Exploring Carolina Panthers’ free-agent cornerback options before OTAs: Gilmore tops list

The Carolina Panthers enter next week’s organized team activities (OTAs) with an underwhelming situation at cornerback.

While the team added Dane Jackson in free agency in March and selected Chau Smith-Wade in the fifth round of last month’s NFL Draft, the cornerback depth chart could still use an upgrade or two. Similar to the edge-rusher situation last offseason, the Panthers are in need of a better tag-team partner and insurance policy for former first-round pick, Jaycee Horn.

Horn has played in just 22 of 51 games during his three-year career due to various injuries.

With Horn dealing with annual ailments, the Panthers not only need to partner him with a better talent, they also need to prepare for his perennial injury problems.

Jackson is better off as a depth piece, while Wade-Smith is exploring his versatility as rookie. And Troy Hill, the team’s 32-year-old nickel corner, is aging and could experience a drop-off in production this year. So, GM Dan Morgan should explore options in free agency.

The team has publicly flirted with the possibility of reuniting with Stephon Gilmore, though, the Panthers appear to be taking their time with that decision.

But the reality is that Carolina’s options for upgrades are dwindling on the free-agent market with just a handful of proven talents remaining in limbo entering the heart of the offseason program.

Let’s take a look at who is still available on the cornerback market in free agency:

Stephon Gilmore

The 33-year-old cornerback is clearly the most accomplished option on this list. As a former defensive player of the year, Gilmore has the pedigree and resume to inspire confidence in the cornerback room and the defense. The Rock Hill, S.C., native is interested in returning home, according to edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, so there is a draw beyond winning and money in Carolina, too.

Gilmore is aging, and cornerbacks typically see their production fall off a cliff in their 30s, but he still had 24 pass breakups and four interceptions in the past two seasons since leaving the Panthers. Gilmore’s potential reunion with Carolina will probably come down to how the Panthers are willing to pay him.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore rushes for yardage after intercepting a pass by New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 7, 2021.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore rushes for yardage after intercepting a pass by New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 7, 2021.

Xavien Howard

Released by the Miami Dolphins after a subpar season in 2023, Howard remains on the free-agent market.

The 30-year-old corner has twice led the league in interceptions and is a four-time Pro Bowl selection. The 2020 first-team All-Pro cornerback won’t sign anywhere on the cheap, and that’s likely what the hold is for his current market.

Howard would make sense as a 1B option in Carolina opposite Horn. With Horn dealing with consistent injury woes, Howard is still capable of matching up against another team’s top receiver. Like Gilmore, Howard is a proven, consistent starting corner on the wrong side of the NFL age spectrum. He’s not perfect, nor is he still a Pro Bowl-level talent, but he’d surely upgrade what the Panthers have right now.

Steven Nelson

Like Gilmore and Howard, Nelson is on the wrong side of 30. The former Texans and Eagles cornerback has been an NFL nomad of sorts during his career, as he is known for being a stop-gap starter at the cornerback position. While Nelson, 31, is older, he has been quite durable throughout his career, as he has appeared in 48 of 51 games over the past three years. He also tied a career-high with four interceptions last season, so his ball-hawk production is still relatively appealing.

Nelson would make sense as a 1-year rental who could compete with Jackson for the No. 2 cornerback job. Nelson has played relatively well during this last stretch of his career and is younger than Gilmore.

Adoree’ Jackson

Jackson, a 2017 first-round pick, would make sense on a 1-year deal. He is probably looking to prove he can still play up to his pedigree after spending three up-and-down years with the New York Giants. Jackson, 28, is known for his speed, and he has produced 56 career pass breakups in 83 career games (77 starts).

Jackson has plenty of experience at outside cornerback, and that would make him a solid partner for Horn. While Jackson only has four career interceptions, his speed makes him a dynamic returner with the ball in his hands. Jackson could appeal to the Panthers with the new kick-return rule, as he has the long-end speed to be used creatively.

Tre Herndon

Herndon, 28, would be an option for nickel corner depth. The former undrafted free agent spent the past six years with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a regular role player. Herndon could compete with Jackson for snaps and push Hill in the slot.

While Herndon would be a depth play, the Panthers might be more confident in Hill and Jackson than those outside of the organization. Herndon has collected three interceptions and 32 pass breakups in 83 career games (34 starts).

Ahkello Witherspoon

Witherspoon is another NFL nomad. He has played for three different teams during his seven-year career. Last season, he played for the Los Angeles Rams, who use a system and language familiar to both defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and passing-game coordinator Jonathan Cooley.

Witherspoon is a long, lean corner who has great size (6-2, 195 lbs.) for the position. The 29-year-old defensive back has collected 11 interceptions and 49 pass breakups during his career, so his ball-hawking prowess stands out among this group.