Ranking Panthers’ offseason roster needs: Wide receiver, edge rusher are high on list

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Following a disastrous 2-15 season in Carolina, it’s clear the Panthers are in desperate need of reinforcements at Bank of America Stadium.

As the team’s new brain trust — led by general manager Dan Morgan, head coach Dave Canales and executive vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis — gets settled, a primary offseason task for the personnel department will be self-scouting. The Panthers need to figure out their incumbent roster’s strengths and weaknesses.

Panthers new head coach Dave Canales, right, listens to Panthers GM Dan Morgan during the introduction of the new coach Thursday morning, Feb. 01, 2024.
Panthers new head coach Dave Canales, right, listens to Panthers GM Dan Morgan during the introduction of the new coach Thursday morning, Feb. 01, 2024.

The truth is that every NFL team has needs entering the offseason. But the Panthers have a lot more glaring deficiencies than the average squad.

Here is a ranking of the Panthers’ top eight needs entering the offseason:

1. Wide receiver

The Panthers need to surround second-year quarterback Bryce Young with competent weapons. While Adam Thielen surpassed 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards last season, he was the only consistently effective outlet for Young during a forgettable rookie year. Fellow 2023 draft pick Jonathan Mingo struggled to find consistency and the end zone during his initial campaign. With new leadership in place, it’ll be interesting to see how last year’s second-round pick is used.

With DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. headed toward free agency, and Terrace Marshall Jr.’s future uncertain, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Panthers to be ultra aggressive in attacking this need this offseason.

While Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals and Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the latter has ties to Canales — are considered the top impending free agents at the position, they may not hit the market with franchise tag possibilities. If neither player gets to take the plunge into free agency, the Panthers could look to add multiple receivers to the mix.

Morgan was in Buffalo when the Bills drafted Gabe Davis, and new wide receivers coach Rob Moore worked with Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for four years in Tennessee. Davis could be seen as a major red-zone upgrade and a long-term X, while Westbrook-Ikhine would be competition for Mingo and enhanced depth.

Also, look for the team to address the position at some point in the draft.

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2. Offensive line

The entire line is named as a major need because significant change is coming to the group. New offensive line coach Joe Gilbert needs to figure out strategies at multiple positions as the offensive line struggled mightily last year.

Gilbert has no ties to left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, and the new line boss could view him as a better fit elsewhere. With Taylor Moton performing admirably at right tackle, Ekwonu could, in theory, be moved into guard after a forgettable second season. That potential move would shake up a couple of jobs on the line as the Panthers don’t have a surefire backup plan at left tackle on their roster. Left guard Brady Christensen, who missed all but one game last season, could be an option, even if that might underwhelm onlookers.

Center Bradley Bozeman is likely to retain his center job, barring some new competition. Right guard Austin Corbett had a strong first season in Carolina in 2022, but he is now coming off back-to-back knee surgeries. Corbett’s health and Bozeman’s inconsistency last season should make the leadership group want to upgrade the interior, even if only for depth pieces.

The Panthers won’t have a ton of options at left tackle in free agency, as good or great tackles rarely hit the market. But they could look to upgrade the guard spots in the mid-tier of the class.

Young enduring more growing pains from the offensive line in Year 2 could be counterproductive. But selecting a potential starting lineman with the 33rd overall pick — the Panthers’ first selection in the upcoming draft — shouldn’t be ruled out.

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3. Edge rusher

The Panthers’ top three edge rushers are set to become free agents in March. And while Brian Burns is likely to receive the franchise tag, the group’s outlook is still somewhat bleak.

The Panthers could try to sign Yetur Gross-Matos and Marquis Haynes to short-term deals for the sake of continuity after both battled injuries last season. With defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero expected to return, Gross-Matos’ versatile usage can continue, if the front office elects to bring him back.

DJ Johnson, last year’s third-round pick, needs to make a major jump in production in Year 2. Amare Barno and Eku Leota will be competing for jobs in training camp.

Pro Bowl pass rusher Danielle Hunter could hit the open market and avoid the franchise tag from the Minnesota Vikings. While Hunter will turn 30 in October, he’s coming off a 16.5-sack season. He’s produced 27 combined sacks in the past two seasons. Other, more youthful (and affordable) options could include Bryce Huff of the New York Jets, Chase Young of the San Francisco 49ers, and Dorance Armstrong of the Dallas Cowboys.

Like the two higher needs on this list, the draft is also another logical avenue for a double-dip upgrade strategy.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, left, fights to stay on his feet as Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns, right, looks to make the sack during first-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, left, fights to stay on his feet as Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns, right, looks to make the sack during first-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023.

4. Cornerback

The Panthers have a lot of tough decisions to make at cornerback. Donte Jackson could be a cap casualty ($5.9 million in savings), and Jaycee Horn’s fifth-year option looms large for the new brass. Both players have battled notable injuries, and Jackson’s uneven 2023 will need to be thoroughly dissected before a decision is made on him.

Beyond Jackson and Horn, the depth chart lacks clarity. C.J. Henderson is likely to head elsewhere in free agency, while nickel corner Troy Hill is headed to the open market as well. Hill could return on a short-term deal given his solid 2023 performance and ties to the defensive staff. Young cornerbacks Dicaprio Bootle and D’Shawn Jamison received notable playing time on special teams and defense last season but will almost assuredly see improved competition this summer.

