Eric Reid’s new three-year contract with the Carolina Panthers should not have been a surprise.
Now the question arises: Who will play alongside him?
Reid finished as the team’s fifth-leading tackler despite only playing 13 games. Toward the end of the season, both Reid and Rivera publicly expressed interest in keeping the 27-year-old in town, with Reid claiming he wanted “market value” with his next contract and Rivera praising the safety’s on-and-off-field impact.
They weren’t bluffing — Carolina signed Reid to a 3-year, $22 million deal that should solidify its secondary for the next few years, bringing a continuity that Rivera has long craved.
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“We’ve never started a season with the same defensive secondary in my eight years here,” Rivera said mid-season. “There’s been no consistency … We’ve been in flux in the secondary so I think a lot of it has to do with eventually you come together and gel. Sometimes you gel a little faster, but I think we’re pretty much on track.”
With promising cornerbacks James Bradberry in line for a new contract next season and Donte Jackson playing on a rookie deal through 2021, Rivera said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that bringing Reid back made sense.
“What it does for us is it gives us a position that we know is going to be solidified for a number of years,” Rivera said. “We know he’s a guy that will be around. We’ve got two young corners that we know had a good year for us last season, so we’re pretty excited about that, for sure. We know who the three guys will be.
“We’ve got to go out and find who the next match is next to Eric, and we feel really good about what we could potentially have at nickel.”
Therein lies the next two biggest questions surrounding the Panthers’ secondary: Who will replace safety Mike Adams after the team told him it won’t re-sign him; and who’s next in line at nickel corner after Captain Munnerlyn’s release?
The former doesn’t have a definitive answer just yet. Reid’s skill set allows him to play both strong and free safety — operating as both the defense’s enforcer and security blanket. Before the Panthers decide on his counterpart, they must first decide which role Reid will fill in 2019.
There are options on roster, in free agency and in the draft for either scenario.
“It really depends on where we’re going to play Eric,” Rivera said. “As we start getting closer to the OTA time and the phases, we’ll get a chance to look a little bit deeper into it. We do feel like we do need to find a pair. We do like some of the young guys on our roster who we think could also be a nice fit.”
If Reid plays at strong safety, Carolina could possibly play second-year player Rashaun Gaulden at free safety, or fill the position via free agency with a player like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
In the draft, Alabama’s Deionte Thompson’s stock may fall far enough after a poor College Football Championship Game performance that Carolina is able to draft him without reaching. Delaware safety Nasir Adderley is another option — although his strong pre-draft performances could vault him into the first round, where the Panthers aren’t likely to use the No. 16 overall pick on a safety.
If the Panthers choose to play Reid at free safety, 2018 signee Da’Norris Searcy could return from injury and fill the strong safety role. Marcus Gilchrist and Kenny Vaccaro are options via free agency, while Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram could mirror Reid’s hard-hitting style and may thrive under Reid’s tutelage.
At nickel back, Rivera’s comment about the Panthers’ current situation suggest Corn Elder is the next man up after Munnerlyn’s release. He’s signed through the 2020 season and has shown promise. Notre Dame’s Julian Love and Clemson’s Mark Fields are possibilities in the draft should Carolina look to add youth at the position.
There are plenty of options for the Panthers’ remaining two starting secondary spots, but retaining Reid gives them one less thing to worry about this offseason.
What they do next could finally give Rivera that solidified secondary he’s been looking for.