By: 4MR Norris Thornburg
The disappointing 2020 season has ended and there’s a new General Manager in town. Free agency starts in a little over a month and fans are getting more excited about the aggressive approach of GM Scott Fitterer. Fitterer stated that he will be in the mix for all trade offers and free agent signings to build this roster into a winner. Needless to say, this Carolina Panthers roster will look a lot different in 2021.
Even though COVID took fans out of the stands and lowered the overall league salary cap, there are still a few things that Carolina can do to improve the team. Some of these moves aren’t going to be flashy, but they need to be done to help push this team over the hump. Carolina being 5-11 and losing eight of those games by a score or less, isn’t going to cut it anymore for owner David Tepper. So what can Carolina do to improve their situation?
RE-SIGN TAYLOR MOTON
Taylor Moton was the most consistent player on the offensive line this year. He’s slated to be a free agent when the new league year starts on March 17th, but Carolina can’t let him walk. According to Spotrac, Moton’s market value is $14.7 million per year. That sounds like a lot, but Fitterer can backload the contract or use incentives to make this a cap-friendly deal. If Carolina can’t get a deal done, they can Franchise Tag him but it won’t save any money, as the tag value is estimated at $14.5 million for offensive linemen. Either way, Moton can’t be allowed to walk.
MAKE NECESSARY CUTS
This step is probably stating the obvious, but needs to be said. There are some players that could be cap casualties based on the lack of space the team currently has. According to Spotrac, the Panthers are projected to have $17,863,434 in salary cap space for this offseason. That’s not nearly enough to make any moves to improve the team. Especially if Moton gets tagged for $14.5 million. Here are some players that Carolina could cut to make room:
To say Weatherly was a disappointment would be an understatement. After signing a two-year contract for $12.5 million, Weatherly only played in nine games and had 17 tackles on the season. Weatherly should be the first player cut, as that would create $5.9 million in cap space.
Burris didn’t play bad, but the emergence of rookie Sam Franklin, who played really well as an undrafted rookie free agent, could make Burris expendable. Cutting Burris would save the Panthers around $3.8 million in cap space.
This one may sting a little to Panthers fans. Short is a fan favorite and an all-around nice guy. The issue is, he’s only played five games in the last two seasons. The emergence of Zach Kerr opposite Derrick Brown makes this cut a little easier. As does the fact that cutting him saves the Panthers a whopping $13.2 million in cap space as a post-June 1st cut. If Carolina designates Short as a post-June 1st cut, they could still sign players and go over the cap and then they’ll get that $13 million on June 2nd.
With these three cuts, the Panthers would save a total of $22.9 million and it would bring their total cap space to a little over $40.7 million. That is more than enough to sign key free agents at positions of need. The only drawback to these cuts are, it would create almost $9.4 million in dead money. The Panthers already have $9.1 million in dead money, so that would bring the total to $18.5 million. All of which should fall off in the 2022 offseason. Which is fine, because the league should have increased revenue in 2021 and the salary cap should go back to normal. So this could mean a large cap number next offseason.
SIGN KEY FREE AGENTS
Every successful team has a smattering of key free agents that help the overall success. Now that the team has $40 million in cap space (in this scenario), they can sign a couple key players in positions of need. If Carolina tags Moton, they would still have around $26 million in space. If they sign him long-term, they could make the contract back heavy to help with space this year. Here are some players that the aggressive GM Scott Fitterer could target:
It’s no secret that the Panthers lack a true difference-maker at the tight end position. Smith is likely the top free agent at his position this year. He had 41 catches for 448 yards and 9 total touchdowns (1 rushing) in 2020. He’s basically a receiver playing tight end and a true red zone threat. Smith is also a very capable blocker. If Carolina signed him, fans should be ecstatic.
Another tight end who would be a significant improvement. Henry had 60 catches for 613 yards and 4 touchdowns in 14 games. His injury history could make teams a little weary, but he’s still a stud at tight end. Henry might not make it to free agency though, as the Chargers want to keep as many weapons as possible for Justin Herbert.
Everett is an athletic tight end with plenty of upside. If the Panthers miss on Smith and Henry, Everett would be a nice consolation prize. In 2020, he had 41 catches for 417 yards and a touchdown. He’s not a red zone threat like the first two players mentioned, but he’d still be an instant upgrade to Thomas.
