4 questions for the Carolina Panthers on the rest of free agency

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Tim Weaver
·7 min read
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The NFL’s 2021 free agency period is beginning to wind down, with Monday marking the two-week point since the market effectively opened at the start of the legal tampering period. The Carolina Panthers have been busy since that point. They have signed around a dozen new players, the majority of which are coming in on relatively cheap one and two-year contracts. The front office went in with a clear plan and were transparent about it, promising a “really targeted” approach, which for the most part they’ve stuck to. So, how have they done?

On the bright side, we know that the Panthers have checked at least a few boxes. They finally added a red zone threat at tight end, filled a large hole at middle linebacker and boosted their pass rush in a big way. There are still questions worth asking about this class, though. Here are four on our mind going into what will likely be the last active week of free agency before the focus turns to the draft.

Is the 'really targeted' approach the right one?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Panthers didn't have much luck on the market. While they did sign a couple impact players - most notably wide receiver Robby Anderson - for the most part the 2020 class was a dud. Tahir Whitehead bombed, Stephen Weatherly flunked and bringing in Teddy Bridgewater might set this franchise back several years. This time around at the very least they've avoided the kind of brutal cautionary tales that happen every year. Carolina hasn't handed out any huge contracts that can come back to haunt them down the line and only their first two OL signings were cringeworthy. The rest of their pickups have all been cheap, so it's no great loss even if they don't work out. In theory this is the right way to go. NFL teams that splurge in free agency wind up regretting it more often than not. Over the long run, the blueprint that coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer have followed in 2021 is the right one. That said, there are recent examples that show you can build a contender by playing the market right. Tampa's current championship squad includes a number of big free agent acquisitions, including Tom Brady, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Rob Gronkowski. This year's free agent class is also a unique one given the effect the pandemic has had on the salary cap. A lot of high-quality players have settled for cheap one-year deals in the hope of cashing in next year when the ceiling is expected to rise again. One team that felt this free agent class was worth spending on is the Patriots. Bill Belichick has made some questionable personnel decisions over the years, but it is interesting that he decided to break with a long tradition of being stingy at this time of year. New England signed the top two tight ends on the market in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, plus star pass rusher Matt Judon and a handful of other defensive players. Time will tell whether the Pats made the right call, but these moves show at least one very intelligent football person felt the correct move was to go all in on a unique crop of free agents. The Panthers are in a different situation than New England, but we feel there still are opportunities to capitalize on a unique market, which brings us to our next question...

Why haven't they signed another wide receiver?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The greatest loss that Carolina has suffered so far came when wide receiver Curtis Samuel signed a three-year deal with Washington, worth a reported $34.5 million. That struck a serous blow to the Panthers' depth at wide receiver, which was one of their strongest position groups last season. D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson are still an excellent 1-2 combination at the position, but we're willing to bet this team will miss all the things that Samuel brought to the table offensively. Picking up David Moore for cheap should help some. However, he's a huge step down at WR3 compared to Samuel. Signing Moore is fine, but it also shouldn't be their only move at this position. This year there were a lot of high-quality wide receivers having to compete with eachother, with the result being a number of teams getting bargains. To name a few, Sammy Watkins signed with the Ravens for just $6 million, T.Y. Hilton re-upped with the Colts at $8 million and Emmanuel Sanders went to the Bills, also at $6 million. The Panthers still have over $25 million in salary cap room left. Meanwhile, guys like Antonio Brown and Golden Tate are still available. If they wind up not getting another veteran wide receiver this year it will feel a lot like one of those infamous missed opportunities.

Which remaining cornerback is the best fit?

Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman

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Cornerbacks are another group that's suffered due to a plethora of strong options being available. William Jackson and Shaquill Griffin were able to cash in with three-year, $40+ million deals, but a lot of guys had to settle for less lucrative ones. After the Bears released him, Kyle Fuller somehow signed with the Broncos at under $10 million, Troy Hill went to the Browns at two years, $9 million and Xavier Rhodes joined the Colts at $6.5 million. The Panthers were able to pick up one veteran at this spot. They signed Rashaan Melvin to a one-year deal. Unfortunately, we don't know the financial details of that contract as of yet but it's hard to imagine he broke the bank given the team's careful approach and the state of the cornerback market in general. Despite picking up Melvin, adding another corner before the draft needs to be on the table given this team's needs at the position. The best of them remains Richard Sherman, whose skill and experience playing cover 3 make him a perfect fit for Phil Snow's defense. If the Panthers prefer to go younger, Quinton Dunbar, Bashaud Breeland and Steven Nelson are also still on the market.

What's next for the offensive line?

(AP Photo/David Berding)

Even if the Panthers are able to sign another quality receiver and pickup a veteran cornerback at a bargain, it will leave one last huge question hanging over this free agent class: what's next for the offensive line? Before the market opened, Carolina settled their right tackle situation by designating Taylor Moton for the franchise tag. He signed soon after, locking in at $13.75 million for this year - unless a long-term extension gets worked out before mid-July. The Panthers also brought back right guard John Miller on another cheap one-year deal and restructured starting center Matt Paradis' contract, ensuring his return. While the right side of the offensive line looks set, the left side is a potentially serious problem. At the moment, the team's projected starters at left guard and left tackle could be Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving - the first two players the team signed. Trouble is they're also the worst ones. Pro Football Focus has both graded among the worst offensive linemen who have played significant snaps over the last theee years and neither one has been a respectable starter at any point in their career, with the exception of Elflein's rookie season back in 2017. Elflein's contract isn't appetizing, but it's not a backbreaker if they plan to start him at left guard. The possibility of Erving starting on the blindside should be terrifying, though. Erving says that's the position he's most comfortable in, but the Panthers absolutely must try to find a better option before the season begins. Taking one of this year's top left tackle prospects early (especially if they're stuck with Teddy Bridgewater at QB) is a good idea, but there are a few veterans still out there worth considering. Russell Okung, Eric Fisher and Alejandro Villanueva are the top veterans on the market. There's no guarantee that any of this year's LT prospects are going to work out aside from Oregon's Penei Sewell, who will probably come off the board before Carolina is on the clock even after Friday's trade frenzy. The Panthers have to seriously consider signing one of those veterans, or they'll be risking another lost year at a critical position. [vertical-gallery id=635188]

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