The Carolina Panthers‘ offensive transformation continued on Friday when they signed free agent wide receiver DJ Chark to a one-year deal, adding the former Detroit Lion to a stable of talent that now includes Miles Sanders, Adam Thielen, and Hayden Hurst.
In case you’ve forgotten, the Panthers also hold the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Carolina will select their franchise quarterback next month, and the club now has an impressive offensive talent base to surround that rookie signal-caller.
Carolina Panthers Bolster Offense by Signing DJ Chark
The Panthers’ offensive depth chart will look almost entirely different in 2023 — and that’s probably a good thing, given that Carolina finished 20th in scoring and yards per play and 27th in offensive DVOA.
None of the quarterbacks that made starts for Carolina last season — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and P.J. Walker — are still on the roster. D’Onta Foreman, the Panthers’ leading rusher last year, signed with the Chicago Bears. And former No. 1 wideout DJ Moore was an integral part of the trade that allowed Carolina to pick up the first overall pick from the Bears.
Giving up Moore was necessary for the Panthers to position themselves for a long-term quarterback option, but moving on from the 25-year-old playmaker left Carolina’s receiving corps in dire straits. With Moore gone, Terrace Marshall Jr. and Laviska Shenault — neither of whom has been effective at the NFL level — projected as the Panthers’ top receiving options.
Instead, Carolina began to revamp its pass catchers by signing Thielen to a three-year, $25 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. Admittedly, that’s a lot of guarantees for a 33-year-old wideout whose yards per route run have declined every season since his 2017 breakout campaign. But Thielen will offer the Panthers a veteran presence in the slot and serve as a middle-of-the-field option.
Chark is a nearly perfect complement for Thielen’s short-to-intermediate profile. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Chark is a burner and a ball-winner. He struggled with injuries again in 2022, but Chark set a new career high with 16.7 yards per reception. His production over the final seven weeks of the season would have translated to a 56-981-5 line over a full 17-game slate.
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Hurst, who spent last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, is another intriguing option for the Panthers after signing a three-year, $21.75 million pact. A first-round pick in the 2018 draft, Hurst has never lived up to his draft billing, but he’s a solid, middle-tier tight end who could push for 50 receptions in Carolina.
And let’s not forget about Sanders, who will join the Panthers after putting up a career season for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2022. Sanders won’t offer much in the passing game, but he’s relatively affordable at just $6.35 million per year, and his addition will likely prevent Carolina from using an early-round pick on a running back.
The Panthers ranked second in expected points added per rush after trading Christian McCaffrey last season, which speaks to the productivity of Carolina’s offensive line. Fortunately, the club’s entire front five will return after center Bradley Bozeman re-upped this offseason, although right guard Austin Corbett is recovering from a late-season ACL injury.
“If you’re gonna go with a young quarterback, you have to have a running back, you have to have the tight end, and you have to have the receivers,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said this month. “We feel like we have the offensive line, and we have cemented the starting five.”
Frank Reich Has Assembled an Impressive Panthers Coaching Staff
All the offensive talent in the world wouldn’t matter much if the Panthers didn’t have the right coaching in place, but new Carolina head coach Frank Reich has put together an excellent staff since being hired in January.
“The one thing that you learn is that every position on that staff is so critically important, No. 1,” Reich told the team’s website in February. “No. 2, you’re going to feel rushed. So you have to force yourself to be patient. But I always believe in hiring the person first. Hire the right person, the right character.”
Although Reich will call the offensive plays for Carolina, he added former Los Angeles Rams assistant Thomas Brown as his offensive coordinator, who could theoretically bring some of Sean McVay’s offensive concepts to the Panthers. Senior assistant Jim Caldwell won a Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator and has a 62-50 record as an NFL head coach.
Quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and assistant head coach/running backs Duce Staley have both received head-coaching interviews in the past, while new receivers coach Shawn Jefferson is incredibly well-respected around the NFL.
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On defense, Ejiro Evero is likely one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the league — and he should be after drawing head-coaching interest this offseason. Reich also hired longtime NFL coach Dom Capers as a senior assistant and added former Jacksonville Jaguars coordinator Todd Wash to coach Carolina’s defensive line.
Reich resisted the typical urge of NFL head coaches to hire their friends and former colleagues. Cronyism and nepotism are rampant in the NFL, but Reich instead seems to have hired the best possible staff (and owner David Tepper’s deep pockets likely helped with that effort).
The Panthers rank second in the league with more than $28 million in cap space, so they can have the ability to make even more additions. And although they sacrificed several draft picks to move up to No. 1 overall, Carolina still has enough selections to further improve its defense.
We’ve seen teams — especially those with rookie quarterbacks — revamp their entire roster in one offseason before, and Carolina could be the next club to make a significant turnaround in a single year. Given the weakness of the NFC South, a playoff berth looks like a realistic target for the 2023 Panthers.