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Laken Tomlinson
NFL

Panthers Should Target These 6 Free Agents

  • Justin Melo
  • February 22, 2022
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Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule are entering a critical offseason. Fitterer's leash is likely longer, but the Panthers must experience success in 2022 should Rhule hope to retain his job as Carolina's head honcho. The Panthers finished the campaign a disappointing 5-12 and in last place in the NFC South. Several upgrades are necessary if the Panthers hope to right the ship. Much of the offseason discussion will center around the quarterback position following Sam Darnold's failure to prove himself worthy of becoming Carolina's long-term starter, but other positions must also be addressed, particularly along the offensive line. The Panthers currently possess north of $17 million in cap space, via Spotrac. Potential restructures and releases of veteran players could help bump that number up significantly and Carolina should be worthy players in free agency. Fitterer and Rhule must improve a roster in what now appears to be a wide-open division following Tom Brady and Sean Payton's retirement. With cap, team needs, pending free agents, and draft selections all put into consideration, here are three offensive and defensive free agents Carolina could target when the signing period begins on March 14.

LAKEN TOMLINSON, OG, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Improving multiple positions across the interior offensive line is a must for the Panthers this offseason. The likes of John Miller, Pat Elflein, and Michael Jordan struggled mightily throughout 2021 as Carolina fielded one of the worst interior offensive lines in all of professional football, both from a run blocking and pass protection perspective. Carolina's signal-callers were given few opportunities to succeed behind a mix-and-match starting five that consistently gave up immediate pressure and allowed backfield penetration on a near snap-by-snap basis. It's a situation that must be rectified in March and April—the Panthers should be willing to pay top dollar to improve this horrid situation. Laken Tomlinson represents an ideal solution to one of those issues. Tomlinson is a plug-and-play starter at the left guard position after thriving in San Francisco over the previous five seasons. He's a proven veteran that's continued to develop throughout the years. Tomlinson remains in his prime at the age of 30 and should continue to operate as a high-level starter for years to come. Panthers fans should be ecstatic should Fitterer secure the services of Tomlinson.

RILEY REIFF, OT, CINCINNATI BENGALS

For all the issues Carolina experienced up front throughout 2021, Taylor Moton is a quality starting right tackle and rookie Brady Christensen out of BYU flashed plenty of promise at the left tackle position in limited reps. Christensen was selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft and is expected to be a part of the solution going forward. His presence paired with Moton means the Panthers don't need to overreact (or overpay) at the tackle position this offseason, and would be better served spending the majority of their resources at the guard position. That doesn't mean Carolina shouldn't at least add some competition to the tackle position via a mid-level starter or high-end backup. Christensen hasn't done enough to be handed the starting left tackle job on a silver platter. Riley Reiff has experience starting at both left and right tackle and would immediately upgrade Carolina's depth chart at the position. Should Christensen fail to impress throughout training camp, Reiff is more than capable of stepping into a starting role. On the flip side, should Reiff dazzle throughout August, Christensen is capable of kicking inside and solving one of Carolina's issues at guard.

BRAXTON BERRIOS, WR, NEW YORK JETS

The Panthers missed the presence of Curtis Samuel in 2021 and could use a utility do-it-all player to replicate what Samuel did for them before he departed for the Washington Commanders. D.J. Moore is a bonafide No. 1 receiver on the boundary and Robby Anderson is an elite playmaker with a penchant for making plays vertically. The Panthers could better complement both players by adding a slot receiver with the ability to win underneath. The presence of such a player would alleviate the pressure placed on an underperforming offensive line in pass protection, as such a player allows a quarterback to get the ball out of his hands in a more timely and efficient manner. Braxton Berrios is that type of player. Berrios experienced a career season in the slot for the New York Jets in 2021 by recording 46 receptions and five all-purpose touchdowns as a receiver, ball-carrier, and return specialist. Berrios is the type of playmaker the Panthers could make great use of in the slot and in the backfield. His presence would also upgrade their kick and punt returner spots. Berrios was a first-team All-Pro in 2021 on special teams.

LINVAL JOSEPH, NT, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Although much of the Panthers' offseason will surely focus on rebuilding and revamping a broken offensive unit, Fitterer and Rhule must be careful not to neglect a dominant defense that often kept them in games. Starting nose tackle DaQuan Jones will become a free agent in March after signing a one-year "prove-it" deal with the Panthers last offseason. Jones doesn't offer much as a pass rusher, and the Panthers could upgrade the position by adding Linval Joseph to the fray. A 33-year-old veteran out of East Carolina, Joseph is an expert run stuffer that offers a bit more in the pass-rushing department than Jones does. Joseph's ability to occupy space, eat up blocks and create one-vs-one opportunities for his teammates is an underrated skill set. Joseph's impact can't always be measured by analyzing a stat sheet. Joseph is the type of interior defender that operates in a thankless line of duty. His teammates understand how valuable he is, and Carolina's defensive line would take a step forward should he replace Jones in 2022.

ANTHONY BARR, OLB, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Haason Reddick is set to become a free agent and the Panthers are at great risk of losing his do-it-all services. Reddick may receive a lucrative multi-year offer that ultimately lures him away from Carolina in 2022. Given the needs of Fitterer's roster paired with a modest amount of cap space, Carolina's general manager and chief decision-maker may be forced to replace Reddick with a more cost-effective option. Reddick often did excellent work in Carolina's blitz-heavy approach and Anthony Barr has had similar success as an off-ball linebacker with the Minnesota Vikings. Barr plays his best football when he's allowed to get after the quarterback as a frequent blitzer in a defense that creates unblocked opportunities, a role he would surely fill as Reddick's replacement in Rhule's aggressive system. Barr is also a quality run defender that possesses the versatile skill set to be utilized as a three-down player. That type of versatility is highly-coveted around the league. The soon-to-be-30-year-old-Barr will likely be more affordable in free agency than Reddick will be and qualifies as a decent like-for-like replacement.

QUANDRE DIGGS, S, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

The Panthers may go through some changes in the secondary. A pair of starting-quality cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and Donte Jackson could become free agents next month. While it's difficult to envision the Panthers letting both players walk, it's nearly equally as difficult to visualize both talented cover-men playing in Carolina in 2022 given their roster needs elsewhere. Gilmore is the likelier candidate to be re-signed or franchise tagged, while C.J. Henderson qualifies as a likely in-house replacement for Jackson, who could land a huge payday elsewhere. The drafting of Jaycee Horn paired with the midseason acquisition of Gilmore insinuates the Panthers want to field a physical secondary going forward. Those are the types of skill sets Fitterer and Rhule have shown a tendency to prefer in recent offseasons. Quandre Diggs isn't the biggest safety in the game, but he's an aggressive defender that's continued to get better with age. Fitterer served as Seattle’s co-director of player personnel when the Seahawks acquired Diggs in 2019. Adding Diggs would improve a Panthers secondary that's already one of the scariest units in the NFC.

Written By

Justin Melo