Free agency has greatly simplified the Panthers’ draft plans

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers had four major needs heading into the offseason. Filling three of them via free agency clears Carolina to have a very simple draft plan.

Credit Panthers GM Marty Hurney for executing a relatively quiet, but very productive offseason to date. His work during February and March will pay big dividends for Carolina when April’s draft arrives.

The Panthers haven’t made a lot of signings, but they have filled three of their biggest needs. The first domino to fall was bringing safety Eric Reid back into the fold on a three-year, $22 million deal. That contract might have looked a little rich at the time, but the deals guys like Landon Collins, Lemarcus Joyner and Earl Thomas have received in recent days make it look like a solid bargain.

That move really didn’t stun anyone. The Panthers clearly liked what Reid gave them in 2018 and his excellent fit in coach Ron Rivera’s scheme made a return likely. The next move Hurney pulled off when free agency began in earnest did catch a lot of people off guard.

Ryan Kalil’s retirement left the Panthers with a gaping hole at the center position. Tyler Larsen did a decent job backing up Kalil last season, but he’s much better suited to be a backup. Many NFL media members were projecting the Panthers to take NC State center Garret Bradbury with their first round pick.

Instead, the Panthers managed to sign arguably the top center in free agency. Matt Paradis agreed to come to Carolina on a three-year deal for a total of $27 million. It’s possible he’ll even provide the team with an upgrade over Kalil. At the very least, it’s safe to assume the team’s production from the center position will remain at a high level.

If Paradis ended up being the only acquisition Carolina made during free agency the period could have been classified as a success. Hurney and company didn’t stop there though. On day three of free agency the Panthers managed to pull off an even bigger surprise.

Team officials clearly liked Daryl Williams, but the lack of quality tackles available in free agency seemed to signal that he would sign a bigger contract than the Panthers could offer with another franchise. Instead, Williams elected to return to Carolina on a one-year contract that will pay him just $6 million in 2019. The idea behind the deal is certainly to give him an opportunity to reestablish his value after an injury-riddled 2018 campaign, but it’s still a terrific move for the Panthers.

Expect Williams to reclaim his starting right tackle position next season. That will allow Taylor Moton to transition over to the left tackle spot. That will be a big adjustment for Moton, but it will take Matt Kalil out of the starting lineup. He’s been a colossal disappointment since coming over from the Vikings.

In other words, the Panthers can head into the draft with a clear idea of who their starting offensive line will be. They may choose to pursue an upgrade over Greg Van Roten at left guard, but that’s not a necessity. Even if they do draft a guard, it likely won’t be with one of their first two picks.

Now that Carolina doesn’t need to fill their vacancies at center or tackle via the draft, it frees the front office to spend at least one high selection on the biggest need still on the board. The Panthers must find an edge rusher who can make an immediate impact next season. It’s very likely that will be the position targeted with their first round selection. It’s not out of the question that Carolina will spend their first two selections on guys who can help them rush the passer.

Next: 7-round mock draft for the Panthers

When February began, the Panthers seemed to have more holes than they could reasonably fill given their salary cap limitations and modest draft assets. The organization’s productive free agency period has suddenly put them in a great position heading into April’s draft. If the front office can find an impact edge rusher in the collegiate ranks, the Panthers can head into the preseason feeling really good about their chances to return to the playoffs in 2019.

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