The Panthers didn’t get their man, but they’ve been busy.
Just over a week into NFL free agency, few teams have been as active as the Panthers. Carolina has locked up some of its own key players, brought in veterans to fill holes, and were in the mix in one of the biggest offseason transactions so far, even if things didn’t quite work out.
For the second straight year, the NFL rumor mill had the Panthers targeting former Clemson star Deshaun Watson as the answer to their quarterback needs. Last offseason, Carolina’s pursuit of Watson was cut short when nearly two dozen women came forward accusing him of sexual assault. Those charges kept Watson from suiting up for anyone this past season.
In early March, a grand jury declined to indict Watson, meaning no criminal charges will be filed against him. Setting aside the very legitimate question of whether Carolina should have been trying to trade for Watson, given his history, it became clear that the Panthers did take a run at swinging a trade for him.
Plan A didn’t work out for the Panthers, as the Houston Texans instead dealt Watson to the Cleveland Browns. Last year, when Watson didn’t come to Carolina, the Panthers turned to Sam Darnold. At the moment, it appears Darnold will again be the team’s answer at quarterback, although a veteran pickup — Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield is reportedly available — or a draft pick could certainly change that picture.
Quarterback aside, the Panthers have gotten a lot of good work done so far in free agency. The first goal in free agency is to keep it from making you worse, and the Panthers accomplished that by signing one of their key unrestricted players in cornerback Donte Jackson, who returns to the team on a new contract. Carolina also kept backup quarterback PJ Walker, snapper J.J. Jansen, linebackers Frankie Luvu and Julian Stanford, tight end Ian Thomas and defensive end Marquis Haynes, among others. The Panthers also extended receiver DJ Moore, who still had a year left on his rookie contract, locking him down with a long-term deal.
The only losses so far in free agency are defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and linebacker Haason Reddick, who both signed elsewhere. Linebacker Jermaine Carter and offensive linemen John Miller and Matt Paradis are the biggest Panther free agents still on the unrestricted market.
One of Carolina’s biggest needs was the offensive line, and their lack of haste in securing their own unrestricted free agents in that unit may reflect the team’s lack of satisfaction with the line play. The Panthers have signed a pair of offensive linemen to help shore up the front.
Guard Austin Corbett signed a three-year deal, joining the Panthers from the Super Bowl champion Rams. The 26-year-old is a former second-round draft pick and started every game for the Rams last season.
The Panthers also preemptively replaced Paradis at center, signing Bradley Bozeman away from the Ravens. Bozeman signed a one-year deal at what appears to be a large discount. He started 16 games last year after starting 32 straight at left guard the previous two seasons.
The team has also been busy bolstering the defense.
The Panthers upgraded the secondary, signing former Cowboys and Vikings safety Xavier Woods, who will likely start alongside Jeremy Chinn. He had three interceptions last year for Minnesota and has eight on his career.
Carolina also replaced the departed Jones at defensive tackle with Matt Ioannidis. He was productive in 2018 and 2019 before battling injuries, and Washington released him after six seasons. Ioannidis played for coach Matt Rhule at Temple.
In addition to re-signing two of its own linebacker free agents, Carolina added Damien Wilson and Cory Littleton. Wilson had 106 tackles for Jacksonville last season, while Littleton started 27 games for the Raiders the last two years.
The Panthers also added role players, including signing punter Johnny Hekker after the Super Bowl champs released him. Hekker is a four-time Pro Bowl player and holds the Super Bowl record for longest punt.
On offense, Carolina added a running back insurance policy behind Christian McCaffrey, signing D’Onta Foreman, who rushed for a career-high 566 yards and three scores while filling in for injured Titans running back Derrick Henry last season. The Panthers also reportedly restructured McCaffrey’s contract to clear $5.5 million more in cap space. Carolina has a league-high $28,455,970 as of Wednesday morning, according to OverTheCap.com.
There are still other needs that will need to be filled as free agency continues. In addition to quarterback, the team would like to add an offensive tackle. The Panthers have reportedly been looking at free agent Duane Brown, and there are plenty of tackle options in the draft.