Carolina Panthers

Free agency is about to begin. What can you expect from the Carolina Panthers?

Ron Rivera discusses impact of Eric Reid signing

Ron Rivera, Panthers head coach talks about finding a match with Eric Reid.
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Ron Rivera, Panthers head coach talks about finding a match with Eric Reid.

Beginning Monday at noon, NFL teams are officially allowed to enter into contract negotiations with the agents of players set to become free agents at the start of the new league year.

Once the new league year begins Wednesday at 4 p.m., teams are then allowed to sign these players.

The Carolina Panthers have many roster needs to fill ahead of the 2019 season, but only have about $17 million to work with in salary cap space in free agency.

So, while some needs will be addressed this week, many will be filled in the draft in April.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of where the Panthers are likely to tweak their roster in the coming months:

Quarterback: NFL draft

The Panthers feel positive about the progress of franchise quarterback Cam Newton after his shoulder surgery in January, which means they have a little more wiggle room this spring as they find depth.

Head coach Ron Rivera said at the NFL scouting combine last month that the Panthers would not look to free agency to fill the backup role. Instead, the team would like to either draft and develop a system backup, or continue to develop second-year quarterback Kyle Allen for the role.

In all likelihood, there will be a competition in spring workouts and training camp for the backup role between Taylor Heinicke, an exclusive-rights free agent who won the backup role last season, Allen and a newcomer.

Ron Rivera, Panthers head coach shares an update on Cam Newton's progress after shoulder surgery.

Running back: Draft

Carolina could very well re-sign longtime backup Cameron Artis-Payne, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this week.

But Artis-Payne has been on the Panthers’ roster for four years without his role expanding — especially during the 2018 season, when starter Christian McCaffrey played 91 percent of offensive snaps. Artis-Payne’s 45 carries during his rookie season in 2015 was a career-high, and he had just 19 carries in 2018.

As the Panthers seek to make McCaffrey’s workload more efficient — keeping his touches the same while removing some extraneous snaps — it’s more likely they will look to the middle and later rounds of this year’s draft to find his complement.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the potential for the offense, Julius Peppers' future.

Wide receiver/tight end: Draft

Because the Panthers picked up veteran receiver Torrey Smith’s option last week, they aren’t likely to bring in another receiver in free agency — especially not with rising stars DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel on the roster.

But Smith’s $5 million owed in 2019 is not guaranteed, which means if the Panthers have a chance to draft a player they feel might be more valuable, they have some flexibility to do so.

Starting tight end Greg Olsen continues his rehabilitation from his second foot surgery in two seasons, but he is set to make a full return in 2019.

Rivera’s comments at the combine indicated that the offensive staff has plans to use more 12-personnel in 2019 (two tight ends, one running back), which means Olsen will work in tandem with second-year tight end Ian Thomas.

Offensive line: Free agency/draft

Reviving the offensive line is one of the biggest needs for the Panthers this spring.

Right tackle Daryl Williams is likely going to test free agency, multiple sources confirmed to the Observer last week, and it’s unlikely the Panthers have the money to re-sign him even if they wanted to do so.

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That means third-year tackle Taylor Moton will start at right tackle in 2019. Carolina will need to add depth there, likely a swing tackle who can play both left and right backup roles.

On the left side of the line, and at center, the Panthers have a lot of gaps. They must find a replacement for longtime starting center Ryan Kalil, who retired at the end of the 2018 season. They also need to bring in competition at left guard, and decide if their long-term plans include left tackle Matt Kalil — who is in a deadweight contract with little wiggle room and is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2018 season.

The Panthers don’t have the money to sign big-name offensive linemen. So it’s probable that they will add some depth in free agency, and then use some current players, like center Tyler Larsen and left guard Greg Van Roten, as “bridge players” who can fill in while the linemen Carolina selects in the draft develop.

Defensive line: Free agency/draft

Carolina will probably approach its defensive line in similar fashion to its offensive line this spring: Find depth in free agency, and draft a prolific pass-rusher or two who can immediately contribute.

The Panthers are interested in increasing starting defensive tackle Dontari Poe’s snaps in 2019 as they seek more production from him, plus they would like to increase vertical (up the middle) pressure. The team also wants to be more multiple, using both 3-man and four-man fronts as they strive to put a little juice back in their pass rush.

Carolina needs to find a defensive end to replace retired star Julius Peppers, but many of the top free-agent pass-rushers have already been re-signed by their respective teams.

The Panthers are interested in bringing back veteran rotational defensive tackle Kyle Love for depth or in a player-coach role after a stellar 2018 season, according to a league source. Love will likely test the market, but there’s a strong chance he returns to Carolina.

Linebacker: Draft

Carolina is heading in a new direction at linebacker for the first time in over a decade, after informing longtime starter Thomas Davis that his contract would not be renewed.

Because the Panthers do have a lot of firepower at linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson pegged as starters, and have promising up-and-comers Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith in the ranks, when they do add linebackers it’ll be for special teams purposes late in the draft, if not as undrafted free agents.

Defensive back: Free agency/draft

Two of Carolina’s three biggest defensive needs are in the secondary, at nickel and safety.

Because the Panthers signed starting safety Eric Reid to a three-year deal last month, it’s unlikely that they’ll spend big on a player in a loaded safety market — though based on their reported interest in six-time Pro Bowler Eric Weddle, they wouldn’t say “no” to the right player at the right price.

Carolina is looking for a starter opposite Reid. While second-year safety Rashaan Gaulden is expected to compete for the job, the Panthers will probably add a player in the draft.

The Panthers also like their outside cornerbacks, James Bradberry and Donte Jackson, and are optimistic about the depth there with Ross Cockrell and Kevon Seymour returning to health.

But if Carolina wants a little more experience at nickel after releasing veteran Captain Munnerlyn last month, there are a few solid free agents in that mold — Chicago’s Bryce Callahan and Cincinnati’s Darqueze Dennard are two names that immediately come to mind.

Nickel is a key defensive role that doesn’t yet demand a top-dollar market, so this spring could be the perfect time for the Panthers to scoop up their next starter without breaking the bank.

Specialists: None

Placekicker Graham Gano signed a four-year, $17 million extension with the Panthers last spring, while punter Michael Palardy is locked in for the next three years.

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.


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