With the news of the Coronavirus spreading around the country causing disruptions in the schedules of most major sports, the NFL is reportedly set to open their league year on schedule next week, with the legal tampering period set to being on Monday – with many on the Panthers roster about to test free agency, the team will need to refill their roster.
It seems unlikely that the Panthers are going to be big players in free agency this year, partly because they don’t have a ton of cap space to throw around, but also because they are probably going to want to save their money, take their comp picks, and look to carry as many assets as possible into the latter stages of their rebuild.
With that said, they do also have to put a team on the field, and while the focus isn’t likely to be on making that the best team possible in 2020, they need enough surrounding talent to put their young players in situations where they have the best chance to develop, and they could also do with uncovering a few low-cost gems who they could either keep as part of the rebuild or possibly use as assets in trades or gain comp picks for down the road.
We have already taken a look at who some options for the Panthers might be on the offensive side of the ball, so what about the defense?
Damon Harrison, NT
The Panthers have reportedly decided not to exercise the option on Dontari Poe and while there is always a chance that they look to bring him back for less as a free agent, if Poe does leave along with the Panthers’ other free agent defensive tackles, that would leave them with a DT depth chart of KK Short and nothing else. While the Panthers aren’t looking to be the best team possible in 2020, they can’t afford to be a complete disaster up front as this then makes things extremely difficult for everybody else on the defense and will therefore make it hard for the likes of Burns, Miller and Jackson to develop while also making it hard to assess the defense as a whole.
The Panthers’ run defense took a noticeable step back after Poe got hurt last year and while there is a chance that the Panthers draft a defensive tackle early in the draft, that can’t be taken for granted.
Harrison might be on the more expensive side of what the Panthers can look for in a free agent, but having been released by the Lions, he wouldn’t count against any comp pick calculation – and given that he will turn 32 mid-season it is hard to imagine that the market for him will be huge. However, Harrison is one of the best run-defending tackles in the NFL, even now, and while he isn’t likely to be the piece that turns the Panthers from rebuilding team to contender, he can allow the likes of Thompson and Carter to stand a chance of developing without spending their season dodging guards as the ball is run down their throats.
While a major part of rebuilding is about getting younger, the Panthers also need to have just enough talent for those young players to be able to grow and develop rather than just turning up every week and getting massacred.
Expected Contract: $6m Over One year
Shane Ray, EDGE
Back in 2017, Shane Ray looked like he might be one of the better young edge rushers in the NFL. He was coming of a season where he had managed eight sacks, six TFLS and 21 QB hits as a rotation piece for the Broncos – entering his third season, he was looking to cement himself as a full-time starter. However, after injury riddled 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Broncos allowed him to go elsewhere last offseason and he eventually was released in the final cutdowns by the Ravens.
While Ray is something of a reclamation project, given that he won’t turn 27 until May, there is still a chance that he can get things back on track.
For the Panthers, Ray makes sense for two reasons. First, with both Addison and Irvin hitting free agency and despite the signing of Chris Smith, the Panthers could really look to add some more options to fill out their edge room, given that the position looks extremely thin in the draft. Second, if Ray can get things back on track, then he could be either a really useful piece for a young multiple defense, or a valuable trade asset for a team looking for a hybrid edge rushers.
Given how much he is likely to cost, that seems too good to turn down.
Expected Cost: $4m Over Three years
Darron Lee, LB
Darron Lee is another former first-round draft pick who could do with another change in location and a possible chance to compete for a starting role. After being traded from the Jets after a four-game suspension at the end of 2018, Lee spent most of last season as a glorified backup, having seen some rotational snaps early in the season with the Chiefs. While his career has certainly been disappointing, it is also worth pointing out that the Jets appeared to spend most of his career there trying to force him into a role without much regard for whether that actually suited his skillset.
For the Panthers, Lee would give them another option at linebacker entering the draft, and while they might well look for Jermaine Carter, Jr. to step into a starting role, if they are going to go back to playing more of a 4-3 defense – at least at times – they are also going to need to get deeper at the position regardless. Lee is unlikely to ever be a great run defender at the point of attack, but offers good movement skills and if he is able to get things turned around in Carolina is another player who has resale value.
Expected Contract: $3m Over Two Years
Jason Verrett, DB
Jason Verrett got hurt once again last season, and for a player who is due to turn 29 this summer, the fact that he has played less than 70 snaps over the past three seasons is a real concern. If you were betting on whether Verrett was ever going to get things back on track at this point, you’d almost certainly bet no – however, this means that he is also likely to be cheap – and given that James Bradberry leaving now seems a formality, with Ross Cockrell and Javien Elliott also free agents, the Panthers need to add bodies at corner.
And if you are looking for cheap cornerback bodies, you might as well go with the one who, when healthy, can be an elite coverage player.
It is also worth giving some consideration to the idea of moving Verrett to safety – while this is also very dependent on him being able to stay healthy for more than the 14 snaps he played last season, it could be a way of getting value out of him without pushing his body to the limits is might see as an underneath coverage player. This is a huge gamble, and one that didn’t pay off for the 49ers last season, but it’s one the Panthers might as well take.
Expected Contract: $3m Over Two Years
Clayton Geathers, S
The Panthers can get up to four compensatory picks in any one offseason – and if you had to bet on the two players who are most likely to be allowed to walk to maximize this, it seems likely that Tre Boston would be gone alongside Bradberry. While I wouldn’t rule out Boston coming back if he once again finds that money isn’t flowing his way, if he does get a bumper contract, I would expect the Panthers would say goodbye.
However, with no other real free safety options on the roster, it seems likely that they would have to bring somebody in to replace him, even if this is position they end up addressing in the draft.
Geathers has started 22 games over the past two seasons for the Colts, and while he has been solid, the fact that they only brought him back on a one-year deal last offseason suggests that he probably isn’t part of their long-term plans. However, the Panthers would be more than happy with solid and Geathers would allow them to develop a younger player behind him while allowing the defense to function.
It is also worth noting that the South Carolina native is still only going to be 28 this summer so a solid season or two could see him reap some reward as a free agent down the line.
Expected Contract: $6m Over Two Years
As with the offense, the Panthers aren’t likely going to be in the market for chasing big name free agents, and if any contender is willing to offer the above players similar money, the Panthers aren’t likely to be willing to go above and beyond to make sure they are in Carolina next season – but just because they could potentially lose so many defensive players this offseason, the Panthers are going to have to spend some money to make sure the young players they do have on defense aren’t just thrown to the wolves.