Panthers working to fill needs in free agency

Two signings, trade, several releases highlight tumultuous offseason

Julius Peppers (90) celebrates with teammates after making a sack in the third quarter of Sunday's wins against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

The Carolina Panthers have had a tumultuous start to NFL free agency. Marty Hurney, who was hired as the permanent general manager after spending the season heading the team in an interim role, has been reshaping the roster in an effort to keep the team young and competitive in the NFC South.

That means parting with some longtime Panthers, including running back Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson. Stewart, a 10-year Panther and the team’s all-time leading rusher, was released in February and quickly signed with the Giants. Johnson, an 11-year Panther, was cut two days earlier, along with starting safety Kurt Coleman.

The team also lost defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who agreed to terms with the Bills, guard Andrew Norwell, headed to Jacksonville, and Ed Dickson, who was snapped up by the Seahawks.

Carolina was able to keep veteran defensive end Julius Peppers in house, signing the free agent to a one-year contract. The Panthers also extended kicker Graham Gano’s contract. Still, the departures left plenty of holes to fill on the roster.

Hurney moved to shore up the wide receiver position on March 14, swinging a trade with the world champion Philadelphia Eagles to bring in veteran Torrey Smith. The big-play receiver has had at least one 50-plus yard catch each season of his seven-year NFL career.

The Panthers also signed free agent receiver Jarius Wright to a three-year contract. The six-year veteran with the Vikings had 18 catches for 198 yards and two touchdowns last year. His 87-yard touchdown in 2014 is the longest game-winning score in Vikings history. A third-down specialist, 40 percent of Wright’s career catches and 45 percent of his yardage have come on third down.

The Panthers gave up cornerback Darryl Worley, a third-round draft pick in 2016, to acquire Smith. The move seemed to make sense, when the Panthers acted quickly to sign fifth-year corner Bashaud Breeland away from Washington early in free agency. The South Carolina native and Clemson alumnus seemed a good fit for the Carolina secondary, but Hurney’s plan was thrown into disarray when Breeland unexpectedly failed his physical with the team due to a foot infection.

That leaves Carolina scrambling to find a starting corner after the top-shelf free agents, including Malcolm Butler, Richard Sherman and Trumaine Johnson, have already found homes. Buffalo’s E.J. Gaines likely tops the list, although he may be close to signing with Arizona. After that, former Duke corner Ross Cockrell and aging veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could be the best of the rest.

Carolina struggled in 2016 after attempting to fill a hole at the same spot in the draft, but the Panthers could be repeating history this year.

The Panthers have had more success at replacing the hole Lotulelei left on the defensive line. Carolina signed two-time pro bowler Dontari Poe to a three-year contract, taking him away from divisional rival Atlanta.

Poe had 39 tackles, 23 solo tackles, 10 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, four tackles-for-loss and two pass defenses last season.

The Panthers still need to fill holes on the interior of the offensive line, where Norwell’s departure hurts, as well as a running back to pair with second-year big-play man Christian McCaffrey. The team also needs to replace Coleman at safety and find a pass rusher to fill the void left by Johnson.

Of those positions, safety appears to be the best bet to fill via free agency. There are still plenty of quality players on the market, including Eric Reid and Tre Boston, a former Panther who had a breakout year with the Chargers.

Most of the free agent running backs have already found new homes. Darren Sproles played for Rivera when both were in San Diego, but he’s 34 and coming off a torn ACL. Plus, Sproles is a small, speedy back, very similar to McCaffrey, rather than the big workhorse runner that the team would likely want to pair with last year’s first-round draft pick. Adrian Peterson, a 32-year-old, is about the only remaining back who fits that description.

Pass rushers have also been snapped off the shelves quickly. The best remaining free agent options are former Colt Johnathan Hankins and Kony Ealy, a former Panther who last played with the Jets.

Offensive line may be the spot the Panthers are most likely to fix via the draft. Free agent guard options are limited, with Indianapolis’ Jack Mewhort, who has battled injury the last two years, as the best remaining player.