The Panthers need to come up with a long-term strategy for cornerback. If Jackson is out, they need a tag-team partner for Horn, who could also potentially replace him as the No. 1 corner if the former first-round pick continues to struggle with injuries. The draft would make sense as the avenue for that outlook. However, if they wanted a simple replacement for Henderson, Adoree’ Jackson of the New York Giants and Dane Jackson of the Bills could be options on the open market.

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5. Tight end

The dropoff between the primary four positional needs and the secondary four positional needs is a matter of perspective.

The Panthers clearly need to get more production out of the tight end position, and Hayden Hurst’s future is worth monitoring. Hurst missed most of the second half of last season with a serious head injury. Prior to entering concussion protocol, he wasn’t particularly productive. The Panthers should upgrade his starting spot this season, regardless of whether he’s on the roster or not. Hurst’s potential release would save $52,156 ahead of June 1, but that move would also lead to $9.86 million in dead money sitting on the cap.

Tommy Tremble appears to be a player on the rise. While he’s had some inconsistency as a pass catcher, he’s a terrific blocker at the position. His emergence last season could lead to the departure of well-paid veteran Ian Thomas. Releasing Thomas would lead to a cap savings of $2.26 million. Stephen Sullivan was immediately re-signed after the 2023 season ended, and he factors into the competition at the position.

While the Panthers have an OK base at the position, adding a cost-effective upgrade in free agency seems reasonable. Colby Parkinson overlapped with Canales in Seattle for three years and could be a reasonably priced addition on the open market. Austin Hooper of the Las Vegas Raiders and Dalton Schultz of the Houston Texans could be more expensive options.

Carolina Panthers tight end Hayden Hurst, center, during the team’s Fan Fest practice at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday, August 2, 2023.
Carolina Panthers tight end Hayden Hurst, center, during the team’s Fan Fest practice at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday, August 2, 2023.

6. Defensive line

The Panthers have a game-wrecker upfront in Derrick Brown. But outside of the Pro Bowl lineman, the group lacks depth and top-tier talent.

Shy Tuttle was fine in his role as a nose tackle, and he should return under Evero this season. LaBryan Ray and Nick Thurman were pleasant surprises as depth pieces, but the Panthers should actively try to get better depth around Brown. DeShawn Williams is headed for free agency, but he could return on another 1-year deal as a favorite of Evero.

The Panthers can probably sign a low-cost veteran for a starting competition and then turn to the draft to improve the position. While signing the likes of Christian Wilkins, Chris Jones, D.J. Reader and/or Leonard Williams sounds terrific, it’s unclear whether the Panthers think that spending at the position is essential, especially given the strategy from last offseason with the same personnel department.

Javon Kinlaw of the 49ers and Grover Stewart of the Colts could be possible secondary market targets.

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7. Inside linebacker

The severity of this need is incredibly dependent on the respective outlooks of Shaq Thompson and Frankie Luvu.

Thompson is coming off a brutal, nearly season-long leg injury, while Luvu is set to test free agency.

If both return, this position group only needs upgraded depth. If one bounces, this need probably shoots up into the top half of the list. If both leave (which seems improbable), this need becomes no lower than third on this countdown.

The Panthers had their struggles against the run last season as a turnstile of defenders were paired with Luvu for most of the campaign. Luvu is a top-tier blitzer and the heart of the defense, so his free agency is notable. Luvu will have an interesting market as a man without a natural position, but the defensive coaching staff needs to bang the table for his return.

Cutting Thompson would only be doable from a post-June 1 perspective. And even then, it would create a major hole in a position that really isn’t very pleasant to begin with. But Thompson needs to show he can still play at the level he did before injury. He looked like a renewed talent last summer, so perhaps he can bounce back quickly in a familiar scheme.

If Luvu or Thompson were to ship off, Cody Barton of the Washington Commanders and Jordyn Brooks of the Seahawks could be reasonable replacements in free agency. If both return, look for a Day 3 pick to be added to the mix.

Panthers running back Miles Sanders, far right, looks for a break in the line during the game against the Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, December 16, 2023.
Panthers running back Miles Sanders, far right, looks for a break in the line during the game against the Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, December 16, 2023.

8. Running back

Coming off a miserable first season in Carolina, Miles Sanders’ contract will make him extremely hard to cut or trade this offseason.

With Sanders likely to return to the Panthers with a clean slate on the coaching staff, look for him to compete with Chuba Hubbard, who should have a leg up in the offseason battle this year. Hubbard showed he can handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield last year, and the Panthers could opt for a true rotation this season based on the strengths of their two lead backs.

The Panthers are likely to bring back exclusive rights free agent Raheem Blackshear, despite his inconsistent touches over the last two years. Blackshear, last year’s primary kick returner, is likely to face offseason competition, especially if the Panthers only want to keep three running backs. Blackshear could have a similar role to Chase Edmonds under Canales. But the new head coach needs to determine whether he’d prefer a power back over a shifty one in that third role.

Either way, running back will probably be a target position on Day 3 of the draft or in undrafted free agency.