Panthers out fast in free agency

Team deals Burns, lands offensive lineman

Former Dolphins' guard Robert Hunt will now be protecting Bryce Young as the Panthers made him a priority at the start of free agency. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

They may not have traded for the top pick in the draft this year, but the Carolina Panthers were plenty busy as the new NFL year opened this week. With teams able to start negotiating trades and free agents on Monday of this week, in advance of full-blown free agency on Wednesday, the Panthers were making deals and rumored to be investigating more as they tried to improve on a 2-15 season.

New GM Dan Morgan and rookie coach Dave Canales are hitting the ground running. Last week, the Panthers started making moves by cutting tight end Hayden Hurst and slapping the franchise tag on Brian Burns. They’re also reportedly explored a number of trade options.

Thing move fast in free agency and, when Monday’s “legal tampering period” opened, the team quickly asserted itself. Here’s what went down and what we still might see on the team’s list of priorities.

Figure out what to do with Burns:

Check that one off the list. Tagging the elite pass rusher was in anticipation of trying to deal him for draft picks, since the team is without a first rounder. By Monday evening, the Panthers found a suitor, dealing Burns to the New York Giants for a reported second and fifth round pick. That was a better haul than the third rounder many NFL insiders expected them to get.

Hold the defense together:

This one is an incomplete, at best.

The top name on the list of the Panthers’ own free agents was linebacker Frankie Luvu, a big-time playmaker who has come into his own in Carolina to be one of the top players on the defense. The team now needs to find a way to replace him after Washington pounced on him at the start of the negotiation period.

Carolina appeared ready to move on from corner Donte Jackson, who was rumored on the verge of being released. The Panthers had other plans for him, however. Safety Jeremy Chinn saw his role reduced greatly last season and moved on, signing with Washington. 

Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos had the best pass rushing season of his career, just in time to hit the unrestricted market. The team would like to keep him, especially with Burns’ fate up in the air.

Find targets for Bryce Young:

Wide receiver is the top priority for the team on offense. Carolina has been rumored to be working the trade market to try to find a way to deal for a pass catcher, rather than bid for one on the free agent market. The Bengals and Colts tagged Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr., respectively, meaning that, like Burns, a trade was a possibility. The Panthers are believed to have inquired about both, as well as Dallas’ Michael Gallup. The Colts extended Pittman on Monday, taking him off the board for Carolina.

The team found a trade partner in Pittsburgh, dealing cornerback Jackson for Diontae Johnson.

Among free agents, Jacksonville’s Calvin Ridley is likely the top option on the free agent market, although Arizona’s Marquise Brown is also a good option. Call it a success if the Panthers emerge from the week with a new number one receiver.

For receiver depth, the Panthers may look at Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman or Tennessee’s Nick Westbrook-Ihene, who worked with current Carolina receivers coach Rob Moore with the Titans. Another free agent with a connection to a Panthers coach is David Moore, who played with then-coordinator Dave Canales in Tampa Bay last year.

Add a tight end:

Nothing helps a young quarterback like having a security blanket at tight end. The Panthers already cut Hurst, and Ian Thomas doesn’t appear to be their choice to fill that role. With the heavy Seattle roots of the Panthers front office, Seahawks tight end Colby Parkinson is a natural fit. Noah Fant and Will Dissly are other tight end options, and that’s just the options who were on Seattle’s roster last season.

Help the O line:

Fans were pushing for the Panthers to add Tyron Smith, but the Cowboy’s tackle is tops on just about every team’s shopping list. David Tepper likes to make a splash, and landing Smith would do that while also letting the team move Ickey Ekwonu inside, providing more protection for Young.

Instead, the Panthers focused on tightening their protection from the inside out, landing Dolphins interior lineman Robert Hunt on the first day of free agent negotiations. A short time later, Seattle’s Damien Lewis, another highly-rated guard also came aboard. Carolina is also expected to release Bradley Bozeman, so they may be shopping for a center as well. Conner Williams, a teammate of Hunt’s in Miami, may be a top target for the team.

The team has some clear priorities as the bidding war begins, and the new regime appears ready to try to accomplish its goals once the light goes green.