Panthers’ free-agency shopping list: 5 possible targets at 5 positions of need


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — So much for Dave Canales and Dan Morgan easing into their new roles.

Less than six weeks after being introduced as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach and general manager, respectively, Canales and Morgan will dive headfirst into free agency with Monday’s start of the two-day, legal tampering window.

The Panthers’ to-do list is, umm, rather full.

All Canales, Morgan and new vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis need to accomplish this offseason is find Bryce Young more playmakers, get the second-year quarterback additional protection, fill holes at tight end, cornerback and edge rusher, decide on Jaycee Horn’s fifth-year option and either trade, extend or let Brian Burns play under the franchise tag.

Oh, and try to get deals done with linebacker Frankie Luvu and defensive tackle Derrick Brown.

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll keep the focus on free agency, which begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday (though deals will start flying fast and furious on Monday). Specifically, The Athletic looks at five potential targets at five positions of need for the Panthers, listed in order of their place in The Athletic’s Randy Mueller’s free-agency rankings (when applicable). The idea is to mix a couple of higher-profile free agents in with some under-the-radar players with ties to Canales and/or the coaching staff/front office.

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Wide receiver

Calvin Ridley, Jacksonville (15)

Gabe Davis, Buffalo (34)

Marquise Brown, Arizona (83)

Mecole Hardman, Kansas City

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Tennessee

The franchise tag took Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. off the board, while Tampa Bay ruined the dreams of Panthers’ fans by re-signing Mike Evans to a two-year, $41 million contract. Those moves watered down this list significantly, although Ridley and Brown are the type of speedy, shifty receivers who can separate in a way the Panthers’ wideouts generally failed to during Young’s rookie season. The 29-year-old Ridley caught 76 passes for 1,016 yards and eight touchdowns last season in his return from a gambling suspension.

Brown has terrific speed but can be knocked off his routes due to his 5-feet-9, 180-pound frame and finished with the NFL’s fourth-worst catch percentage (50.5) last season. (Jonathan Mingo had the fifth-lowest percentage at 50.59.)

Buffalo drafted Davis in the fourth round in 2020 when Morgan was the Bills’ director of player personnel. Davis caught at least six touchdown passes in each of his four seasons in Buffalo despite playing in the shadow of Stefon Diggs and often a tight end. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has good size but lacks explosiveness. Hardman, who drew interest from at least some in the Panthers’ organization last year, caught the game-winning touchdown for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

Hardman started the season with the Jets before being traded to Kansas City, where Tilis was in the front office. Westbrook-Ikhine, who ended 2023 on IR with a hand injury, spent four seasons in Tennessee with Panthers receivers coach Rob Moore.

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Noah Fant caught 32 passes for 414 yards last season with the Seahawks. (Steven Bisig / USA Today)

Tight end

Noah Fant, Seattle (50)

Adam Trautman, Denver (84)

Mike Gesicki, New England (92)

Gerald Everett, L.A. Chargers

Colby Parkinson, Seattle

There’s a heavy Seattle flavor here (smells like coffee, or teen spirit?). It makes sense considering Canales and several offensive assistants, including offensive coordinator Brad Idzik and tight ends coach Pat McPherson, are all part of the Pete Carroll tree. We could have added a third Seahawks tight end to the list after Seattle released Will Dissly this week in a move that cleared $7 million in cap space. Like wide receiver, the tight end group was much deeper before Dalton Schultz, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Zach Ertz signed ahead of free agency.

The Panthers went the free-agent route last year with Hayden Hurst, who will be released at the start of the league year after declining to take a pay cut. There’s also a chance the Panthers could move on from Ian Thomas, which would leave Tommy Tremble and Stephen Sullivan as the top holdovers. Even if the Panthers hang on to Thomas, they need to add a receiving tight end to give Young another outlet in the middle of the field and the red zone. Fant, a first-round pick who went to Seattle as part of the Russell Wilson trade, had three consecutive seasons with at least 50 catches before his targets dropped last year in the Seahawks’ three-tight end rotation.

