The Carolina Panthers started the 2021 NFL season strong, winning their first three games. However, it all went downhill from there. The Panther lost 12 of their final 14 games, including seven in a row to end the year. After averaging 23 points per game over the first three games of the year, the Panthers scored more than 21 points in a game three times the rest of the season. They fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady midseason hoping to jump-start the offense. It didn’t work, and the Panthers ultimately hired former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo as their new offensive coordinator this offseason. After finishing the 2021 season in last place in the NFC South with a 5-12 record, the Panthers have a critical offseason ahead of them.
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Pending Free Agents
According to Over the Cap, the Panthers have a projected $16.6 million in cap space this offseason. They have 22 upcoming free agents, including several starters on defense. After making several trades over the last year, the Panthers are low on draft capital. Therefore, they must address their needs in free agency. However, with only $16.6 million in cap space and several critical players set to hit the open market, the Panthers will need to get creative this offseason.
In early October, the Panthers traded a 2023 sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots for Gilmore. While working out an extension was not part of the trade deal, the Panthers said they were open to a long-term contract with the cornerback. However, Gilmore played in only eight games last year. Furthermore, he played over 60 percent of the snaps in a game only twice. Gilmore will turn 32 years old during the 2022 season and will want a massive contract this offseason. With a limited salary cap situation, the Panthers could decide to let the veteran walk in free agency.
Last offseason, the Panthers signed Reddick to a one-year deal after his breakout season with the Arizona Cardinals. Reddick stepped in and led the Panthers in sacks (11) and forced fumbles (two) in 2021. After totaling 23.5 sacks over the past two years, Reddick will earn a massive new deal from someone during free agency. While they should make re-signing Reddick their top priority, the Panthers might not be able to match the offers Reddick will get on the open market.
Jermaine Carter Jr.
The former fifth-round pick had a productive season in his first year as the starter. Carter had a career-high 88 tackles and three tackles for a loss while starting all 17 games. He played 78 percent of the defensive snaps this season after playing an average of only 19.7 percent of the snaps his first three years in the NFL. While Carter was productive as the starter, he struggled in pass coverage. He allowed 76.3 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed this season. While Carter could return to Carolina next season, expect the Panthers to allow him to test the open market before offering a new deal.
Potential Cap Casualties
With only $16.6 million in projected cap space before re-signing any of their players, the Panthers will need to find a way to create some cap space. Unfortunately, they don’t have many prime cut candidates. While they can create cap space by restructuring contracts, the quickest way the Panthers can open up cap space is by trading Sam Darnold. According to Over the Cap, the Panthers can save almost $19 million cap space if they trade Darnold. Unfortunately, cutting Darnold will not help the Panthers. However, there are a few players they can cut.
A.J. Bouye ($3.5 Million Saved)
Last offseason, the Panthers signed Bouye to a two-year deal worth $7 million. However, he struggled in his first year with the Panthers, allowing 72.1 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. With the drafting of Jaycee Horn last year and the trade of C.J. Henderson in September, the Panthers don’t need the veteran cornerback anymore. The Panthers will cut Bouye in the days leading up to free agency.
Dennis Daley ($2.5 Million Saved)
Given how poorly the offensive line played last season, the Panthers could end up adding four new starters this offseason. However, Daley should be back with the team in 2022. His ability to play both guard and tackle is valuable to the Panthers. Furthermore, Daley’s cap hit for 2022 is only $2.6 million. Whether he is a starter or a top reserve, he is valuable at his current cap number. The only reason the Panthers should release Daley is if they need the cap space to sign a top free agent.
Pat Elflein ($2 Million Saved)
Matt Paradis is an upcoming free agent, and the Panthers would like to re-sign him. However, he might find a better offer on the open market. If he does return, the Panthers can create $2 million in cap space by releasing Elflein, putting it towards a new deal for Paradis. However, if Paradis leaves in free agency, the Panthers will likely bring back Elflein. His ability to play guard and center is critical.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
As the Panthers head into the offseason, they will need to get creative when signing free agents. With only $16.6 million in projected cap space, the Panthers will likely sit out the first wave or two of free agency. When they enter the free agency mix, the Panthers have several needs to address. The offensive line is the top need as they gave up 52 sacks last season. They will also need to address holes on defense if they don’t re-sign their only players.
Anthony Walker Jr., Cleveland Browns
Last offseason, Walker signed a one-year deal with the Browns after spending his first four years with the Indianapolis Colts. Walker had his third season with over 100 tackles in the past four years in 2021. Furthermore, he was solid in the passing game too. Walker gave up a career-low 95.5 quarterback rating when targeted last season. If the Panthers don’t re-sign Carter, Walker would be an excellent replacement option.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, New York Jets
After opting out of the 2020 season to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, Duvernay-Tardif returned to the NFL last season. However, the Kansas City Chiefs had drafted his replacement and traded him to the Jets at the trade deadline. If the Jets land a big-name free agent like Brandon Scherff, they will no longer need Duvernay-Tardif. Despite recently turning 31 years old, Duvernay-Tardif has plenty left in the tank. He would be an excellent veteran addition to the Panthers’ offensive line.
Johnathan Hankins, Las Vegas Raiders
Starting defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is an upcoming free agent. While they like their younger defensive tackles in Derrick Brown, Phil Hoskins, and Bravvion Roy, the Panthers will need to add a veteran to replace Jones. Like Jones, Hankins is a big body run stuffer who would pair well with Brown. Last year he had a career-low 9.5 percent missed tackle rate. The Panthers could plug Hankins into their young defensive line and not miss a step.
Previewing the 2022 NFL Draft
The Panthers have been one of the most aggressive teams the past year. However, that has left them with limited draft capital. They don’t have their second or fourth-round picks, as they belong to the Jets as part of the Darnold trade. The Panthers also don’t have their third-round pick as it belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars as part of the Henderson trade. With only one pick in the first 100 selections, the Panthers are a prime candidate to move back on draft day.
Round 1, Pick 6: Offensive Line
If the Panthers can’t trade back, many expect them to take a quarterback with their first-round selection. However, that would be a mistake. The Panthers have to address the offensive line, as they gave up 52 sacks last season, the fifth-most in the NFL. While Evan Neal won’t be available with this pick, two names to keep an eye on are Ikem Ekwonu and Charles Cross. Both can step in as a rookie and start at left tackle. However, another name to keep an eye on is Trevor Penning. He had a terrific week at the Senior Bowl. If the Panthers trade back, Penning should be their target.
Early 2022 Expectations
With Sean Payton and Tom Brady retiring, the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers should regress next season. The NFC South will likely be the worst division in the NFL in 2022. While the Panthers may be the team to go from last in the division to first the following year, that is unlikely. The Panthers have several holes they need to address this offseason. However, with a lack of draft capital and cap space, it’s unlikely they can fix all their needs. While fans are hopeful the team can take advantage of a weak division, the Panthers should be the favorites to finish last in the NFC South again next season.
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