Yes, the team just released Burris to make cap room (in this scenario), but Tartt is a difference-maker on the back end. If Carolina wants more experience at strong safety, Tartt could be a target. He has good coverage skills in the middle of the field and is an aggressive tackler.
The Panthers are in desperate need of an outside corner and there are a couple worth a look in free agency. Awuzie is young, has good speed and coverage skills. The injury bug bit him last year, so his contract may be fairly cap-friendly.
An obvious fan-favorite to land in Carolina, Peterson has done fairly well over the years. He was invited to eight straight Pro Bowls in his first eight seasons. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and has lost a step, but he’s still a premier corner in this league. He would bring a much needed veteran leadership to the defensive back room and fill a position likely vacated if Carolina doesn’t re-sign Rasul Douglas.
Verrett is also a name to watch if Carolina decides to fill the corner spot in free agency. The former first round pick has had a solid career and had a really good 2020 campaign. He will be 30 in June, but he hasn’t shown that he’s lost a step. Interesting note: Carolina held Verrett’s only private workout prior to the 2014 draft.
WILLIAM JACKSON III
This would be an under-the-radar signing for the Panthers and would fill a need. In Cincinnati, Jackson had a decent season. He earned a 71.4 grade on Pro Football Focus and graded out well in coverage. The Panthers could also get him on a fairly team-friendly deal.
IDENTIFY AND SECURE YOUR QUARTERBACK
Quarterback is the most important position on the team and it looks as though Carolina is in the market to find a new one. If this is the case, Carolina should identify their guy and try to get him. Deshaun Watson is definitely a target for Carolina, but the compensation would likely exceed what they’re willing to spend.
Carolina made a move to get Matthew Stafford but Detroit decided to take the offer given by LA. Scott Fitterer said he is going to be in on every player and it seems as though he will be aggressive in doing so. That said, here are some options that the Panthers have at quarterback:
While the compensation might be too much as stated above, Carolina is prepared to throw draft picks at Houston like they’re Oprah. There’s no doubt that Watson would turn Carolina’s offense into a winner if they win the bidding war for him. Watson led the league in passing despite having no weapons on a terrible team. He is a franchise quarterback and those don’t become available often. So if that’s who they want, they’ll find a way. Of course, it also comes down to where Watson wants to go due to his no-trade clause.
This week, Wilson and his camp basically announced that they’re tired of the team not placing enough emphasis on the offensive line. Now, it looks like they’re heading for a full-fledged divorce. A trade for Wilson seems even more unlikely than a Watson trade. Even though Carolina has a familiar face in Fitterer, who helped draft Wilson in Seattle, it doesn’t seem likely that Carolina would be in the mix. Although, they will inquire about him.
Some people might like this, but others won’t. Darnold is a young quarterback with plenty of talent who went to a dumpster fire of an organization and was surrounded by little help. The former first round pick (3rd overall) is still only 23 years old and a change of scenery might do him good. Obviously he still needs to progress more, but the arm talent is there. If the Panthers gave up their second round pick and a future fifth, they’d get a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie contract. That would give Carolina more cap space to build a team around him. The team could also still get a superstar corner or left tackle at pick eight. Interesting note: A lot of scouts had a higher grade on Darnold than they do Zach Wilson.
Prescott is the only free agent on this list, and it’s because he’s the only available quarterback that’s worth signing. A lot of people don’t like Dak simply because he plays for the Cowboys, but there’s no denying his talent. Even with awful offensive line play last season, he was on pace for a record-breaking year before his injury. There’s not a throw he can’t make and he goes through progressions quickly. At age 27, he’s still young enough to be a franchise quarterback for another team. The only thing Carolina will have to give up is cap space. Dak turned down $35 million per year and bet on himself but then had a severe injury that likely cost him a few million dollars per year. If Fitterer backloaded the contract, it would be a little more team friendly for 2021.
