David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer 41d

Carolina Panthers free-agency overview: Upgrades needed at QB and O-line

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers enter free agency coming off a 5-11 season in 2020 and have 17 unrestricted free agents.

Upgrading the quarterback position and rebuilding an offensive line that has only one starter under contract is the priority. Neither the owner, head coach nor general manager has endorsed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, opening the door for Carolina to go after a veteran, as they did in Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, or drafting one.

Stay tuned on Houston’s Deshaun Watson, who has asked for a trade.

Here’s what to expect from the Panthers when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Teddy Bridgewater, Will Grier, PJ Walker, Tommy Stevens

UFA: None

Game plan: Upgrade via trade, free agency or draft one at No. 8 overall. The Panthers offered the eighth pick, a fifth-round pick and Bridgewater for Stafford, so they’re serious in moving on from Bridgewater, who was 0-8 in games this past season where he had a chance to win or tie on the final possession. Watson would be the target in a trade, should he become available. If the eighth pick becomes the best option, Carolina could stay there and get one of the top four quarterbacks or trade back for additional picks and possibly get Alabama’s Mac Jones, who impressed the staff at the Senior Bowl.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Christian McCaffrey, Rodney Smith

UFA: Mike Davis, Alex Armah (FB)

Game plan: Likely add depth behind McCaffrey through the draft or free agency, with Davis likely to demand more than the team wants to spend. A player such as former Michigan back Chris Evans could be a good fit after impressing the Carolina staff at the Senior Bowl.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, Amara Darboh, Ventell Bryant, Omar Bayless, Marken Michel, Ishmael Hyman

UFA: Curtis Samuel, Pharoh Cooper

Game plan: The cap and the need to re-sign or franchise RT Taylor Moton makes it unlikely the Panthers keep Samuel, although due to recent cuts they have room to do it. So look for them to build around starters Anderson and Moore through free agency and the draft. The fact that Samuel does many of the same things McCaffrey does makes him expendable. They also have restricted free agents Brandon Zylstra and Keith Kirkwood, who likely will get an offer sheet.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Ian Thomas, Stephen Sullivan, Giovanni Ricci, Colin Thompson (exclusive-rights FA)

UFA: Chris Manhertz

Game plan: Thomas hasn’t fulfilled his potential to be a go-to receiver, so the Panthers are in the market via free agency or the draft. Manhertz is a solid blocker, so he could be a target to re-sign if the price is right. If Carolina sticks with Bridgewater at quarterback, it could go after Florida’s Kyle Pitts with the eighth pick. Hunter Henry could be a target in free agency.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Matt Paradis, Greg Little, Dennis Daley, Matt Kaskey, Sam Tecklenburg, Mike Horton, Aaron Monteiro

UFA: John Miller, Taylor Moton, Russell Okung, Tyler Larsen, Chris Reed, Michael Schofield

Game plan: Signing right tackle Moton to a long-term deal or using the franchise tag on him is the immediate priority. Paradis is the only starting lineman under contract, so this will be a big rebuilding project. Signing tackle Trent Scott, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet makes sense. Finding a left tackle either in free agency or the draft becomes the priority unless the team feels confident in Little, whose career has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency.

DEFENSIVE END

Under contract: Brian Burns, Yatur Gross-Matos, Austin Larkin

UFA: None

Game plan: Finding depth behind starters Burns and Gross-Matos. The release of Stephen Weatherly to clear $5.9 million in cap space opens the door for a young free agent with potential. Keeping restricted free agent Efe Obada, who has proven to be just as effective at tackle as end, seems likely.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Under contract: Derrick Brown, Zach Kerr, Bravvion Roy, Mike Panasiuk

UFA: None

Game plan: The decision to release Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short to create $8.6 million in cap space created the need for a pass-rushing tackle. The Panthers want to run more four-man fronts in 2021 and adding another tackle to play next to 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown is high on the list.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Shaq Thompson, Marquis Haynes, Jermaine Carter, Christian Miller, Sam Franklin Jr., Chris Orr, Jordan Mack, Clay Johnson, Daniel Bituli

UFA: Julian Stanford, Adarius Taylor, Tahir Whitehead

Game plan: Whitehead never lived up to expectations in replacing Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker, in terms of being a player who can make plays sideline to sideline. Carter got late-season praise from the staff, so he’s a possibility if Carolina can’t find that player in the draft. Adding an outside linebacker that would allow Jeremy Chinn to play more safety also is on the wish list.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Donte Jackson, Troy Pride Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver, Myles Hartsfield

UFA: Rasul Douglas, Corn Elder

Game plan: A lot of youth here. Re-signing Douglas, if the price is right, would be an easy fix. He became one of Matt Rhule’s favorites. Adding depth and possibly finding a future shutdown corner with a middle-round pick, as the team did with Josh Norman in 2012, would be the ideal solution.

SAFETY

Under contract: Juston Burris, Jeremy Chinn, Sean Chandler, Kenny Robinson

UFA: None

Game plan: Starting safety Tre Boston became a salary-cap casualty to clear $3.5 million in space. That makes it seem more likely Chinn plays more safety with the ability to move up, instead of playing linebacker with the capability of moving back. Burris easily can move into Boston’s spot as a free safety. Otherwise, adding depth is the priority.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Under contract: K Joey Slye, K Lirim Hajrullahu, P Joseph Charlton

UFA: LS J.J. Jansen

Game plan: The Panthers signed Slye to a one-year extension despite a so-so season. They’ll keep an eye out for possible replacements during camp, including in-house candidate Hajrullahu. Releasing Michael Palardy left Charlton with the punting duties. Jansen, 35, is one of the most consistent long snappers in the league. He could be kept if he agrees to a team-friendly deal.

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