Panthers fill needs in budget-conscious free agent period

Carolina’s biggest addition was signing Denver center Matt Paradis to replace the retired Ryan Kalil

The Panthers signed former Broncos center Matt Paradis to replace the retired Ryan Kalil. (Reed Hoffmann / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers haven’t been extremely active on the NFL free agency market, but for a team on a budget, they’ve done a good job of addressing needs.

According to projections by NFL salary site, the Panthers had just $17 million to spend, a figure that was the eighth lowest in the league.

Due to retirements, possible free agent defections of their own and longstanding soft spots, the Panthers had a long list of holes to fill this offseason, including two on the starting offensive line — a left tackle and center — as well as a backup quarterback. On defense, Carolina also needed a pass rusher, outside linebacker, plus help at safety and corner.

The Panthers acted quickly, with the knowledge that the best way to spend their limited funds was to keep their own guys under contract. Carolina re-upped Taylor Heinicke, Cam Newton’s backup for most of the year, the day before he was scheduled to become a restricted free agent. Heinicke threw last-second Hail Mary’s for Cam Newton for much of the year, preserving the starting quarterback’s balky shoulder. He also started Week 16 for the Panthers before suffering his own injury.

“I’m excited to be back with the team,” he told the Panthers’ website. “It’s a relief, after the injury and a long offseason.”

The Panthers took the same route to address left tackle, reasoning that they wouldn’t have to replace free agent Daryl Williams if they resigned him.

Williams signed a one-year deal on his second day as a free agent. He missed most of this year with a knee injury.

“We know what Daryl brings to our offensive line when he is healthy,” general manager Marty Hurney told the team site. “He’s been working very hard at rehabbing from his knee injury and is coming back with something to prove. He has position flexibility and fits in with one of our top priorities of the offseason — to make our offensive line as strong and as deep as we can make it.”

The Panthers also retained several special teams and reserve players to shore up the defense, keeping safety Colin Jones, defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and linebacker Jared Norris off the open market.

With that done, the Panthers took the rest of their money and went shopping.

Carolina replaced longtime center Ryan Kalil, who retired after the season, by signing Matt Paradis. The five-year veteran has started for the Broncos the last four years, winning a Super Bowl over the Panthers as the center for Peyton Manning in 2016. He started 57 straight games, playing every snap before missing the second half of last season with a broken fibula.

Paradis signed a three-year, $27 million contract with $12 million guaranteed.

“Matt gives us an established starter at a critical position on the offensive line,” Hurney said. “He’s a smart, tough player with good feet, good instincts and a good feel for the position.”

The injury scared the Broncos off.

“I think that, obviously, we didn’t want to lose Matt, but we had real concerns about the ankle,” Denver GM John Elway said. “That is why that didn’t work out. I’m happy for Matt. I really am. I’m happy for Matt that he got the opportunity in Carolina. It had nothing to do with Matt’s ability, but we had big concerns about that ankle. Like I said, I’m happy for Matt that he got what he got from Carolina. I hope that works out for him.”

Almost a week into free agency, the Panthers addressed another glaring need, replacing retiring pass rusher Julius Peppers by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with 31-year-old defensive end Bruce Irvin.

The veteran had 6.5 sacks for Atlanta and Oakland last year and has 43.5 sacks in his seven-year career.

While the Panthers retained several of their own free agents, there were other longtime Carolina players that will be in new uniforms next year — most notably linebacker Thomas Davis, who signed with the Chargers after being informed he was no longer in the Panthers’ plans.

Wide receiver Devin Funchess, who was benched for the team’s final game, signed with Indianapolis. Linebacker David Mayo (49ers), running back Kenjon Barner (Falcons) and kicker Chandler Catanzaro (Jets) also signed elsewhere.

With the pool of available free agents shrinking rapidly, the team will soon turn its attention to the draft. The list of needs is smaller, but the team will need to focus on corners, safeties and linebackers. Carolina may also look to add a receiver and/or tight end, and perhaps another quarterback to develop.