- Without a No. 1 draft pick in 2024, Carolina will need to add via free agency.
- The best way to protect Bryce Young is a good offensive line and a strong run game.
- If Burns gets the franchise tag, Carolina can pair him with another elite EDGE.
The Carolina Panthers were the worst team in the NFL in 2023, finishing with a dismal 2-15 record. Every other team won at least four games.
Normally, a team in this situation could at least rely on an imminent injection of talent from its upcoming No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, but Carolina traded its pick to Chicago last year, so it doesn’t even have that. It’s virtually assured to be the lowest-rated team in next season’s NFL betting markets.
If Carolina wants to be competitive in 2024, it’ll have to build by spending money in free agency, bringing on veteran players to right the ship. And here’s where the Panthers find their only real silver lining – with the team entering only the second year of the Bryce Young rookie contract, there is plenty of cap money left to spend in Pantherland.
With that in mind, here are five free agency targets that the Panthers should consider targeting in free agency:
Tyron Smith (OT)
The best way to give Bryce Young a chance in 2024 is to build out a good offensive line and a strong run game. That means adding big guys.
Taylor Moton, the right tackle, is an iron man who grades out well (moreso in pass protection) and hasn’t missed a game in years. Left tackle Ickey Ekwonu is a different story, allowing 44 total pressures last season. Perhaps it’s still too early to tell, but the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft just may not have it.
Enter Tyron Smith, whose skills at left tackle are virtually undisputed. Smith would immediately stabilize a position of weakness for Carolina and reduce the chances of injury for a smaller quarterback like Young. (Ekwonu could potentially move to an interior position or else just play a backup or utility role.)
If past decisions are any indication, the veteran left tackle seems content to take team-friendly deals in Dallas. Perhaps if Carolina threw a ton of money at him, they could shake up his current sense of priorities.
Robert Hunt (OL)
Yes, I am very serious about upgrading Carolina’s offensive line. Is it sexy? No. Can it protect Young and lead to a decent running game that can win a mediocre conference? You bet.
With that in mind, I’m looking at former Dolphins lineman Robert Hunt.
Hunt screams versatility. He can run block. He can pass protect. He can swing between tackle and guard. He can plug holes and help create a strong offensive line. And he’s testing free agency (rather than immediately resigning with the Dolphins) because he knows his body of work should command good money on the open market.
Josh Allen (EDGE)
Let’s flip to the other side of the line of scrimmage for a moment. Carolina wasn’t good at much in 2023, but arguably the strength of the team was the defensive backfield. Spending some money a little closer to the football could really give the Panthers a chance to be quite good on defense.
The growing assumption in the NFL is that Carolina will use its franchise tag to retain the rights to Brian Burns for 2024 if the two parties can’t work out a deal. That keeps the stud pass rusher in Charlotte for another season.
So, how about pairing Burns with a great foil on the other side? Josh Allen – he of the Jacksonville Jaguars, mind you – posted career-high numbers for quarterback pressures (90) and sacks (19) in 2023, which was a contract year for him.
If he goes to market, a team with cap resources is going to back up the Brinks truck. Why not Carolina?
Odell Beckham Jr. (WR)
You may not be surprised to hear that Carolina had one of the five worst passing attacks in the NFL in 2023, according to PFF. There are a few different reasons for that, but one of the biggest is that Carolina’s receiver corps, as presently constructed, doesn’t exactly inspire fear in the hearts of its enemies.
The problem gets even worse this offseason, as No. 2 receiver DJ Chark is no longer under contract.
By adding a receiver, this is an opportunity for Carolina to not only solve a problem but also sell some tickets. Odell Beckham Jr. has his Super Bowl ring and can comfortably take a mercenary contract from a team whose path to winning is a little uncertain.
The team, in turn, could potentially get a good for a receiver who is talented, but also aging into his 30s and on the wrong side of an ACL tear.
And while we’re on the topic of adding receivers, let me make a bonus suggestion here: Darnell Mooney. Carolina probably needs to add more than one guy here, and Mooney’s market value is pretty depressed right now after some lean statistical years in Chicago. After a 1,000-yard campaign in 2021, he hasn’t topped 500 yards in either of the last two seasons.
Mooney is a 25-cent receiver that the Panthers could pick up for a dime
Gardner Minshew (QB)
You don’t have to look hard around the NFL to hear smart people say that Young just isn’t going to work. He’s too short. He’s not an NFL quarterback. C.J. Stroud was the obvious choice and the Panthers blew it. That sort of stuff.
I’m not NFL-smart enough to know if a quarterback is DOA after one season of professional football. Frankly, I’m not sure that anyone on television is. But that’s the beauty of adding a guy like Gardner Minshew, who is once again a free agent after a good year with the Colts.
Minshew can be a smart locker room guy that helps develop a quarterback. He can be a ready-to-go fill-in starter if/when Young gets hurt again. And he can be a bridge quarterback if Carolina decides to pull the plug on the Bryce Young era. He’s only 28.
Regardless of what happens in the next few seasons, Carolina needs a capable No. 2 quarterback for all the branching possibilities. Minshew might be the best guy for such a complex role.
The biggest obstacle to this idea is the presence of Andy Dalton, who is inked for $4 million in 2024. But Dalton will also be 37 this season, and good backup quarterbacks like Minshew don’t necessarily appear every season. It might be worth taking a pass at Minshew now and structuring his deal in a way that minimizes the damage of overlapping backup quarterback cap hits for 2024.
Either way, Minshew just played in Indy for a $3.5 million cap hit. And while that number will likely go up some after a good season, it does tell you the sort of bargain that Carolina could get with Minshew if it wanted him.
Ultimately, a multi-year deal makes sense for both parties, since Minshew would get security off a good year and the Panthers could insulate itself against potential misadventure with Young.
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