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Carolina Panthers 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Carolina Panthers got out to a strong 3-2 start to the 2020 season before faltering down the stretch, looking more like the team that many people expected entering the year. Still, there were positives to take away from their 5-11 campaign.

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The offense finished the year ranked 18th in expected points added per play despite poor play from Teddy Bridgewater at the quarterback position and Christian McCaffrey missing nearly the entire season with injury. That speaks to Joe Brady’s ability to elevate the group above the sum of its parts in his first season as offensive coordinator.

The Panthers finished close to the middle of the pack defensively, as well. With very little experience to speak of across the unit, merely placing above the bottom tier of NFL defenses qualified as a success.

Head coach Matt Rhule and company will look to take another step forward with the right moves this offseason — none of which loom larger than the decision Carolina faces at quarterback.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $15,694,011 (16th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 8, 39, 73, 113, 152, 184, 195, 223, 234

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Christian McCaffrey N/A $12.5 million
WR D.J. Moore 24 / 127 $3.6 million
WR Robby Anderson 39 / 127 $12.0 million
WR ?
TE ?
LT ?
LG ?
C Matt Paradis 21 / 37 $5.6 million
RG ?
RT Taylor Moton 3 / 38 $14.5 million

Looking up and seeing just five starters locked into the Panthers' projected 2021 starting offense has to come with some level of alarm for Joe Brady. Those five starters are impact players in McCaffrey, Moore, Anderson, Paradis and the freshly franchise-tagged Moton, but there are still plenty of questions that need answers.

None stand out more than the quarterback position. Bridgewater remains under contract, but all signs point to the team pursuing alternative options. The Panthers have surfaced as one of the favorites in trade discussions centered around Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, and they are certainly in play to go after a quarterback early in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Panthers will look to add a few more pieces to their receiving corps following Curtis Samuel’s likely departure in free agency. The team's tight end room is also one of the weakest in the league. Carolina is one of three teams with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards from the tight end position over the past two seasons.

Along the offensive line, Carolina importantly retained Moton with the franchise tag. His return becomes even more crucial when looking at the potential volatility elsewhere on the line. Starting 2020 guards John Miller and Chris Reed are both free agents. Neither was overly impressive in a starting role this past season.

Russell Okung and Trent Scott are also free agents this offseason, and Carolina’s best alternative beyond those names, Greg Little, recorded a 47.4 overall grade in his 357 offensive snaps over the past two seasons at left tackle.

The Panthers could very well opt to bring back some combination of those 2020 starters, but both guard slots and left tackle stand out as potential areas to upgrade.

Is this the right time for Carolina to aggressively pursue a franchise quarterback?

Any quarterback-needy team in the top 10 of this year's draft should consider drafting one of the top prospects. The top three players on PFF’s Big BoardTrevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields — are all quarterbacks. All three are talented enough to be worthy of No. 1 overall pick consideration in a typical draft. That doesn’t even include Trey Lance, who PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner labels as having both the strongest arm and the best rushing ability of any quarterback in this class. There are legitimate reasons to consider Alabama’s Mac Jones in the first half of Round 1, as well.

Getting strong play from a quarterback on a rookie deal remains the largest advantage a team can possess from a team-building standpoint. The Panthers have a real opportunity to pounce on that opportunity, even if it requires offering up future picks to jump inside the top-five selections of this year’s draft.

Whether it’s making that move or managing to pull off a trade for Watson, putting that franchise quarterback in place for Matt Rhule and Joe Brady should be Carolina’s No. 1 priority heading into the 2021 season.

What does Christian McCaffrey‘s return mean for the Panthers’ offense?

McCaffrey was one of the more durable running backs in the NFL across his first three years in the league, rarely coming off the field in any situation. That made his 2020 injury struggles a surprise. McCaffrey ended up playing in just three games all year.

The argument that his absence made the Panthers’ offense better in 2020 seems disingenuous at first glance. McCaffrey is one of the best running backs in the NFL at full strength — PFF’s second-highest graded receiving running back since 2017 (93.4). One might even argue that kind of impact in the passing game “matters.” McCaffrey pairs that ability as a receiver with carrying the ball between the tackles and breaking off big chunks on the ground with his speed.

The basis of the argument for the Panthers' offense operating more smoothly with Mike Davis starting is that the team had become so reliant on McCaffrey that it was forgoing more valuable looks down the field to pepper him with targets near the line of scrimmage. In his absence, wideouts Moore, Anderson and Samuel showed what they could do as featured elements of the passing game.

Yes, adding McCaffrey back into the fold should help Carolina's offense. But the Panthers also need to make a concerted effort to avoid running their offense so heavily through their All-Pro running back.

Why was franchise-tagging Taylor Moton the right decision?

Moton has been the most reliable component of Carolina’s offensive line for several years now, and his arrow is only pointing up following a career-best 81.2 PFF grade in 2020 that ranked third among all NFL right tackles. That grade came on the back of easily the best year of his career as a run blocker (76.3 run-blocking grade).

