The Carolina Panthers became the first team in the Common Draft Era (since 1967) to draft all defensive players in a single draft in 2020. Though that wasn’t their plan going in, because of the way the board fell to them, they believed those players were the best for their rebuild when they came on the clock.
All things considered, the Panthers’ defense was solid in 2020. Of course, they weren’t a top-10 defense with as much youth as they had on their roster. But they showed promise with a young core of players, specifically Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Jeremy Chinn. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow did a nice job getting these younger players ready for NFL-caliber action, and he did a great job finally unleashing Burns as a full-time pass rusher and making the hybrid safety/linebacker Chinn a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Going into free agency and the draft, the Panthers' needs on the defensive side of the ball have to start at linebacker. They need an upgrade next to Shaq Thompson in order to truly free up what they can do with Chinn. They also have an outside cornerback need. After losing James Bradberry in free agency last year, Donte Jackson showed he might not be the CB1 type—he’s a good corner, but someone who can’t be the guy you match up with the other team’s top receiver each week. Plus, Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder and unrestricted free agents. You also can never have too many good pass rushers up front.
As for their projected cap space, with the final cap number settling in on $182.5 million, the Panthers are set to have about $32 million in space, barring any other restructuring of deals or extensions.
With all that said, here are three pending defensive free agents who I think make sense for Carolina to take a look at in free agency.
Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers
Projected AAV: $7 million
Here’s the thing, I have no idea if Sherman would even want to spend the last year or two of his career on the east coast for a team that probably isn’t going to compete for a championship in that window. But if he wants a change of scenery and wants to be a mentor to a young defense, Carolina is a good spot for him to still be a starter for a few years. This isn’t a long-term fix for Carolina’s cornerback needs, but it would be a great answer for the amount of money they could spend with added benefits beyond on-field play.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Projected AAV: $6-8 million
Alexander played his college ball at Clemson, so a return to the Carolinas would be a bit of a homecoming for him. Alexander played more than 500 snaps at slot corner this past season, which was the most of his career. He also yielded one of his best pass coverage grades from Pro Football Focus while doing so.
The Panthers could potentially lose Elder in free agency, and Alexander could be a welcomed upgrade to their slot coverage situation.
Haason Reddick, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Projected AAV: $10-11 million
Oh yeah, the Temple boys are back again.
Reddick played under Rhule during his time at Temple, in which he racked up 35.5 tackles for loss in his final two years. Reddick had a very slow start to his pro career but really came alive this past season with 12.5 sacks. Reddick might be out of their price range, but the Panthers might be able to get him on a favorable deal with a Rhule discount. He’s a versatile player who could fill some of Carolina’s linebacker needs but mainly give them some more pass rush presence.
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