Given the state of the Panthers going into 2019, the division in which they play, and the opponents they will face this season, the projected priorities for Carolina in free agency and the draft are offensive line, pass rush, secondary, and wide receiver, as well as a need for overall depth. The Panthers might also have an interest in tight end and running back.
Going into the new league year, the Panthers have $15,507,265 in cap space, which ranks 25th in the league, and they have seven picks in this year’s draft. This means Carolina does not have a lot of resources to address the many individual needs and general lack of depth on the team. Despite the lack of depth, their limited resources mean that Carolina will likely have to prioritize on particular positions. Head coach Ron Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney, and the Panthers’ staff will have to be very shrewd when it comes to their offseason moves.
Offensive line is the most important offseason priority for the Panthers. Carolina is heavily dependent on its starting quarterback, Cam Newton, as his dual skill set as both a passer and a runner enables a more diverse offense. With Newton out, Carolina’s offense is markedly more limited. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they have had a Newton-less offense too often in recent years. Last season, both Newton and his back-up, Taylor Heinicke, missed games due to injury, and the team needs to do a better job of protecting its quarterback.
Part of Carolina’s failure to adequately protect its quarterbacks in 2018 was due to injuries to the line itself. The two starting tackles, Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams, were on injured reserve for most of the season, and the remaining offensive linemen also dealt with injuries. The problems with the offensive line could continue in 2019. Williams and backup tackles Chris Clark and Marshall Newhouse are all free agents and it was reported that contract negotiations with Williams had stalled. Matt Kalil is on a large contract that some argue is at an incorrect value, and center Ryan Kalil retired after the 2018 season.
The low number of free agent offensive linemen and the high price on those free agents limit free agency’s usefulness for shoring up Carolina’s offensive line. There are a number of quality offensive linemen available in the draft, and the Panthers should be in a position to select one with their pick at sixteenth overall. If they don’t use that sixteenth overall pick for an offensive lineman, it will likely be in the second or third rounds at the latest.
Editor’s note: prior to the publishing of this article, the Panthers signed center Matt Paradis, previously of the Denver Broncos, to a three year contract, and re-signed Daryl Williams. They also released tackle Matt Kalil.
Two factors make adding an effective pass rusher an urgent need for Carolina. The first is the high quality of quarterbacks and offenses that they will face in 2019, starting with those in their own division. An effectual pass rush is not the only way to limit a dynamic offense but it is one of the more effective means. The second factor is the performance of the Panthers’ pass defense. It has ranked in the bottom half of the league in the last couple of years, and last season their sack total dropped markedly from 50 to 35, which ranked 27th in the NFL. Defensive end Julius Peppers, a longtime Panther who had the second highest sack count on the team in 2018, retired after the season, increasing the need for Carolina to bolster its pass rush.
As with offensive line, the pass rusher free agent market is limited. Free agent pass rushers might be even rarer than the offensive line free agents, as teams largely either re-signed or franchise tagged their defensive linemen who were heading towards free agency. The only notable free agent left is Trey Flowers of the New England Patriots. Flowers doesn’t have high sack totals but is a smart, hard-working, versatile player who creates pressures and capitalizes on offensive errors. Fortunately for Carolina, this season’s draft features a lot of disruptive defensive linemen, and the Panthers can find a quality option in the early rounds. Given the importance of this need, the expectation is that they would take someone for this position in the first three rounds.
Editor’s note: prior to the publishing of this article, Trey Flowers was signed by the Detroit Lions.
A strong pass rush is one option to combat an effective offense, a tough secondary is another. Unfortunately for the Panthers, their secondary has not been very effective in recent years. In 2018, the Panthers ranked 18th in the league in passing yards allowed. During Carolina’s late season losing streak, the secondary allowed an alarming number of passes over twenty yards, often on third or fourth down. Pro Football Focus ranked the Panthers’ secondary as fourth worst in the league. The team evidently had a similar assessment of their defensive backfield, as this offseason they have already released two veterans from the secondary and made adjustments to the coaching staff. Richard Rodgers, who coached the defensive backs in 2018, will only coach the safeties in 2019, and Perry Fewell, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars, will oversee the secondary.
The good news for Carolina is the secondary is where they can make moves in free agency. The free agent safety market is wide and deep with a lot of high-level talent and experience available. It may be the most bountiful position in free agency this year, and the Panthers could sign somebody who could help them for a good value contract. Cornerback is much more limited in free agency. Both positions are much thinner in the draft. If Carolina wants to improve its secondary, the Panthers should seek a quality free agent.
