The Carolina Panthers still haven’t made any decisions on who will be the team’s starting quarterback next season, but the team’s first moves in free agency made sure that whoever gets the job will be a bit more comfortable in 2021.
The Panthers spent the first day of the free agency period nailing down deals with a pair of offensive linemen, solidifying a position that has given Carolina trouble over the last few years.
The Panthers came to a contract agreement with offensive tackle Cameron Erving, who was a first-round pick out of Florida State in 2015 and has started 47 of his 75 career games with the Browns, Chiefs and, most recently, the Cowboys. Erving agreed to a reported two-year, $10 million deal with $8 million guaranteed.
Erving is expected to step in as the Panthers’ left tackle after 2019 second-round pick Greg Little struggled with injuries the last two years. Erving is also versatile and can play guard or even center, if necessary.
The team also added Pat Elflein. A third-rounder out of Ohio State in 2017, Elflein has started 49 of his 50 career games with the Vikings and, last season, the Jets. He agreed to a reported three-year, $13.5 million deal with $6 million guaranteed.
Elflein can play both guard positions and also played center in college. He is expected to be an upgrade over John Miller, who played right guard last year and is a free agent this offseason.
While both linemen are versatile and relatively young, neither is a home run signing who will make Deshaun Watson, supposedly the team’s top quarterback target if the Texans trade him, ready to approve a deal.
Erving has allowed 16 sacks, 27 quarterback hits and been penalized 39 times, according to Pro Football Focus statistics, and Elflein allowed a 10% pressure rate last year.
Don’t expect a big flashy signing from the Panthers as the free agency period goes on. Yes, the team has $30 million to spend and plenty of needs on the roster, but the plan seems to be to shop the bargain bins, much like the first two offensive line moves.
Coach Matt Rhule emphasized that the team would be “really targeted” in free agency, and new general manager Scott Fitterer said, “Even though we’ve created a lot of cap room, this is not a year we’re going to go wild spending money. We’re going to be very judicious in how we go about this.” He also pointed out that after the initial rush for big-name free agents, “if you just wait and are patient, you might be able to get quite a few good players in that middle class.”
It’s not a strategy that will excite fans — or Watson — but, if successful, it could help the team upgrade at several spots.
Carolina likely needs to add at least one more offensive lineman. In addition to Miller, Russell Okung is a free agent, as is backup Tyler Larsen. The Panthers already spent to lock down right tackle Taylor Moton and Trent Scott before the start of the free agency period.
It appears that Fitterer’s patience plan will pay off on the line. Several promising prospects to fill spots on the Carolina line have been released in the last two weeks as teams try to get under the cap, including Atlanta’s James Carpenter, New Orleans’ Nick Easton and the Chargers’ Trai Turner.
The other spot Rhule mentioned as a priority is cornerback. Corn Elder and Rasul Douglas are both free agents. Fitterer might look to his longtime home to fill this area of need, where Seahawks cornerback Quinton Dunbar is a free agent. Cincinnati’s William Jackson and Dallas’ Chidobe Awuzie should also be high on the list.
Defensive line is also emerging as an area of need. The team cut tackle Kawann Short to make cap space and recently jettisoned Zach Kerr, who was expected to start at tackle. The Panthers also don’t plan to re-sign Efe Obada, who can play end or tackle.
This position has seen the initial run that Fitterer said would come early, with seven top defensive tackles either being re-signed by their teams before the start of free agency or snapped up on day one. Again, looking to Seattle, Poona Ford is a restricted free agent, but the Seahawks would have the opportunity to match any Carolina offer.
Other areas the team might need to upgrade include linebacker and tight end.