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Panthers fans are enduring a fourth consecutive season watching playoff football without their team participating.
That must infuriate, sadden and discourage fans everywhere. It probably does the same to owner David Tepper. Though his recent silence makes that impossible to confirm. Unlike Panthers Twitter, which daily voices their displeasure with the current state of the franchise.
How does a frustrated fan base decompress and escape from their pro football purgatory? Like most Americans, by sitting on their couch or dropping in to their favorite watering hole for playoff football.
On Saturday, immerse yourself in the world of Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals, a small-market team that won its first home playoff game in 31 years last week. That night, the 49ers at Packers presents a potential “Last Dance” for Aaron Rodgers.
Then Sunday, don’t miss Batman versus Superman (Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes) in a Bills-Chiefs showdown at Kansas City. Before that, the GOAT Tom Brady and the Buccaneers take on Boy Wonder Sean McVay and the Rams.
It’s a fun slate of what should be superb football. Panthers fans can only fantasize about McVay, Brady, Mahomes, Allen, Rodgers and Burrow. However, there are several players they could watch who are upcoming free agents.
Let’s highlight a handful of playoff players who are competing this weekend but could help the Panthers next season.
Austin Corbett, guard, Rams
2022 projected contract: Four years, $35,009,750 ($8.7 million APY)
Corbett played a major role in running back Cam Akers compiling 95 total yards in the Rams’ wild-card victory over Arizona. Since leaving Cleveland after the Browns drafted him 33rd overall in the 2018 draft, Corbett has developed into a bruising run blocker and sound interior protector.
— NFL (@NFL) January 18, 2022
At only 26 years old, Corbett still has plenty of prime years ahead of him. Look for Corbett to help pop a screen for the Rams or pancake a second-level defender if he’s asked to pull on a power run.
He’s a capable athlete in space and uses his hands well while avoiding penalties. Corbett would fit well in Carolina playing either guard position.
Ryan Jensen, center, Tampa Bay
2022 projected contract: N/A
The Panthers are a tackle and two interior linemen away from solidifying their offensive line. Finding a trustworthy center is as important as landing a cornerstone left tackle.
Ryan Jensen should command what Chargers center Corey Linsley pulled last offseason. He signed a five-year, $62.5 million contract from Los Angeles, which paid him more than $26 million over the first two years.
Jensen can block any scheme. He’s best in a power-run game, using his physical downhill style to attack double teams or second-level linebackers. But he also moves laterally as a zone blocker or gap protector. Jensen would be a major upgrade at center and bring championship experience to what will likely be a young offensive line in Carolina.
Orlando Brown Jr., tackle, Kansas City
2022 projected contract: Five years, $116,584,700 ($23.3 million APY)
Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round of the 2018 draft, the Chiefs acquired Orlando Brown Jr. via trade last season in an attempt to remake their offensive line. They inherited his rookie contract and have not worked out an extension yet.
Kansas City traded four picks for Brown, which gives him tons of negotiating leverage. It would be a surprise (and perhaps malpractice) if the Chiefs let him walk for nothing. He’s a 6-foot-8, 360-pound left tackle and two-time Pro Bowler who should sign for top market money. Brown consistently wins with length and bulldozes second-level defenders in the run game.
Carolina does not have much of a shot signing Brown. He’d exhaust much (if not all) of their projected 2022 cap space, but he is the type of cornerstone tackle Carolina must find this offseason, one way or another.
Laken Tomlinson, guard, San Francisco
2022 projected contract: N/A
Tomlinson found a perfect home with the 49ers. Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme maximized Tomlinson for his zone-blocking run strengths.
It would behoove Carolina’s next offensive coordinator to install a wide-zone scheme tied to a play-action passing attack. Tomlinson projects as a perfect plug-and-play option if the Panthers offense becomes what coach Matt Rhule said it will be.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tomlinson allowed pressure on only 3.8% of pass-rush snaps this season, ranking 16th-best mark among qualifying guards. He allowed two sacks and graded out above 70 through 18 games.
Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Kansas City
2022 projected contract: Three years, $46,155,069 ($15.3 million APY)
Tyrann Mathieu is a do-it-all safety who disrupts passing offenses as well as patrolling the line of scrimmage. He’ll be 30 next season but has not shown any signs of regression.
His coverage instincts routinely keep him around the football. Mathieu expertly studies offensive tendencies and disrupts passing concepts at all three planes of the field. It’s unlikely the Chiefs don’t bring him back. But no run lasts forever, and the Chiefs are nearing a point where luxury pieces like Mathieu may become too expensive.
Pairing Mathieu with Jeremy Chinn would give Carolina one of the best safety duos in football. With a projected $15 million salary, Mathieu will be too expensive. However, if he’s available and his market doesn’t prove as rich then the Panthers should be interested.
Jessie Bates III, safety, Cincinnati
2022 projected contract: Five years, $72,444,505 ($14.4 million APY)
The Panthers will place top priority on improving the offensive line and quarterback this offseason. But they also need a safety opposite Chinn, someone who can patrol center field and drive on deep footballs.
Cincinnati did not extend Bates last offseason and instead let him play through his initial four-year rookie deal. He regressed this year after coming off a career 2020 season. Pro Football Focus graded him at 90 overall last season. His grade dropped into the low 60s this year. Still, his skill set is exactly what Carolina needs.
Chinn thrives near the line of scrimmage. His skills near the ball or in press coverage against opposing tight ends are unique. His perfect complement is a ball-hawking safety behind him, capable of covering open grass from a one-high shell.
Bates may not be the exact target but fans can watch him and envision the type of safety Carolina needs.
De’Vondre Campbell, linebacker, Green Bay
2022 projected contract: N/A
Campbell presents affordable, middle-class value compared to the other players on this list. He is coming off a one-year, $2 million deal with Green Bay where he plays an important off-ball linebacker role for the Packers’ improved defense this season. He has proven to be one of the best linebackers in football this season, earning All-Pro honors.
He’ll be tested against the downhill running style of the 49ers. Campbell could increase his offseason payday by making key tackles against Deebo Samuel, a feat few defenders have consistently done.
His strength is attacking the run. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so against San Francisco. At 6-4, Campbell is built for modern football. He runs sideline-to-sideline well and impressed in coverage after facing 75 targets. He allowed an 86.8 passer rating and forced two interceptions.
Keep an eye on Campbell. He’ll be around the ball a lot Saturday night.
What we learned
We’ll see how aggressive the Panthers are in free agency. General manager Scott Fitterer will have to be creative with the salary cap. That’s where director of player negotiations and salary cap manager Samir Suleiman comes in. He helped dig Carolina out of a $51 million dead-cap hell two years ago and will have to make his magic happen again this offseason.
The Panthers have a lot of important holes to fill throughout their roster. Some viable options are playing critical roles this weekend.