The reasoning for wide receiver being a need is simple – Carolina’s most productive receiver in 2018 by far was a running back, Christian McCaffrey, and second to McCaffrey was a rookie, DJ Moore. Their third most productive receiver, Devin Funchess, will be a free agent in 2019.
There are good wide receivers available in free agency, although there are questions about most of them in terms of age, injuries, cost, and/or fit for what the Panthers need. Golden Tate is arguably the biggest name on the market but it’s not clear he fulfills their need, and being the biggest name he would likely command a bigger contract than they can afford. Someone like Tyrell Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers or Jermaine Kearse of the New York Jets might be more what Carolina is looking for. In the draft, there are some good prospects that could meet the Panthers’ requirements, such as Parris Campbell of Ohio State, but Carolina would have to take them much earlier than the position warrants based on need. There has been some discussion that DK Metcalf could go anywhere from the first to the fourth round. If he does fall, Carolina might look to catch him in a later round.
Editor’s note: prior to the publishing of this article, Devin Funchess was signed by the Indianapolis Colts and Tyrell Williams was signed by the Oakland Raiders.
Tight end is not an obvious need but it could be an area of interest for the Panthers. They could use help with both blocking and receiving, and a capable tight end meets both of those aspects. Furthermore, Carolina has had a reliable and capable tight end for many years in Greg Olsen, but Olsen has only played half of the last two seasons due to injury, and he contemplated retirement prior to the last season. If Olsen leaves, tight end goes from an area of interest to an actual need. Rookie Ian Thomas filled in for Olsen last season, and the Panthers were reportedly impressed with his performance. Thomas was a fourth round pick, however, and if Olsen were to depart or miss time again, the position would be a concern.
Tight end is not a deep position in free agency this offseason. Jared Cook is the best player available and then there is a drop-off to the other available players. Conversely – and also a positive for the cap-strapped Panthers – tight end is a very strong position group in this year’s draft with some very talented players available. Indeed, in a mock draft Pete Schrager of the NFL Network had Carolina selecting tight end T.J. Hockenson with their first round pick. Both Hockenson and Noah Fant, another top tight end prospect, went to the University of Iowa. Iowa is the college that produced George Kittle, the tight end who had a breakout season for the 49ers in 2018 during which included setting the single season record for receiving yards by a tight end. If the Panthers want one of the better tight ends, they will have to select one in the first two rounds. There is the possibility – albeit a lower one – of selecting a good tight end in the third or fourth rounds.
Running back may not be on the radar as a need for the Panthers, especially with Christian McCaffrey performing well, not only as a running back but as a receiver as well. McCaffrey’s prominence in the offense, however, is why the team might be interested in a running back this offseason. McCaffrey was not only Carolina’s leading rusher. As noted earlier he was also its leading receiver, and by significant margins for both. He had more than double the carries of the next highest rusher on the team, Cam Newton, and had almost ten times the carries of the next highest running back, CJ Anderson, who was not on the team for the whole season. McCaffrey has more than 50% more targets than their second most targeted receiver, DJ Moore. In total, McCaffrey was the intended player on more than a third of Carolina’s offensive plays in 2018, and was on the field for 91% of their offensive snaps, the only running back to play at that rate in the NFL. As such, it’s not surprising that Rivera declared at the combine that they looking for someone to help lighten McCaffrey’s load.
Apart from McCaffrey, all but one of Carolina’s running backs and their fullback from last season are free agents in 2019. Given that none of them took significant playing time from McCaffrey last season, the Panthers likely don’t see an urgent need to bring any of them back. There is a broad market of free agent running backs this offseason, and apart from Le’Veon Bell, none of them should command big contracts. The team could steal Mark Ingram away from the divisional rival Saints, which would both strengthen Carolina and weaken New Orleans, but it would likely take up more of their limited cap space than would be worth it. There are also running backs to be had for good value throughout the draft, and the Panthers could pick up a useful runner in the middle rounds.
Editor’s note: prior to the publishing of this article, Mark Ingram was signed by the Baltimore Ravens.
The Carolina Panthers have the following picks in the 2019 NFL Draft:
No. 16 (first round)
No. 47 (second round)
No. 77 (third round)
No. 100 (third round, compensatory)
No. 115 (fourth round)
No. 154 (fifth round)
No. 187 (sixth round)
The Panthers traded their 2019 seventh round pick to the Buffalo Bills along with wide receiver Kaelin Clay for cornerback Kevon Seymour prior to the 2017 season.
Editor’s note: prior to the publishing of this article, in addition to the moves noted within this article, the Panthers re-signed back-up quarterback Taylor Heinicke on a one-year contract, and safety and special teams captain Colin Jones to a two-year contract.