Panthers could use answer from Julius Peppers before free agency begins

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers ideally will get a definitive answer on whether Julius Peppers will return for a 17th season before free agency begins on Thursday. The 38-year-old defensive end, fourth on the NFL’s all-time sack list, reportedly is leaning toward one last chance to win a Super Bowl.

But the Panthers have to begin preparing for life without Peppers, bringing us to the next in a position-by-position look at the roster.

Next up: Defensive end

2017 grade: B-plus

Carolina got more production than it probably counted on out of Peppers, who tied Mario Addison for the team lead in sacks with 11. That was his most since 2013. Addison had another solid season as well and at a bargain price like Peppers. What keeps this from being an A is recently released Charles Johnson didn’t have a sack and was suspended four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

Under contract (2018 salary-cap number): Mario Addison $9,666,666; Wes Horton $1,200,000; Daeshon Hall $815,438; Zach Moore $705,000; Bryan Cox Jr. $555,000; Efe Obada $480,000. Total: $13,422,104.

Key free agent: Julius Peppers

The good: The Panthers got a lot of production at a low cost ($15,156,038) last season and are primed to do it again if Peppers comes back at another bargain one-year deal. Addison has put together consecutive solid seasons (combined 20.5 sacks) and seems to be coming into his own as an every-down player. Wes Horton, known primarily as a run stopper, had a career-high 5.5 sacks. Carolina has a couple of promising young players in 2017 third-round pick Daeshon Hall and undrafted rookie Bryan Cox Jr.

The bad: Charles Johnson’s production dropped off so significantly after he signed a two-year deal that he was released. While there is some promise in Hall and Cox, there isn’t a bona fide player to step into the four-man rotation, ideally as an every-down starter. The Panthers would like to limit Peppers to obvious passing downs and keep him fresh like they did last year until Johnson was suspended.

The draft: Look for the Panthers to draft an end in the first three rounds unless they find a young, inexpensive prospect in free agency. NC State’s Bradley Chubb, likely a top-five pick, won’t fall to Carolina at No. 24. The other top ends could be a reach at 24. Players such as Marcus Davenport of UTSA, Arden Key of LSU and Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard could be options after the first round.

Final thought: Re-signing Peppers to another one-year deal at a low number is key here. Even so, this position is in near desperate need of a young player with star potential. There is nobody behind Peppers and Addison who consistently has proved worthy of a spot. It’s not a great year in free agency for that kind of player unless you pay big bucks or take a risk and get one with baggage, so the draft seems to be the clear path to upgrading here.