Now that the draft has concluded, we have a general feel for what the Panthers 2020 roster is going to look like. While they were eager to add pieces on the defensive side of the ball in the draft after making a splash on offense during free agency, the Panthers ultimately chose to shore up their defensive line and one of the worst run defenses in the NFL with their first two picks before turning to the secondary on days two and three of the draft.
But in making that decision, they’ve all but assured that – as the roster stands right now – rookie Troy Pride, Jr will have a large role in Phil Snow’s defense, and while they may choose to employ the three-safety look that Snow utilized at Baylor, that’s a lot of pressure on a fourth-round pick.
“We waited until the fourth round to take a corner knowing that we had a need,” Matt Rhule said after the draft. “Guys were all in understanding that this was a special draft where we had to, weren’t not in a position to take the best player at a position, we had to take the best available player.”
“I think when people always say “best player available,” I think it’s within reason. We don’t just want to collect talent – we want to build a team. What you won’t do, and I think what people mean when they say best player available, is we’re not going to reach for somebody.”
“We’re not going to say, ‘hey we need a corner, but we’re going to draft a round later’ – and I think that’s why we didn’t take one in the third. We saw the opportunity to go up and get [Jeremy] Chinn and said hey its not a corner, but it’s really the best player available. As we got into the fourth, we felt really good about Troy.”
Pride was thrown into the fire as a freshman at Notre Dame and certainly feels as if he can start Week 1 – as a general rule, cornerbacks don’t lack confidence – but it would be a smart move to sign a cornerback with at least some experience over the course of the next six weeks. Even if the team feels committed to starting Pride when the team opens the season, they’d be a pulled hamstring away from Corn Elder, Cole Luke or Stan Thomas-Oliver standing opposite Julio Jones or Michael Thomas in the regular season.
While they could always re-sign Ross Cockrell or Javien Elliott, it would appear that the team might be set to look for some fresh blood with both players still waiting to hear from the team in free agency. Below are some options to consider, but we’ll stick with players under 30, as that seems to be the avenue the Panthers have traveled in during this free agency period.
With free agency already two months old, they’d almost certainly be in the Panthers price range on a one- or two-year deal to both flesh out the depth chart and keep a promising rookie from being picked on until the confidence that Pride – or third-year corner Donte Jackson, for that matter – is known for slowly chips away, one Mike Evans out route at a time.
A 2014 first-round pick who has never quite lived up to his draft stock in Cincinnati, Dennard has spent time on both the outside and in the slot and according to Pro Football Focus, was ranked 20th among qualifying cornerbacks in 2019 – while the Panthers need some help on the outside, they need someone to replace the slot corner snaps that Javien Elliott played in 2019.
Dennard could step in and fill that need immediately and after signing a one-year, $4.5m deal last season, he might be available for even less than that now that free agency is already a couple of months old – Dennard reportedly couldn’t come to terms on a three-year deal with Jacksonville worth $6m in guaranteed money in March. Dennard can play against the run and is a good tackler – and at 5-11 with good speed, fits into the physical profile that Matt Rhule has said he values in a cornerback.
At 25 years old, Apple is the youngest player on this list and was set to sign a one-year, $6m deal with the Raiders before that fell through during the weird offseason that the COVID-19 pandemic has handed the NFL over the past couple of months. Another player with a first-round pedigree (10th overall), Apple has spent time in both New York and New Orleans, and while he only has three interceptions and 33 passes defensed in five years, a one-year flyer on a 25-year old corner who has the tools but hasn’t put it together yet as the team is rebuilding their secondary might make a lot of sense.
The 6-1 corner who has spent time in Seattle and Atlanta would bring a little more veteran presence to the cornerback room – he’ll be 28 in August – and can play on both the outside and in the slot, where he makes for a good matchup with tight ends – Pete Carroll used him last season when the team faced a lot of 2TE sets – and with the tight ends in the NFC South, King would be an inexpensive and versatile option to add to the defensive back rotation.
After spending 2019 on injured reserve, Williams could do with a fresh set of circumstances after earning the starting cornerback job during training camp his rookie season, underwhelming on the field in his first couple of games and being relegated to special teams duty for the remainder of his deal. But Williams showed the athletic tools at Texas A&M after converting from running back to corner and with three years of NFL training at corner under his belt, he could be ready for a larger role. Not to mention, he’d likely be inexpensive and have the upside to contribute, with the absolute minimum being an extremely-athletic upgrade from some of the players currently on the depth chart.
Obviously the biggest name and most expensive player on this list, if Marty Hurney is insistent on making this team competitive in 2020, Ryan would go a long way towards helping that cause. The former Tennessee corner had the fourth-most pass deflections in the league last season and would come in as the #1 corner in the Panthers locker room immediately – but with that immediate production comes a large cost. Ryan has said he wants a salary north of $10m a year and while the Panthers could likely do some creative cap movement to make it work, that might not be an option.
But 29-year old #1 cornerbacks with proven track records aren’t available every season in free agency, so that could drive Hurney to pull the trigger on a two- or three-year deal.
(Top Photo Via Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)