Reassessing the Carolina Panthers’ roster needs after acquiring Sam Darnold and A.J. Bouye

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Tim Weaver
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The Panthers had more significant roster holes than any team could realistically hope to address in one draft class not long ago. Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer have been busy, though. Their two most recent moves are the most important that they’ve made so far this year, aside from the no-brainer that was franchise-tagging right tackle Taylor Moton.

Last week, they traded three draft picks to the Jets for Sam Darnold, filling their desire for an upgrade over starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. There are questions about Darnold’s production in New York as well as his turnover habit, but we can at least move forward assuming Darnold will be the starter in 2021.

The Panthers also signed former Broncos cornerback A.J. Bouye, finally picking up the veteran outside corner they wanted to pair with Donte Jackson. With Bouye there are also concerns – specifically about how far over the hill he is compared to his peak in 2017 when he made the Pro Bowl as part of a loaded Jaguars defense. Still, Bouye checks the biggest box for Carolina on that side of the ball.

Let’s reassess what this team’s roster needs are as we move towards the home stretch approaching the 2021 NFL draft.

A true franchise LT

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Nobody should rule out the Panthers drafting a quarterback just yet, despite picking up Darnold. That is to say, if either Justin Fields or Trey Lance somehow falls to No. 8 then anything can happen. That seems like a remote possibility though with at least four QB-needy teams picking ahead of Carolina and several more looking to trade up. That's probably why they decided to deal for Darnold in the first place. With quarterback taken care of (for now), the Panthers have to figure out how to set Darnold up for success in a way the Jets could not. That list should begin with finding a true franchise left tackle. Penei Sewell is far-and-away the top option in this class and if he's still on the board when Carolina is on the clock then it's an easy choice. Despite size questions, Rashawn Slater is also worth consideration at No. 8 if Sewell is not available. Later on in the draft, Christian Darrisaw, Walker Little and Dillon Radunz will be among the OT prospects to watch. If the Panthers aren't confident they can get a real LT1 in this class they might opt to sign a veteran instead. Eric Fisher, Russell Okung and Alejandro Villanueva are all still available, for what it's worth.

Another red zone weapon at WR/TE

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Bridgewater was the worst of it, but Carolina's offense had some problems last season that couldn't be pinned on the quarterback alone. The team's red zone efficiency suffered a great deal because they simply lacked the right kind of personnel to succeed inside the 20. Picking up tight end Dan Arnold should help turn that dynamic around. His production for Arizona last season was impressive despite limited touches. However, it was also a relatively small sample size and there's no guarantee Darnold will be healthy for a full season. The Panthers could use another large-bodied tight end or wide receiver who can win jump balls in traffic and use their size to bully defenders in the end zone. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts looks like the best pass-catching weapon in this draft class and might just be its best overall player, as well. If he's available at No. 8 nobody should be in a position to complain if he's the pick. Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth is another option. As far as wide receivers go, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, LSU's Terrace Marshall Jr. and Tennessee's Josh Palmer have some of the biggest frames at the position in this class.

A new backup RB behind Christian McCaffrey

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It couldn't have been too difficult to bring Mike Davis back to continue backing up Christian McCaffrey. For whatever reason, they decided to let him walk and he wound up signing a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the Falcons. Now, the Panthers have to prepare for two Mike Davis revenge games a season and also find a new understudy for McCaffrey, who missed 13 games due to injuries last year. It's possible that Rhule and Fitterer want a RB2 who can more closely replicate McCaffrey's skillset, whereas Davis is a diffrent kind of back entirely. In any case, we know they're in the market for a real backup because of the interest they showed in Chris Carson before he ultimately re-signed with the Seahawks. For what it's worth, there are still a few intriguing free agents out there. However, the draft seems like the best place to address this position. North Carolina has two of the top running back prospects in this class with Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. The Panthers may not need to hit this spot until Day 3, though.

A lot more depth at DT

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Derrick Brown came on strong late in 2020 and looks like he's going to be a force in the NFL for a long time. Unfortunately, he's also the only starter-level interior defensive lineman on the roster right now following a series of questionable decisions from the front office. Releasing the two-time Pro Bowler Kawann Short from his contract was the right move considering the cap hits involved. However, the Panthers also waived Zach Kerr and allowed Efe Obada to leave. Both of them thrived when they lined up inside last season and neither one of them would have been expensive to keep around for another year. Even if they can bring Short back at a lower price, this is now a very weak depth chart at DT behind Brown and they absolutely need to invest some draft capital at this spot. NC State's Alim McNeill is arguably one of the the top two tackles in this class along with Alabama's Christian Barmore.

A younger slot CB to replace Corn Elder

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Another questionable decision was allowing cornerback Corn Elder to walk after he had a very strong 2020 campaign defending the slot. Back at his most natural position, Elder only allowed one touchdown and a 91.0 passer rating while tackling like a linebacker all season. Re-signing Elder would make a lot of sense, but since they haven't the Panthers are probably looking to find a younger option in the draft. The team has already met virtually with a couple cornerback prospects who project as a nickel at the next level: Oregon's Deommodore Lenoir and Boise State's standout kick returner Avery Williams.

A real answer for the hole at FS

Richie Grant
Richie Grant

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Finally, the Panthers will have to find an answer to the big question in the backfield: who can take over at free safety after the release of Tre Boston? Jeremy Chinn may have the requisite range, but his coverage is not refined enough for that position and he's better suited to play closer to the line of scrimmage in any case. The other options on the roster all leave a lot to be desired and pretty much all of the good free agent safeties are now signed, unless they want to gamble on Earl Thomas. More likely they will try to take advantage of what's considered to be a deep safety class. UCF's Richie Grant is the headliner and would be a strong pick in round two. TCU's Trevon Moehrig is another top safety prospect to consider, but the Panthers might be able to hold off until the fourth or fifth round before targetting one. [vertical-gallery id=635518]

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