The Carolina Panthers were party to the biggest trade of the offseason — at least until the Jets and Packers get their acts together — and have added a number of new players to the roster in free agency, including some stellar bargains. That will help the Panthers’ free agency grades, but there are other factors to consider.
Mostly, they’ve signed solid players at solid prices, making their missteps all the more egregious. There’s a wide-open NFC South, and it feels like they’re letting an opportunity to grab it slip through their hands. We grade all the moves they’ve made to get to that point.
Overall Carolina Panthers Free Agency Grades
The Panthers have been aggressive about getting what they want in free agency. They knew that they entered free agency as a team with a number of holes at more than just quarterback and some important players hitting the open market. As a method of resolving those problems — through trade and signings — they have been a bit hit or miss.
The trade was largely positive, and some of their impact signings have been good, but not great. As they go down the roster in importance, the moves get a bit worse, and that hurts their overall grade a small amount.
Trade for First Overall Pick
The most valuable asset in sports is a good quarterback on a rookie contract, and the Panthers made sure that they found a path there. According to multiple reports, they haven’t fully settled on a signal-caller and are willing to trade down if they like multiple players at the position — a smart move that should let them gather more capital in support of their new quarterback.
The trade lost the Panthers a key player in WR DJ Moore, who would have been invaluable in supporting a rookie quarterback, and left them lacking resources that could fill that void. The pick values for the first overall pick are generally good, but in a draft class with so many top-level quarterbacks slated to go high, there should be a small discount on early picks until the QBs are all spoken for.
Even after accounting for the value that a first-overall pick at quarterback provides, it was a bit of an overpay and sets up the Panthers’ eventual starting passer to fail.
Miles Sanders Deal Gives Panthers Running Back Contract Sweet Spot
The Panthers grabbed a good running back who has had success as a lead runner in a committee system and at about the right price at just over $6 million a year. Sanders is entering his age-26 season and has some good years ahead of him, even when compared to other running backs who have earned a second contract — a pretty poor track record.
Sanders doesn’t have as much mileage on him as those other backs and shows general capability in every area of play — running inside and outside, catching passes, and pass protecting.
He’s not elite in any particular category and has been helped with the addition of a running quarterback, but he’s solid if inconsistent with his vision, pad level, strength, and ball security.
Panthers Improve Multiple Positions With Safety Vonn Bell
It helps the Panthers that they’ve added a good strong safety with a history of playmaking, but it helps even more that they get to play Jeremy Chinn more at linebacker, where he’s better than at strong safety.
Bell can play any role and do it reasonably well, whether that’s as a slot defender, free safety, or a blitzer — though he excels primarily as an in-the-box player and should be able to play there for Carolina.
He upgrades their run defense and pass coverage, though they will need a better answer at free safety besides Xavier Woods. His deal is pretty fair at $7.5 million a year, but the first-year cap savings come with a tough 2024 number at $10.9 million.
Bradley Bozeman Re-Signing Establishes Stability
The market for a starting center in the NFL is bizarre. The prices can range from 2.3 percent of the cap — $5.3 million a year this year — to 7.5 percent ($16.9 million). With that in mind, the Panthers were able to re-sign a functional player in Bradley Bozeman to the lower end of that market, meaning that they earned a bargain at just 2.7 percent of this year’s cap.
$6 million a year is a good price to pay for an average-to-above-average center like Bozeman, who plays with a lot of strength and attitude without being too much of a liability as a pass protector.
Veteran Talent Hayden Hurst Offers Limited Upside at Risky Price
The Panthers didn’t enter free agency with a starting-quality tight end and exit free agency with one. That’s about the size of the Hayden Hurst signing — not too exciting without much upside, but a clear upgrade over what they had.
He’s a solid blocker, a little bit better than that as a receiver, and allows them to be flexible in their formation usage on the field and in their draft strategy in April. At $7 million a year — and a 2024 cap charge spike that they can’t avoid — it’s a bit pricey.
Carolina Adds Veteran Receiving Talent With Adam Thielen
Signing a fair-market deal for $8 million a year, Adam Thielen will enter the season as probably one of the best complementary receivers in the NFL. He didn’t produce as much in Minnesota, but he consistently got open and caught the ball when targeted.
Still, there are concerns he may have hit a cliff and is aging out. Without a primary receiver for him to work off of, it’s difficult to project Thielen helping out the offense too much, even if he’s a great receiver at this price in the abstract.
Shy Tuttle Contract a Mistake
After years of investing first-round picks in the interior defensive line, the Panthers decided to take a shot in free agency. Unfortunately, Shy Tuttle’s body of work is not remarkable, and even a relatively modest $6.5 million APY contract for him is a big overpay.
Tuttle is not a pressure producer and is only a small upgrade as a run-stopping nose. With Derrick Brown already on the roster, there’s not a big role that Tuttle fills — Brown is a very good nose and should probably stay there.
It’s a confusing move — not only is Tuttle very unlikely to ever produce enough to justify the contract, but he’s also a particularly poor fit for a Panthers team that needs more interior pass-rush talent to complement Brown.
Andy Dalton’s Signing Proves Bargains Are Still Available at Quarterback
The Panthers signaled their clear intention to draft their quarterback of the future with their move up to the first pick of the NFL draft.
In order to maximize their options — either getting a quarterback ready to play in Week 1 or one that they can sit and develop — they needed to sign a bridge QB who could be the primary starter to begin the year or provide reasonable camp competition for a ready-made rookie. There are very few of those available in the NFL, and Andy Dalton is one of them.
Being a bridge quarterback can be difficult, but Dalton has shown he can do that just as well as he can spot-start and maintain a team’s winning percentage through injury. At $5 million a year, that’s nearly impossible to find — backups are making $7-15 million a year regularly, and Dalton will be more than a backup. It’s a great signing.
Justin McCray Signing Is the Right Idea, Wrong Player
Sometimes teams need to sign replacement-level players so that they have enough depth during the season to absorb injury or, at the very least, provide camp competition. Justin McCray is about there, though his history of play is a bit worse than most backup guards.
So even though he signed for a small amount in order to fulfill a depth role, it’s not a smart way to go about business. The Panthers could shoot for a higher floor or a higher ceiling without giving up too much more.
DeShawn Williams Signing Is the Right Idea, Right Player
As far as depth signings for rotational players go, DeShawn Williams is one of the better ones. His pressure rate isn’t spectacular, but it’s better than Tuttle’s, and he’ll be expected to do less than someone like Tuttle. He can produce in spots without forcing a huge downgrade, and he has experience in Ejiro Evero’s defensive system. At his deal, that’s not bad.