Is Panthers’ next addition coming to its defensive line?

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When Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer appeared virtually before the media for the first time since making what Pro Football Focus called the team’s best offseason move, he understandably spent a lot of time talking about it. From Baker Mayfield’s placement on the quarterback depth chart to his impact on Sam Darnold’s future in Carolina, Fitterer fielded countless questions about the new leader of the offense.

Still, there was a little time left over for some non-Mayfield related inquiries. The most intriguing of those was a semi-transparent plan to address the roster’s most important remaining offseason need.

“I think we’d look at defensive line—maybe a big body in the middle, maybe another pass rusher,” Fitterer said when asked by Chris Jenkins of Charlotte Vibe about his updated list of priorities.

That sentiment echoes a continual commitment by Fitterer to beef up the lines on both sides of the ball. Immediately after Carolina’s 2020 season concluded, Fitterer promised to focus on offensive quarterback protection and defensive quarterback pressure above all else.

“We have to get stout up front on both lines: offensive and defensive,” Fitterer said back in January. “That’s how you build a team.”

The Panthers started with the offense in January, naming James Campen the new offensive line coach. From there, they added guard Austin Corbett, center Bradley Bozeman and tackle Ikem Ekwonu. Using everything from free agency steals to a draft day steal, Carolina impressively fulfilled half of Fitterer’s promise by overhauling its offensive line.

Now, it may finally be time for Carolina to fulfill the other half of that promise—and it couldn’t come at a better time.

Last month, PFF ranked the Panthers’ defensive line as the No. 24 unit in the league after a few critical offseason subtractions. After losing DaQuan Jones in the middle and Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox on the outside, Carolina is relying on its young players to carry the bunch. For Fitterer, though, that doesn’t sound like it’s enough.

In the presser, Fitterer alluded to further work on the defensive line in the near future. Putting his money where his mouth is, the Panthers have already begun doing their homework on at least one of the best free agents available at the position.

Last month, veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap met with Carolina for a couple of days. Although he didn’t immediately leave with a deal, the 33-year-old South Carolina product could be an impactful addition to the Panthers’ defense.

Dunlap has racked up at least 6.0 sacks in all but one of his 12 seasons, and has career totals of 225 quarterback hits, 117 tackles for a loss, 96.0 sacks and 21 forced fumbles. With a sack total ranking as the eighth-most of all active NFL players, he could help fill the hole left by Reddick’s departure.

Another veteran defensive lineman Carolina could consider is 31-year-old defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Richardson has never finished a season with a PFF grade below 62.0 and would bring consistency and experience to a young interior line led by Derrick Brown.

No matter which options the team explores, though, it’s clear that Fitterer isn’t done this offseason. Maybe with a new quarterback, offensive line and defensive line, the Panthers can finally become contenders after a painful process of rebuilding.

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