New Panthers have some dog in them

Team focused on attitude, grit in filling holes in free agency

New Panthers guard Damien Lewis (68), shown here before a game in 2023, gives Carolina a skilled guard with a nasty attitude. (Ben VanHouten/AP Photo)

Prior to the start of NFL free agency, new Carolina GM Dan Morgan discussed his vision for rebuilding the 2-15 Panthers.

The team had the worst record in the league, a disinterested fanbase that produced some embarrassing home-game environments for visiting teams over the past two years, and very little draft capital a series of trades as the previous regime tried to find a quarterback to build around.

All-in-all, it was a bleak situation facing the former Panthers linebacker as he took the reins. But he knew what it would take to turn things around.

We need some dogs

“I wanted to talk about the type of players that we wanted to bring in here, just DNA-wise,” Morgan said. “We need to find leaders. We need to find those competitors, those dogs.”

“We need some dogs,” Morgan concluded. “We need to get some guys that are passionate about football, that love football. They want to come out and compete on the practice field and weight room. We need competitors. We need to bring that back here, to Bank of America Stadium. We need to get it to where people get excited about coming to see our team. We want players with grit, like Steve Smith, with a chip on their shoulder. No holds barred. Not taking any prisoners.”

Just over a month later, it may not be a full-fledged dog pound in Charlotte just yet, but there’s definitely more barking going on at the stadium.

Morgan addressed many of the team’s issues in a flurry of free agent moves. He dealt Brian Burns, who had been unhappy with his contract situation for more than two years, recouping some of the draft picks the Panthers have lost. He then added a pair of guards to an offensive line that too often failed to protect quarterback Bryce Young, signing Miami’s Robert Hunt and Seattle’s Damien Lewis. Morgan also traded for Pittsburgh receiver Diontae Johnson, adding a big-play target for Young to throw to.

There’s guys here that are dogs

The Panthers also added a host of defensive players, including tackle A’Shawn Robinson, linebacker Josey Jewell and edge rushers K’Lavon Chaisson and D.J. Wonnum, corner Dane Jackson and safety Jordan Fuller.

“There’s guys here that are dogs,” said Wonnum. “That have done big things in the league.”

Wonnum, Chaisson and Jewell will help mitigate the loss of Burns. While none of them may be able to replicate Burns’ sack total on their own, they’ll amp up the pressure from both inside and out.

“I’m not looking to replace anybody,” Wonnum said. “I can be an every-down guy. I can be a starter. I can do whatever the coaches want. … We needed a couple defenders that can stop the run and pass rush.”

The defenders will also be able to step right in. Most of the new Panthers defensive players either played for coordinator Ejiro Evero or have played in a scheme similar to his.

“I’m familiar with the system,” Wonnum said. “I’ve played in this system before.”

“It wasn’t a necessity that EJ’s been with them before,” Morgan said. “It just worked out that way. We wanted to get really good football players our staff is famliar with, where there’s not going to be a steep learning curve.”

Building a wall up front

On offense, meanwhile, the key goal was to protect Carolina’s young quarterback. Morgan signed two of the top guards on the market, which freed up Austin Corbett to move to center. The team also added tackle depth, signing Yosh Nijman.

Morgan lumped the Hunt, Lewis and Nijman in with Robinson, the defensive tackle signed from the Giants.

“We feel good about it,” Morgan said. “We want to dominate both sides of the line of scrimmage. That’s what it takes to win in this league.”

And that starts with keeping the quarterback upright.

“Bringing the guards in and moving Corbett to center builds a wall up front,” he said.

And some of the blocks in that wall are likely to gnaw on bones and growl at intruders.

You’re going down

“On the offensive line, you want to run the ball,” Lewis said in his first press conference as a Panther. We want to run straight at you, bringing that mean, nasty, tough mentality toward the team. I’m going to punish you every day. I’m gonna be the tone setter. I want to put your face in the ground.”

Lewis, who grew up in Louisiana, credits surviving Hurricane Katrina as a child for instilling that tough attitude. “It’s been in my all my life,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been in Katrina in 2005, I said, “I’ve got to get us out.” It’s me against you. I’ve got to be better in everything I do. If I’ve got to keep running through your face, then you’re going down.”

Somewhere nearby, the newest Panther’s general manager was smiling at what he heard.