Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said on Jan. 3 that the staff would spend two weeks analyzing the team, looking to avoid hasty, emotional decisions. The Observer will do the same, position by position. Up next: Defensive line.
Three things to know
▪ Sack race: Remember all the hue and cry early in the season about the Panthers’ lack of a pass rush? Despite not having a Pro Bowler up front, Carolina went on a tear and ended up second in the league behind Arizona with 47 sacks. Situational edge rusher Mario Addison led the way with 9.5, eight of which came over his final seven games.
▪ A leader in Washington: While defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and secondary coach Steve Wilks are in the mix for head coaching positions, Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington is another up-and-coming assistant on Ron Rivera’s staff. Over the past five seasons under Washington, no team has produced more sacks by its defensive linemen than the Panthers’ 176. What Washington did this season – despite down years by DT Kawann Short and DE Kony Ealy – was impressive.
▪ Long line of free agents: Five of the Panthers’ 15 unrestricted free agents are defensive linemen, a list highlighted by Addison, DT Kawann Short and DE Charles Johnson. Addison and Short are the priorities, while Johnson’s situation is more fluid. General manager Dave Gettleman could have between $40 million and $50 million to spend in free agency. A good chunk of it should go to Addison, Short and DT Star Lotulelei, whose fifth-year option has been picked up.
On the roster
▪ Kawann Short: Short had a disappointing season, finishing with six sacks after posting 11 during his Pro Bowl season of 2015. Still, he is a disruptive interior force who is well liked in the organization. The Panthers will need to pay him among the top DTs in the game if they want to keep him.
▪ Mario Addison: Another player who is productive and also a strong locker room presence. Addison says he wants to stay in Carolina, and his skillset fits the 4-3 scheme that Wilks is expected to stick with as he takes over for McDermott as defensive coordinator.
▪ Kony Ealy: The Panthers hoped Ealy would build on his Super Bowl 50 performance, but it didn’t happen. He lost his starting job to Wes Horton and finished with five sacks – or two more than he had against Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl loss. With Ealy going into his fourth season, his window of opportunity could be closing.
▪ Also: Veteran DT Paul Soliai was a non-factor in his first season in Carolina. With the Panthers able to save $2.5 million against the salary cap by cutting him, Soliai likely has played his last down with Carolina. ... Horton showed flashes of big-play potential this season and is worth bringing back.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Terrell McClain: The Panthers’ third-round pick from 2011 has become a serviceable player for the Cowboys, with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season. If Soliai is cut, the Panthers need a nose tackle behind Lotulelei. McClain, still only 28, could be a cost-effective option.
▪ Jabaal Sheard: The Patriots defensive end has 13 sacks over the past two seasons but doesn’t seem like he’ll be an offseason priority for Bill Belichick. Sheard was a healthy scratch for a November game against San Francisco, but could boost his price tag with a strong postseason showing.
▪ Jonathan Allen: The only way the Panthers would take an interior defensive lineman in the first round two years in a row is if they lose Short in free agency. If that happens, the Alabama defensive lineman would be hard to pass up. Allen, the Bronko Nagurski winner, had two defensive TDs and 64 QB pressures in 2016, more than any interior defender in the country.
▪ Taco Charlton: The defensive end from Michigan is shooting up draft boards after closing the season with 10 sacks in the Wolverines’ final 10 games. Scouts love his big frame (6-6, 273) and long arms. Owing to his Giants days, Gettleman believes you can never have too many pass rushers.
The bottom line
The Panthers couldn’t get a long-term deal done with Short before the season. And despite his dropoff in production, Short has to be the top priority for Gettleman this offseason. Even if Addison is re-signed, Carolina needs at least one more edge rusher. Charlton, who battled an ankle injury early in his senior season, is an intriguing playmaker.