Ah, free agency, the weird week in which fans want all the players but none of the expenses and all the moves seem to be made before they’re actually legal.
Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney quietly went about his business as free agency opened. He traded third-year cornerback Daryl Worley for veteran wideout Torrey Smith, made official on Wednesday when the new league year began.
Sources also confirmed to the Observer that the Panthers and both former Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland and former Kansas City/Atlanta defensive tackle Dontari Poe agreed to three-year deals.
However, Breeland failed his physical on Friday afternoon and did not sign with the Panthers, and it’s unclear what Hurney’s contingency plan could be.
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Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers is also back for one more year.
Poe, who officially signed his contract on Friday afternoon, will replace starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who signed a five-year deal with Buffalo, and Smith adds some juice to a rather dry receivers room.
The Panthers also lost starting All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell to the Jaguars, and backup tight end Ed Dickson to the Seahawks.
Are you keeping up?
Here’s what all that sets up for the NFL draft:
Biggest need: Defensive back
The Panthers cut veteran Kurt Coleman two weeks ago, leaving them without a starting-caliber safety to play alongside Mike Adams. Breeland’s failed physical threw an extra twist into the Panthers’ plans, too.
But I’m still calling my shot a month before the draft: Stanford safety Justin Reid will be the pick at No. 24.
Reid is a fast, physical, highly intelligent free safety with the versatility to move around in the defensive backfield. He would immediately add a jolt to the secondary and bring the leadership presence head coach Ron Rivera had in Coleman.
Hurney doubled down on his desire to get younger and faster at safety before free agency opened, but the Panthers targeted the cornerback position in that period, leaving little doubt that safety will be high priority in the draft.
And I’d guess that as soon as the staff gets a chance to sit down with Reid at length, they’ll be sold. The kid is the real deal.
I also think that drafting a safety early won’t preclude picking up a second one in later rounds – Adams is 36, after all. I like UCF’s Shaquem Griffin in the fifth in this scenario.
Following the Breeland news, which broke Friday afternoon, Carolina also has an immediate need at cornerback to replace Worley.
The plan is now unclear. The Panthers could either go after a free agent or wait for the draft, which is full of talented players at the position.
But after spending two years developing Worley and Bradberry simply to trade Worley away, I don’t see the Panthers starting over with a rookie corner unless he is a day-one impact star.
And that would likely mean using the No. 24 pick.
Louisville’s Jaire Alexander could be an option, as could Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick (though perhaps a bit of a reach), or Iowa’s Josh Jackson.
Second-biggest need: Wide receiver
Smith is a solid addition to Carolina’s roster, and I believe he’ll mostly man the flanker position opposite Devin Funchess. Smith provides the vertical threat the Panthers have desperately needed since losing Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency, and has the versatility to line up inside as well.
The Panthers also see a ton of potential in last year’s second-round pick, Curtis Samuel, who has the ability to line up at either flanker or in the slot.
But Samuel was injured nearly the entire football calendar year in 2017 and there is no solid timetable for his return from surgery on his ankle. While he might represent the future, the Panthers can’t afford to bank on him out of the gate.
When the Panthers add a receiver in the draft, it will probably be a speedy, versatile player who can complement Smith and No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess in various ways. The selection should particularly excel in the slot – but importantly, also have the ability to play flanker and be crisp on routes and in separating early.
Maryland’s D.J. Moore is a first-round caliber talent who fits these needs and could be Carolina’s ultimate decision at No. 24. But should they pick a safety in the first round, the Panthers may favor guys such as Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, who I hear might drop from initially high projections, or Penn State’s Daesean Hamilton, a garbage-ball and route aficionado.
Also on the list ...
▪ The Panthers need depth on the offensive line. While second-year guard/tackle Taylor Moton has the size to fill the spot vacated by Norwell, Carolina will also give backup center/guard Tyler Larsen a look at the position. Larsen is also handy to have around in case center Ryan Kalil, for whom 2018 is a swan song, re-aggravates the shoulder that nagged him all year.
When Carolina drafts for the offensive line look for versatile players who can plug-and-play along the line, like a guard/center or guard/tackle.
▪ A backup tight end is also a need for the Panthers. A good blocker with pass-catching ability is ideal to replace Dickson, and the staff might also be on the hunt for Greg Olsen’s eventual replacement. While nothing compares to the strength of last season’s tight end class, there are a few solid options through the first three rounds.
▪ The Panthers will also likely add a young edge-rusher to the mix. While Peppers’ return is great news, he will likely stick to last season’s rotation to preserve his 38-year-old body by playing 40 to 60 percent of defensive snaps.
Behind Peppers are Wes Horton and Bryan Cox Jr., both of whom have showed promise. Carolina drafted Daeshon Hall last season and he spent the year on injured reserve. He has potential, too. But can any of these players be “the guy” by the first game of the 2018 season?
▪ I see Carolina drafting a running back after cutting longtime power back Jonathan Stewart, but if the staff is as serious as they project about giving backup Cameron Artis-Payne a shot, they’ll wait until the mid to late rounds. They need a back who can run downhill and loosen up a defensive front, but also one who is dynamic and can catch passes out of the backfield in complement to Christian McCaffrey. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a particular history of favoring this type of tandem.
Keep an eye on N.C. State’s Nyheim Hines and Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage.
▪ Long snapper.