Grading Panthers in free agency: Dontari Poe a big gain in more ways than one

Former Falcons defensive tackle Dontari Poe is a solid pickup for Carolina. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A breakdown of the initial wave of free agency for the Carolina Panthers:

Overall grade: B-minus. This would have been a solid B had Bashaud Breeland not failed his physical. Dontari Poe is a solid pickup. Re-signing 38-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers also was big and somewhat overlooked. You also have to consider the trade for Torrey Smith because getting him lessened the need to sign a big-name free-agent receiver such as Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins, who were given ridiculously high deals despite not having accomplished a lot. Smith was a bargain at $5 million a year. Adding Jarius Wright, 28, to compete for the slot receiver role also was a good, inexpensive move that brings more experience to a young group.

Most significant signing: Poe, the former Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle, is huge not only in terms of size (6-foot-3, 335 pounds), but in what he does for the defense. The Panthers had to replace free-agent loss Star Lotulelei, whose role as the space-eater was a big part of the success of fellow tackle Kawann Short and the overall defense. This unit thrives on having a front four, particularly the tackles, penetrate and take up blocks so linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis can make tackles. Poe does that, plus adds an element of rushing the passer that Lotulelei didn’t.

Most significant loss: It would be easy to say left guard Andrew Norwell. But the Panthers never thought they could afford to keep the 2017 All-Pro selection, who got a five-year, $66.5 million deal from Jacksonville. They already had a plan in place to replace him with Taylor Moton, a 2017 second-round pick who came in to play right tackle. Cornerback Breeland, who failed his physical after agreeing to a three-year, $24 million deal, was the biggest loss. Breeland would have been a solid replacement for Daryl Worley, traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Smith.

Player they should have signed: Tight end Eric Ebron. The 10th pick of the 2014 draft probably was too expensive. He got a two-year deal from the Colts that could pay up to $15 million. But with three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen, 33, entering the last year of his contract and backup Ed Dickson signing with Seattle, Ebron had the potential to give Carolina another receiving threat at tight end and be a long-term replacement for Olsen. Sure, Ebron didn’t live up to his potential at Detroit, which released him. Drops were an issue. But he still has the athletic ability to be a big-time threat at a position that is crucial for Carolina’s offense.

Additions: Julius Peppers, DE; Torrey Smith, WR; Dontari Poe, DT; Jarius Wright, WR; Da'Norris Searcy, S; Ross Cockrell, CB; Jeremiah Sirles, OG; Graham Gano, P.

Substractions: Andrew Norwell, OG; Star Lotulelei, DT; Ed Dickson, TE; Jonathan Stewart, RB; Charles Johnson, DE; Kurt Coleman, FS; Daryl Worley, CB.

What’s next: Carolina still needs a backup tight end and backup quarterback. Derek Anderson, who has been Cam Newton's backup quarterback since 2011, remains unsigned and an option. But the longer the Panthers leave Anderson, 34, out there, the more likely he is to consider another team or not playing at all. Most of the focus moving forward is on the draft, where a defensive end, dynamic wide receiver and a safety could be viable early options.