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Interior offensive linemen

G Robert Hunt, Miami (41)

G Mike Onwenu, New England (42)

C Coleman Shelton, Los Angeles Rams (46)

C Mitch Morse, Buffalo (55)

G Damien Lewis, Seattle (112)

As mentioned previously, the Panthers plan to target at least one guard. But they’re also interested in bringing in a center to compete with or replace Bradley Bozeman, who has a $1.5 million roster bonus due March 16 and could be released before then. They’re essentially following the New Orleans Saints’ model, which prioritized beefing up the interior line to give Drew Brees cleaner pockets and clearer passing lanes.

Onwenu might be out of the Panthers’ price range because of his solid play after the Patriots moved him to tackle. Canales said it helps to have “big, massive guys” who can anchor the pocket inside, and Hunt certainly qualifies. The 6-6, 330-pounder had the lowest pressure rate (0.8 percent) among all offensive linemen last season, giving up one sack and three pressures in 315 pass-block snaps. Shelton has experience in the wide zone that will be part of Canales’ scheme but also is an able pass blocker. Morse, a surprise cut whose time in Buffalo overlapped with Morgan’s, ranked 23rd among all linemen in pressure rate and is considered a great locker room guy.

Edge rushers

Za’Darius Smith, Cleveland (5)

Leonard Floyd, Buffalo (14)

Kyle Van Noy, Baltimore (57)

Andrew Van Ginkel, Miami (70)

Josh Uche, New England (111)

What tier of pass rusher and how much the Panthers are willing to spend depends heavily on Burns’ situation. Burns is set to make a guaranteed $24 million on the tag, or 9.2 percent of the team’s salary cap, according to Over the Cap. Trading Burns would give Morgan $24 million to spend on other players, with a good chunk likely earmarked for edge rushers. Extending Burns also would lighten his cap number this year.

Smith is a versatile player with a lot of experience whose best seasons have come as an outside linebacker in 3-4 schemes with Baltimore, Green Bay and Minnesota. The 6-3, 240-pound Floyd has had between nine and 10 1/2 sacks each of the past four seasons, two of which came with Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero with the Rams. Coincidentally, Smith and Floyd share the same birthday and will turn 32 on the first Sunday of the regular season. But both appear to have plenty left in the tank. Van Ginkel can play on the edge or off the ball, a skill set that would make him valuable in Carolina if Luvu signs elsewhere. The 28-year-old ranked 10th in pressure rate last season among defenders with at least 200 pass-rush snaps, and returned an interception for a touchdown against Washington. Uche might have to take a prove-it deal after his sacks plummeted from 11 1/2 in 2022 to three.

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Andrew Van Ginkel had a career-high six sacks last season in Miami. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Cornerbacks (and one safety)

CB Keisean Nixon, Green Bay (58)

CB Stephon Gilmore, Dallas (69)

CB Darious Williams, Jacksonville

CB Dane Jackson, Buffalo

S Justin Simmons, Denver (24)

The Panthers plan to release Donte Jackson, a starter since arriving as a second-round pick in 2018. They’ll save $5.9 million against the cap by releasing the 28-year-old Jackson, who has a $4 million roster bonus due March 16. Troy Hill, CJ Henderson and Shaquill Griffin are all free agents. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Panthers bring back Hill, who played mostly at nickel last season. So unless they plan to roll the dice with one of their young corners, they’ll need a starter opposite Jaycee Horn.

Even at 33, Gilmore is still reliable in single coverage and matches up well with bigger receivers and even the occasional tight end. (He asked to cover Kyle Pitts after the Panthers traded for him in 2021.) Gilmore grew up in the Carolinas and lives in Charlotte in the offseason, for what that’s worth.

Nixon is at his best defending the slot but could project as a starter. He also brings special teams value as a kick returner who was All-Pro the past two years. The Bills drafted Jackson in the seventh round in 2020 at Morgan’s urging, according to the Charlotte Observer. And while safety isn’t a need, Simmons’ impressive track record and his season with Evero and safeties coach Bert Watts in Denver are deserving of a look.

(Top photo of Gabe Davis: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)





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