-term answer. At left guard, there are several options for Carlina to consider in free agency including Brandon Scherff, Laken Thomlinson, James Daniels, Andrew Norwell, Austin Corbett, Alex Cappa, and Mark Glowinski. I’m proposing signing Tomlinson, who was a first-round pick out of Duke in 2015 and has been a quality starter since. He’s an impact run blocker that is also outstanding in pass protection. Pro Football Focus estimates Tomlinson signing a three-year, $27 million contract with $16.5 million guaranteed. That is a reasonable deal for a player of Tomlinson’s caliber but any of the aforementioned names would be an upgrade for Carolina. As for the center position, Ryan Jensen, Ben Jones, Brian Allen, Ted Karas, and Bradley Bozeman are the top options available and the Panthers would be wise to sign one of them. The name that intrigues me the most is Jones, who Pro Football Focus estimates to sign a three-year, $20 million contract with $12 million guaranteed. Jones has been in the league since 2012 and a primary starter since 2014. He has really come into his own as a starting center with the Tennessee Titans, where he’s manned the position at a high level since 2016. While there are different combinations of players Carolina could sign, the bottom line is that with the $30.3 million, it is absolutely possible to find three quality starters for the offensive line and still have money left over (through other moves) to consider contract extensions and other free-agent additions. When you consider what the actual 2022 cap hits would be for the new additions, the room to make the moves I outlined is absolutely possible with room to spare. In Brown, Tomlinson, and Jones, I added three proven veterans that have been reliable starters for a long time in the NFL. 2022 NFL Draft With the offensive line stabilized entering the draft, I’m guessing the appetite for drafting a quarterback has increased significantly. My top quarterback is Kenny Pickett and I recently wrote about why I’m pounding the table for him in the 2022 Draft. Using our Mock Draft Machine, here is a scenario that complements the free-agent moves to strengthen the roster.
- Round 1, Pick 6: QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh - The best quarterback in the draft.
- Round 4, Pick 104: IOL Alec Lindstrom, Boston College - Experienced center to add depth along the interior.
- Round 5, Pick 142: IDL John Ridgeway, Arkansas - Adds much-needed depth to the interior defensive line.
- Round 5, Pick 147: LB Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin - Potential running mate for Shaq Thompson and a downhill presence.
- Round 6, Pick 198: OT Zach Tom, Wake Forest - Developmental swing tackle that offers positional versatility.
- Round 7, Pick 248: TE Gerrit Prince, UAB - Converted wide receiver that has an appealing ceiling as a pass-catching threat.
- Sep 29, 2023
- Sep 28, 2023