Moton’s development as a run blocker is important because the Panthers already knew they could rely on him in pass protection. Since 2018, only Moton and Mitchell Schwartz have allowed a sub-4.0% pressure rate on at least 1,000 pass-blocking snaps at right tackle.

Given the instability elsewhere on Carolina’s offensive line, franchise-tagging Moton maintains at least some semblance of normalcy and reliability on the right side of the line in 2021.

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson, Justin Fields

The Panthers have been mentioned as one of the favorites to land Deshaun Watson in a trade at various points this offseason. My advice to Carolina if a Watson trade is on the table is the same advice I would give almost every other team in the league in that scenario: take it. PFF has written at length over the past several months about Watson's prowess and where he projects moving forward. He’s a young, franchise-altering quarterback. Players with years of NFL success don’t become available every day.

Bringing in a talented quarterback on a rookie deal has clear benefits, however. The Panthers would likely have to trade up for either Zach Wilson or Justin Fields, but both of those players are worth it. Fields, specifically, boasts arguably the best accuracy of any quarterback in the draft class to go along with high-level rushing ability. It would be hard to fault Carolina for orchestrating a trade-up to target Fields or another quarterback rather than sitting at No. 8 and hoping a signal-caller falls.

Wide receiver: Curtis Samuel, Simi Fehoko

Considering some of the holes elsewhere on the roster compared to the Panthers' relative strength at wide receiver, Samuel could become priced out of consideration for Carolina on a new deal. If the price is right, though, the Panthers should consider a return. Samuel earned a career-high 77.0 PFF grade in 2020, and his versatility was well utilized in Joe Brady’s offense. 

Fehoko is a different mold of receiver who Carolina could target later in the 2021 NFL Draft. There may be no receiver in the draft who has a better combination of size and speed than Fehoko, but he’s exceedingly raw as a prospect. The Stanford product started just four games in his college career. However, his physical tools make him worth a shot as a developmental prospect, at the very least.

Tight end: Pat Freiermuth, Jared Cook

Ian Thomas has done little to show that he is much more than a placeholder as the team’s starting tight end heading into next season. Thomas played at least 300 snaps in each of his first three NFL seasons, earning PFF grades of 53.3, 51.8 and 42.7 (in his largest role this past year) across those campaigns.  

Behind Kyle Pitts, Freiermuth is the clear TE2 in this draft class. He doesn’t have the same ability to beat cornerbacks in man coverage that Pitts does, but Freiermuth is a capable receiver who uses his physicality to win both after the catch and as a blocker. 

Cook would be more of a short-term solution in free agency, but a marked upgrade nonetheless. The soon-to-be 34-year-old is still a downfield threat with his size and speed. He’s coming off three consecutive seasons with a 70.0-plus receiving grade, breaking 80.0 in each of 2018 and 2019.   

Tackle: Russell Okung, Dillon Radunz

The trade for Okung may not have gone swimmingly for Carolina in 2020, but it went better than it did for Los Angeles and Trai Turner. Okung played in only seven games on the year, but he ended the season with a solid 73.0 PFF grade. Despite the injury concerns, bringing him back on a short-term deal may be Carolina’s best option this offseason. If healthy, he can be relied upon for quality play opposite Moton.

If the Panthers pass on Okung, Radunz is an alternative target in the 2021 NFL Draft. The North Dakota State tackle needs to add some strength to his frame, but he has the explosiveness and agility that you look for at the position. He makes some sense for the Panthers as a potential Day 2 target.

Guard: Ben Cleveland, Gabe Jackson 

The flurry of salary cap cuts across the NFL has made the free agent guard market more desirable than it was several weeks ago. Jackson is one of those free agents who has only recently become available following his release from the Las Vegas Raiders. Jackson’s production has taken a hit these past two seasons, but he still projects as a solid pass-protector inside. His 69.9 pass-blocking grade in 2020 marked the first time in his career where he fell below 75.0. 

Listed at 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Cleveland is a massive guard prospect out of Georgia. Like Jackson, he has a strong grading profile in pass protection. Cleveland also projects well as a run blocker in a gap-heavy scheme that doesn’t ask him to get out on the move all too often. The Panthers had a top-five gap run rate in 2020. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Derrick Brown 75 / 125 $5.4 million
DI Zach Kerr 10 / 125 $1.5 million
EDGE Brian Burns 13 / 110 $3.7 million
EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos 93 / 110 $1.9 million
LB Shaq Thompson 57 / 83 $14.2 million
LB ?
CB Donte Jackson 25 / 121 $2.8 million
CB ?
CB ?
S Jeremy Chinn 65 / 94 $1.2 million
S Juston Burris 72 / 94 $4.9 million
S ?

The Panthers went all-in on their defense in the 2020 NFL Draft. Because of that, there are some promising young pieces in place entering next season. The starting defensive line should be largely set, but things get murkier once you venture into the back seven.

Carolina ran more dime coverage than almost any defense in the NFL last season. A lot of that comes down to PFF classifying Chinn as a safety. He played in a hybrid role in the Panthers’ defense, moving from linebacker to safety throughout the year. The Panthers' recent release of Tre Boston does open the door for the team to look for a free safety this offseason.

