Panthers move quickly to fill holes during free agency

Carolina surrounds its future quarterback with skill players

The Panthers made a move to replace some of the production lost after trading DJ Moore, signing free agent receiver Adam Thielen to a three-year deal. (Bruce Kluckhohn / AP Photo)

As a longtime backup quarterback, Frank Reich knows a thing or two about stepping into a dire situation and quickly setting things right. At the time he retired as a player, he owned the records for engineering the largest comebacks in college and NFL history.

Now head coach of the Carolina Panthers, he seems to be ready to put together yet another one.

The Panthers hit the offseason running, making a splash before the start of free agency and then continuing the momentum with a flurry of signings to fill needs on the roster.

The Panthers landed the first big blow of the offseason by swinging a trade to move up eight spots in next month’s NFL Draft. They will now be picking No. 1 overall, barring another trade, which Carolina hasn’t ruled out. That means Reich and the Panthers will be able to hand-pick their quarterback of the future, expected to be Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, although Alabama’s Bryce Young and Florida’s Anthony Richardson are options.

But all roads in the draft now go through Carolina.

“Is there more pressure with that? I guess so,” Reich said. “But I don’t feel it like that. I feel more freedom. We can actually get the guy that we want. We can take the time. We’re in the driver’s seat.”

The trade to No. 1 cost the Panthers their top wide receiver, DJ Moore, and Carolina also dealt its star running back, Christian McCaffrey, during the season, along with veteran receiver Robbie Anderson. That meant whoever will be drafted with the Panthers’ top pick was facing a shortage of targets at the skill positions.

The Panthers moved quickly to resolve that problem, bringing in a running back, tight end and receiver. Carolina signed veteran tight end Hayden Hurst, who has 14 touchdowns in six years in the NFL, including a 52-catch, 414-yard, two-touchdown season last year for Cincinnati.

The team also inked received Adam Thielen, a nine-year veteran who has averaged 70 catches, 780 yards and 10 touchdowns each of the last three seasons. While his age — 33 by the start of the season — indicates he may be due to slow down soon, he provides a veteran presence in a young receiver corps and a reliable target for the Panthers’ passers.

The Panthers are clearly not done at the position. They’ve also hosted veteran D.J. Chark, still unsigned, and have been rumored to have asked about DeAndre Hopkins, thought to be available in a trade.

The team also brought in running back Miles Sanders to round out the new skill position stable. At just 25, he’s a versatile double threat rushing and receiving and has plenty of upside for Carolina’s offense. He rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. He’ll replace D’Onta Foreman, who left for Chicago in free agency after a breakout season in Carolina.

“If you’re going to go with a young quarterback, you have to have a running back. You have to have the tight end. You have to have the receivers,” said GM Scott Fitterer.

You also need protection for your quarterback, and the Panthers took steps to provide that, as well, re-signing center Bradley Bozeman, who was a free agent. They also brought in Justin McCrary, a guard, from the Houston Texans. He’ll provide depth behind a line that was largely up to the task last season.

“We feel like we have the offensive line,” Fitterer said. “Everything we’ve done the last couple years is build a defense, build an offensive line, so when we get to that position, we can drop someone in.”

The Panthers also added to the defense, signing tackles DeShawn Williams and Shy Tuttle to rotate alongside young star Derrick Brown. Williams played for new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero in Denver. The team also signed safety Vonn Bell, which will help Jeremy Chinn make more plays closer to the line.

The final veteran piece the Panthers added was an insurance policy and veteran tutor for the incoming rookie quarterback. Carolina signed Andy Dalton, who has been a reliable backup in Dallas, Chicago and New Orleans for the last three years after his starting days ended in Cincinnati.

Dalton replaces Sam Darnold and PJ Walker, who both departed in free agency after failed attempts to run the offense as the starter.

The moves may not have brought in any superstars, but they addressed needs on a roster that was full of holes entering the offseason. That gives the Panthers a valuable commodity entering the draft — flexibility.

“We’re in that position right now, but what we wanted to do in free agency is surround that person, and then go into the draft not having to force anything,” said Fitterer. “We don’t want to have to take a certain position at 39 just because (we) didn’t take that position. We want to take the best player available.”