The Carolina Panthers entered free agency with plenty of holes across their roster. They made some of those holes even larger with the releases of running back Jonathan Stewart, defensive end Charles Johnson and safety Kurt Coleman right before the new league year. Panthers fans have been used to their team standing put, not going after top tier free agents and replenishing through the draft under former general manager Dave Gettleman. But with new general manager Marty Hurney in charge, a more aggressive approach has been made during this year’s free agency period already which has Panthers fans optimistic in March. Let’s take a look at what Carolina has done during the first week of Free Agency.
A Review of the Carolina Panthers First Week of Free Agency
Re-signing their Own
The Panthers were set to have four starters hit the free agency market this offseason and they were able to keep two of them, kicker Graham Gano and franchise sack leader Julius Peppers. Gano was extended prior to the franchise tag deadline for the next four seasons.
When the free agency period officially began on March 14th, the first move the Panthers made was re-signing veteran defensive end Peppers. At age 38, Peppers returns for his 17th NFL season and his 10th with Carolina. The veteran proved he still has plenty in the tank as he finished the 2017 season tied for the team lead with 11 sacks. Peppers is currently in fourth place in all-time sacks and is only 5.5 sacks behind third place Kevin Greene, a milestone Peppers has a good chance of surpassing in 2018 barring injury.
Two Linemen moving on
Following the Panthers wild card loss to the New Orleans Saints, rumors began to swirl that the team did not plan on bringing back left guard Andrew Norwell. The former undrafted free agent had the best season of his career in 2017 finishing with a grade of 88.8 according to pro football focus and was named to the First Team All-Pro. The Carolina front office considered placing the franchise tag on Norwell, but that would have cost them north of $14 million dollars, and with roughly $20 million to work with in cap space so they decided to let him hit the open market.
It did not take long for the guard to get picked up as the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Norwell to a five year, $66.5 million contract on March 15th, an offer the Panthers surely could not have matched.
On the defensive end, Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei hit the free agency market and was going to draw some big offers. Lotulelei eventually signed with the Buffalo Bills reuniting with former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott who is Buffalo’s current head coach. Lotulelei’s deal was worth $50 million over five years which like Norwell’s, was another deal the Panthers were uncapable of matching.
A Failed Physical Away from a top Cornerback
At the beginning of the week, the Panthers agreed to terms with free agent cornerback Bashaud Breeland on a three year, $24 million deal. Breeland played his first four seasons as a member of the Washington Redskins. With a 6’0″ frame and long arms, it seemed like an ideal fit for the Panthers who are in need of cornerbacks with the departure of Daryl Worley this offseason.
However, when Breeland went to Carolina later in the week, the corner failed to pass his physical which nulled the contract. The Panthers medical staff diagnosed Breeland with a non-football injury after they discovered an infection on his foot from a cut he suffered while on vacation this offseason.
The Panthers are now in need of a cornerback again, but a lot of premier names are already off the market.
A Replacement Defensive Tackle
With the departure of Lotulelei in free agency, the Panthers could have easily plugged in third year defensive tackle Vernon Butler to play alongside Kawann Short. But Hurney took an aggressive approach and it paid off as they signed two-time Pro Bowler Dontari Poe to a three year, $27 million deal.
Poe spent 2017 with the Atlanta Falcons after playing five years with the Kansas City Chiefs. His career totals include 179 tackles, 15.5 sacks, 14 passes defended, and one touchdown pass. At 6’3″, 246 pounds, Poe is very good at breaking through double teams and causing disruption in the passing game. The duo of Poe and Short in the middle could end up being more disruptive than then the duo of Short and Lotulelei the past five seasons in Carolina.
Holes That Still Need to be Filled
Carolina has one of the younger receiving corps in the NFL and adding a savvy veteran could be huge in the developmental process. Some quality veterans still on the market that won’t break the Panthers’ bank include Eric Decker, Kendall Wright, and Mike Wallace. Expect the Panthers to go after one of the three in the following week.
With Breeland’s failed physical, the Panthers still have a need for a physical boundary corner. Byron Maxwell, who played for the Dolphins and Seahawks in 2017 could be an intriguing option for Carolina. The Seahawks seem to be moving from their Legion of Boom players so I do not expect Maxwell to resign with Seattle. Ross Cockrell of the New York Giants had a quietly good season in 2017 and could bolster the Panthers secondary. Other names the Panthers should have interest in include Marcus Cooper, Delvin Breaux, and Justin Bethel.
Other positions of need include safety, edge rusher, left guard, running back and offensive tackle. With the Panthes needing to get younger in those postions, expect them to be addressed in the draft.
Main Photo:Embed from Getty Images