The team could also use a linebacker to pair with Thompson (and Chinn). Free agent Tahir Whitehead is coming off just a 31.9 overall grade as Luke Kuechly’s replacement. Thompson had easily the worst season of his career from a PFF grade standpoint without Kuechly beside him, earning a 49.8 grade on the season. Jermaine Carter could push for a larger role after a solid close to the season, but he has yet to play more than 300 defensive snaps in three NFL seasons.

Jackson, Corn Elder and Rasul Douglas all had solid, albeit unspectacular, seasons at cornerback for Carolina. The same can’t be said for rookie Troy Pride Jr. out of Notre Dame following a 39.3 overall grade on his 500-plus snaps last season. The Panthers could bring back Douglas on a new deal, but their cornerback group could still use more talent heading into 2021.

What kind of improvement do we see from Carolina’s young defensive line in 2021?

Burns took a big Year 2 jump in 2020. He raised his pass-rushing grade from 68.7 as a rookie to 86.9 this past season, nearly doubling his quarterback pressure total in the process. The Panthers will hope for similar leaps out of 2020 rookies Brown, Gross-Matos and Bravvion Roy

Brown, in particular, has significant room for growth. In a surprising turn of events, he was more effective as a pass rusher in his rookie season than he was as a run defender. Run defense is really where Brown hung his hat at the collegiate level. His easiest projection to the NFL was as a guy who could step in immediately and bolster that facet of the game. It’s an area where Carolina should reasonably expect to improve in next season. 

How does Jeremy Chinn continue to build on a solid rookie season?

Coming out of FCS Southern Illinois, Chinn wasted no time in becoming one of the Panthers’ most important defensive players. He consistently found himself around the football — involved in a team-high 117 tackles with five pass breakups, an interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He added some much-needed playmaking ability to Carolina's defense, and that was evident from the start in the form of splash plays. 

The next step for Chinn — as is the case for many young linebackers and safeties patrolling the middle of the field — is to do a better job of playing in control. Many of his negatively graded plays involve him giving up the sideline, losing his assignment or overplaying the ball carrier and being burned on a missed tackle attempt. If Chinn improves in those facets, he’ll only continue to have a bigger impact on this young group. 

What does Tre Boston‘s release mean for the defense moving forward?

Boston's release was somewhat surprising — even after his down 2020 season — because there is no clear free safety replacement on the roster. Boston was coming off six consecutive seasons with PFF coverage grades of at least 65.0 prior to this past year. 

Carolina does have two potential starting safeties in Chinn and Burris under contract, but neither are natural fits in a centerfielder, single-high role. With how much Cover 3 Carolina ran this past season (the second-highest rate in the NFL), that’s the kind of player they will now need to go out and target in either free agency or the 2021 NFL Draft.

Potential targets at open spots

Linebacker: Denzel Perryman, Jamin Davis 

It’s going to be near impossible for Carolina to replace Kuechly's impact, but that doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t be in the market for a Mike linebacker who can at least help calm the waters. 

Perryman doesn’t carry a ton of value beyond his ability to come down and stop the run on early downs, but he’s been effective in that role for Los Angeles in recent years. He’s coming off a 2020 season in which he earned a career-high 83.3 PFF grade on just over 300 defensive snaps, and he should come in a tier below the top options on the market in salary negotiations. 

Similarly, Davis is a potential draft target who does well coming downfield and finding the ball carrier. He wasn’t asked to do much in coverage at Kentucky, but he has the length and burst teams look for at the position. Davis could provide nice value for Carolina in the middle portion of the draft. 

Cornerback: Greg Newsome II, Shaquill Griffin

The only team to play more Cover 3 during the 2020 season than Carolina was the Los Angeles Chargers, so cornerbacks well-versed in those defenses should rise to the top of the list for the Panthers.

Few cornerbacks limited downfield passes in zone coverage better than Northwestern's Newsome this past season. He rarely got caught out of position, mirroring receivers at a high level with exceptional feet. That skill set would fit well in Carolina’s defense.

Griffin, of course, has extensive Cover 3 experience from his time in Seattle. He did take a step back in 2020 after posting a career-high 77.0 PFF grade in 2019, but he still projects as a solid starter on the outside. If the price is right, Carolina should have interest.

Safety: Malik Hooker, Andre Cisco

Running as much Cover 3 as Carolina also means that bringing in a free safety with the requisite range to play in single-high coverages should be a priority for the Panthers. 

Hooker’s range and playmaking ability were considered his biggest strengths coming out of Ohio State. Injuries and inconsistent play led to an underwhelming start to his NFL career in Indianapolis, but he has flashed playmaking ability at times with the Colts. A move to a Cover 3-heavy defense could be the spark he needs to get his career back on track. 

On the other hand, drafting Cisco is all about the kind of risk tolerance you have as a defense. He will take plenty of chances in coverage. Some of those will result in big plays, while others will turn into big plays for the opposing offense. There’s reason to bank on his high-level tools in the hopes that the right coaching can unlock an elite NFL safety, though.  

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