Carolina could ultimately decide to trade up in the draft and take Ohio State product Justin Fields. Fields has a big arm, good pocket awareness, good field vision and good athleticism. He also has a high football IQ and is accurate on just about any pass. It would probably cost Carolina pick eight, as well as, either a 2022 first or a couple second rounders to move from eight to three. If they decide to go that route, fans should be very excited. Too many people are overthinking Fields’ struggles against Alabama. Don’t do that. The guy is a stud.
Lance is the fourth best quarterback in the draft with potentially the highest ceiling. He’s a little raw and there isn’t any recent film because North Dakota State opted out of the 2020-21 season. Lance is a little raw but he has really good traits. In 2019, he set an NCAA record for most completions without an interception (287), so he has really good accuracy. Lance has good awareness, good arm strength and never panics when the pocket collapses. Carolina could may be able to get Lance at pick eight, but it’s more likely they’ll have to move up to pick four.
Carolina could elect to let Bridgewater start in 2021 and build the trenches in the draft. Bridgewater is a good starting quarterback and could use a little more protection. Plus, the draft class next year has a few good quarterbacks, so you can build the line in the draft this year and get a quarterback in the draft next year. It would work well for your rookie quarterback to have a solid offensive line.
WHAT TO DO WITH TEDDY
First and foremost, we here at 4 Man Rush really like Teddy Bridgewater the person and player. Yes the team struggled at times and even Teddy would admit that he could be better, but he made some really good plays last year too. That said, if the Panthers are ready to move on from Teddy, they need to do right by him and trade him to a team that needs a starting quarterback.
Taking a look around the league, there are several teams that may need a new starter. Two teams in particular that may be looking are two teams he’s very familiar with: Minnesota and New Orleans. Rumors are swirling that Kirk Cousins is being targeted in a trade by San Francisco, so Minnesota could be in the market. Teddy is beloved in Minnesota and would welcome him back with open arms. New Orleans is also a logical choice after Drew Brees’ retirement. Bridgewater won five games in Drew’s absence in 2019 and the Saints would like him back as well.
Minnesota has two third round picks and four fourth round picks. New Orleans only has four picks in the entire draft this year. One of which is a third round compensatory pick they will receive for losing Teddy last offseason. Carolina would likely take a third round pick for Teddy if they’re truly ready to move on. According to Spotrac, the team would incur $10 million of dead cap, but would save $12.9 million in cap space this year. They would also incur $5 million dollars in dead cap space in 2022 but would save $21 million in cap space next year. The dead cap would fall off the following year.
GET A LEFT TACKLE
There’s two things that need to happen along the offensive line: Retain Taylor Moton, which is mentioned above, and find an answer at left tackle. Whether that be through a trade, or the draft. There aren’t really any young, quality left tackles in free agency this year. Cam Robinson is a free agent but he struggled this year. Here are a couple of options at left tackle:
If Carolina decides to either keep Teddy or trade for Darnold, they may elect to trade up a bit for Sewell. Wouldn’t be a bad idea since Sewell is an absolute beast and has no weaknesses in his game. Sewell would provide consistent left tackle play for 10 years with Carolina.
Carolina could also decide to trade back and gain some picks while adding a solid left tackle prospect. Some scouts are pegging Slater as a center or guard, but he should be successful at the tackle position. Adding a player with such position flexibility is right up Matt Rhule’s alley.
Carolina could go with a second round tackle and still have a solid starter in Eichenberg. This is one of the more underrated offensive linemen in the draft and is a plug-and-play starter at left tackle. If Carolina goes quarterback in the first, Eichenberg fits the bill as a franchise left tackle.
Brown moved from right tackle to left tackle after an injury to starter Ronnie Staley. Brown excelled at the position and even earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2020. Its hard to say what kind of compensation the Ravens want for Brown, but the Panthers will definitely call to check. It’ll likely be a first rounder or two second rounders. The team would have to extend his contract, but it wouldn’t go into effect until next year when Carolina has a lot more cap space.
If Carolina can do these things, they will be well on their way to being a contender. They are getting a head start compared to the rest of the division. The Falcons’ Ryan is getting older, Drew Brees of the Saints retired and Tom Brady is on his last leg in Tampa. Keep in mind that some of these players will be re-signed by their teams. However, other good players will be cut by their teams to make cap space more than ever before. Either way, the future looks bright in Carolina.