NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
The Carolina Panthers are running the fine balance between looking to upgrade the quarterback position and keeping Teddy Bridgewater happy if he remains the starter in 2021. Much depends on whether Houston decides to trade Deshaun Watson. Regardless, the Panthers enter free agency needing to fill needs at left tackle, both guard spots, tight end and cornerback. They’ve created about $30 million in cap space, but remain adamant they’ll be selective and are more than “one player away" from being a Super Bowl contender.
Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Carolina Panthers, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Haason Reddick, linebacker
Reddick agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal.
What it means: The Panthers have upped their pressure game with an outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback. Reddick, who played for Carolina coach Matt Rhule at Temple, had 12.5 sacks for Arizona last season to go with 16 QB hits, six forced fumbles and 15 tackles for loss. With end-OLB Brian Burns on the other side, defensive coordinator Phil Snow will keep offenses off balance with multiple formations. He'll also be able to play 2020 second-round pick Jeremy Chinn at safety with the ability to move up to OLB versus last year when he played OLB with the flexibility to move back.
What's the risk: Not a lot.The Panthers still need a few more big men inside, but with the addition of Denzel Perryman to play middle linebacker and now Reddick to play outside, they've added speed and flexibility. Reddick had five sacks and three forced fumbles in one game last season against the Giants. He also can play inside linebacker, although his first three years at that was deemed somewhat of a failure.
A.J. Bouye, cornerback
Bouye joins the Panthers, terms not disclosed.
What it means: The Panthers now have two veteran cornerbacks to battle it out opposite Donte Jackson for a starting spot, making it less likely they will use the No. 8 pick on that position. They previously signed Rashaan Melvin to a one-year deal. Bouye hasn't put up big numbers since he had six interceptions during the 2017 season with Jacksonville, as the Jaguars made the AFC Championship Game. But his 69 career starts will be valuable to a secondary that has little starting experience. Jackson has been limited to 39 starts in three seasons due to injuries.
What's the risk: Bouye played only seven games for Denver last season due to injuries and a six-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He will serve the final two games of the suspension to start the 2021 season. He's had only two interceptions the past two seasons, so he's not exactly on the rise in terms of performance. If the Panthers eliminate corner as an option in the first round of the draft because of his presence, he could be a very short-term solution.
Denzel Perryman, linebacker
Perryman agreed to a two-year deal.
What it means: The Panthers have a replacement for Tahir Whitehead at middle linebacker and are moving closer to the type of player Luke Kuechly was before retiring after eight seasons. Not having a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in the middle was an issue last season, which is why Whitehead is a free agent again. Perryman has displayed that capability as a run-stuffer who also can get deep in pass coverage. The 2015 second-round pick out of Miami is only 28, so he should be coming into his prime.
What's the risk: Injuries have limited Perryman to playing only 69 of a possible 96 games since 2015, so that has to be a concern. He missed the final seven games in 2018 after undergoing knee surgery and missed the first eight games in 2017 after undergoing ankle surgery. He started only six games this past season while dealing with back issues.
Cameron Erving, offensive tackle
Erving agreed to a two-year, $10 million deal with $8 million guaranteed.
What it means: The Panthers believe Erving, a first-round pick out of Florida State in 2015, has a chance to be the starter at left tackle. He can play guard and center in a crunch, which is a bonus if things don't work out. However, that Carolina invested here means they aren't confident Greg Little will take charge at left tackle following two injury-plagued seasons after being selected in the second round of the 2019 draft out of Ole Miss.
What's the risk: That Erving really isn't an upgrade at a key position and the fact he's is in a prove-it mode this late in his career is concerning. In 2019 with the Chiefs, he had a 44.8 Pro Football Focus grade, which ranked second-to-last among all offensive tackles. Granted, the Panthers didn't spend a ton on Erving, particularly if he winds up as a LT. If he doesn't, it's not such a great deal.
John Miller, guard
Miller agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: The offensive line is starting to look solid with Miller returning to his starting RG spot. That leaves free-agent signee Pat Elflein free to battle for the left guard spot. The only real question left is will Cam Erving or Greg Little become a solid left tackle?
What's the risk: None at all, since Miller was one of Carolina's most consistent linemen last season, starting 14 games on the right side. He tested the free-agent market and opted to stay with the Panthers, where he had an overall grade of 61 by PFF.
Pat Elflein, guard
Elflein agreed to a three-year, $13.5 million deal.
What it means: Carolina is serious about spending money to rebuild the offensive line. The Panthers have a big need at both guard positions, particularly the right side where John Miller became a free agent. Elflein could fit in there or play the left side if Dennis Daley doesn't work out. He started the final six games at left guard last season. Regardless, Carolina gets position flexibility out of a player who also played center as a fifth-year senior at Ohio State.
