When the league’s new year officially begins on March 17, many of the flashiest moves and trades of the offseason will already have been agreed or underway. A month of rumors and speculation awaits you.
Last year was one of the most important offseasons in Carolina Panthers history. Luke Kuechly has retired. Greg Olsen and Cam Newton have been released. Almost the entire defensive line is also gone. Could another big year be in store?
With Carolina looking for a quarterback, the splashes made over the next two months could be significant. Focusing on Deshaun Watson will keep the plot high.
But there are other important decisions to be made, involving both contracted players and those slated to become free agents. New general manager Scott Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule will work together for the first time with a team owner who is unhappy with production at quarterback. However, it’s not all about the quarterback, and that’s expected to be an area addressed either through trade or through the draft.
Free agency this year will be slightly different. Instead of raising the salary cap, it is expected to drop from $198.2 million to around $180 million, according to multiple reports. Teams won’t be able to spend that much, and the Panthers aren’t expected to be as active as they were last season.
Let’s break down some of the big free agent questions the Panthers need to answer as they continue to grow.
Re-sign Taylor Moton and the impact of the decision on the rest of the line o?
Signing the right tackle Taylor Moton to a long-term deal or the franchise tag, if needed, is at the top of the Panthers’ free agency needs. Would the team like him back? Yes, and taking care of it is a priority. If something can’t be finished, Carolina will have to play against someone else at right tackle for the first time since 2018.
Invest in Moton – the deductible would be around $13.6 million, by Spotrac — could reduce the amount they can spend on other offensive linemen with three other starters from last season also free agents.
Decisions the Panthers make in free agency this offseason will impact how quickly the team can find long-term answers down the line and limit turnover. Trent Scott, who filled in the left tackle well, is a restricted free agent and could be brought in at a reasonable price. Veteran left tackle Russell Okung suffered various injuries last year and would be difficult to re-sign for several reasons, including his recent health issues. Guard John Miller is among the most likely candidates to be re-signed, but he is not a long-term answer to the job.
Fixing Moton’s situation is step 1, but figuring out who is worth returning among the other six free agents on the total offensive line and at what cost is also important. This will establish the remaining needs for the draft, where the offensive line should be addressed to some degree.
Protecting the quarterback is a top priority for the Panthers. Last year it was all about bringing veteran players from the gap to the offensive line, but that won’t be a long-term solution.
“It definitely starts with the quarterback, but I believe in building a team on both sides of the line, offensive line, defensive line,” Fitterer said of his team-building philosophy. “You have to be able to protect the quarterback, you have to be able to get after the quarterback. In this situation, those are all things that we’re going to look at, but my main quarterback, my offensive line, my defensive line, that’s where it’s going to start.
What about that third wide receiver?
The Panthers have their two best secure wide receivers for 2021 in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. Of course, Christian McCaffrey will also be an important passer.
But then there is a big question mark. Curtis Samuel is expected to become a free agent this offseason and is expected to test the market with his Carolina future uncertain. Keeping Moton and Samuel always looked tough, and Samuel will want to see if he can get more money elsewhere, especially after the career-high 1,051 scrimmage yards he had in 2020. He will be interesting to see what the league-wide response to the free agent market is.
Pharoh Cooper and Keith Kirkwood are free agents, which leaves Marken Michel, Ishmael Hyman, Amara Darboh, Omar Bayless and Ventell Bryant as the other players under contract for 2021. one way or another. .
This is a promising class of free agent wide receivers. The Panthers could find someone for a cheaper price, if Samuel moves on, or approach the position later in the draft.
The wide receiver isn’t one of the biggest needs, and Bayless was a hot training camp name before being placed on injured reserve for the season, but if they’re able to get Samuel back in the bosom will have repercussions.
Another offensive position that will be worth watching in free agency is running back. Replacement Mike Davis is an unrestricted free agent but could return for the right price. Either way, a strong backup for McCaffrey is needed.
How to close defense gaps?
The Panthers defense is in a much more promising position than last season. The holes to be filled are smaller, but they still exist. With Rhule indicating it’s time to address the offense in the draft, what does that mean for defensive needs?
Cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder, who have played nickel for the majority of the season, are free agents. If the team leaves both, is that a position that needs to be addressed in free agency as well as the draft? Donte Jackson is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract. Either way, this is an area the team will need to invest in sooner rather than later.
Linebacker is the other great defensive position with question marks. Tahir Whitehead was brought in for a year to be the veteran center linebacker to replace Kuechly, but it turned out to be too much of a task and a bad decision. Looking for a veteran linebacker in free agency, for depth at a minimum, should be considered because that’s a position the Panthers need to get right. It is not necessary to find the next Kuechly to increase the production of last season.
Rebuilding the defense has always been a long-term project. Overall, Carolina made some positive steps in Year 1 under Rhule, but the steps this offseason are just as important.
This story was originally published February 11, 2021 6:26 p.m.