What's the risk: Not much. They knew what they had in John Miller and obviously feel this is an upgrade since they didn't re-sign him before free agency began. The only risk is that Elflein doesn't play up to Miller's level, which was solid last season.
Morgan Fox, defensive end
Morgan agreed to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, with $7 million guaranteed.
What it means: Getting more pressure from a true defensive end in a 4-3 scheme at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds. It's hard to get much attention when you're on the Rams' defensive front with DT Aaron Donald, but Fox pulled his weight last season with six sacks in only two starts. Add that to the addition of Haason Reddick (12.5 sacks in '20) and Carolina already has added more sacks in free agency than its top two pass-rushers -- DE Brian Burns (9.0), DE Efe Obada (5.5) -- got last season.
What's the risk: Fox wasn't a full-time starter with the Rams and there's a chance he may not be here depending on whether Carolina opens in a 4-3 or 3-4 and the progression of DE Yetur Gross-Matos. How much of his sack production last season had to do with having great players such as Donald around him could be a factor as well. He went undrafted in 2016 out of Colorado State University Pueblo.
Dan Arnold, tight end
Arnold agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal with the Panthers.
What it means: The Panthers add a veteran tight end to team with Ian Thomas, one that is familiar with offensive coordinator Joe Brady's system having been with Brady at New Orleans in 2018. Arnold is more of a receiving threat than Chris Manhertz, who moved on to Jacksonville in free agency. He caught 31 passes for 438 yards and four touchdowns for Arizona last season. Thomas and Manhertz combined for 26 catches and one touchdown last season.
What's the risk: Nothing huge for the price, but it doesn't mean the Panthers have found their big-time playmakers at tight end. They'll will likely look for one in the draft.
DaQuan Jones, defensive tackle
Jones signed a one-year deal, terms not disclosed.
What it means: The Panthers have added a veteran presence inside to play with 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown. Jones is considered more of a run-stopper than Brown is, but he did have three sacks last season. He also started 16 games in five of his six seasons with the Titans, so that's an upgrade in experience after moving on from Kawann Short and Zach Kerr.
What's the risk: Very little, except Carolina's biggest need inside is for a pass rusher like Short was. Perhaps Brown will develop into that.
Rashaan Melvin, cornerback
Melvin agreed to terms on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Panthers have veteran corner experience to potentially play opposite Donte Jackson. Melvin started 12 games in 2019 for Detroit and has 40 career starts. He opted out last season at Jacksonville due to COVID-19 concerns. His best season came with Indianapolis in 2017 when he had three of his four career picks in 10 starts. For a secondary that lacked experience, he checks a box.
What's the risk: The Panthers will be the ninth team Melvin has played for, including Miami twice, so there's a reason he's not sticking around. He's had several seasons end on injured reserve and as stated above opted out last season due to the coronavirus. Inconsistency and injuries have marred his career, and he's 31, so closer to the end than the beginning. This feels like a stopgap. But he has the size (6-foot-2) the Panthers are seeking.
Frankie Luvu, linebacker
Luvu agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: The Panthers appear to be gearing up to play a lot in the 3-4 scheme with additions such as Luvu, best fitted as an OLB in that formation. Haason Reddick, arguably their top signee in free agent, also is best fit to play OLB in a 3-4. Luvu was added for depth, but he adds pass-rush ability DC Phil Snow is loading up on.
What's the risk: No risk for a backup at a low cost.
Darius Clark, running back
Clark agreed to terms on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Panthers add another body to the running back room in another likely sign the team won't bring back Mike Davis, who was a nice replacement when Christian McCaffrey was injured last season. Clark was discovered at a recent camp for free agents. He says on Facebook he's been training for 809 days for this moment, so the last time he played was at Newberry College, a small school in South Carolina.
What's the risk: The risk isn't in Clark, it's in not having an adequate replacement if McCaffrey is out for extended time, as he was for 13 games in 2020.
David Moore, wide receiver
Moore agreed to a two-year deal.
What it means: Moore is a possible No. 3 receiver who is solid in the red zone. He may not be Curtis Samuel, who signed with the Washington Football Team, but Moore had six touchdowns on 35 catches last season and has 13 touchdown catches the past three seasons. The 2017 seventh-round pick has made some big catches the past few years and adds more experience behind DJ Moore and Robby Anderson.
What's the risk: Not much since he won't be counted on to carry the top two spots. Seattle thought it had a sleeper in 2017 and the Panthers may have added one in free agency.
Micah Simon, wide receiver
Simon signed with the Panthers after going undrafted in 2020.
What it means: That the Panthers saw something in Simon that they believed could help the team while at BYU's pro day watching QB Zach Wilson. He will add depth and speed as a former track star with the ability to stretch defenses on sweeps and reverses, in addition to being a receiver.
What's the risk: Not much. More depth than anything from a player who was moderately productive in college.