Carolina Panthers

Panthers position analysis: Through draft or free agency, work to do at safety

Carolina Panthers safety Mike Adams, right, is congratulated by teammate Eric Reid, left, after Adams intercepted a pass by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 28, 2018.
Carolina Panthers safety Mike Adams, right, is congratulated by teammate Eric Reid, left, after Adams intercepted a pass by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 28, 2018.

Assessing the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Next up: Safeties.

Three things to know

Both starters are free agents: Mike Adams and Eric Reid are up for new deals, so it’s possible the Panthers open the 2019 season without at least one of their starters from 2018. Adams said he wants to play in 2019 — he’d be 38 — while Reid said he wants “market value” for his next contract. Considering the team probably won’t want to break in a completely new safety duo, it’s likely one of them returns.

There isn’t a lot of depth: Not starting-caliber depth, at least — it’s somewhat of a common theme throughout the Panthers’ secondary. Colin Jones can play in a pinch and Da’Norris Searcy was a quality signing last offseason but missed the better part of 15 games in 2018. Rookie Rashaan Gaulden didn’t get much extended action this season but remains a key part of the team’s plans.

They’re under Ron Rivera’s tutelage — for now: As part of a midseason coaching change, Rivera took over defensive play-calling and took more control over coaching the secondary. He’ll remain the play-caller next season but the Panthers will likely hire a secondary coach.

On the roster

Eric Reid: The highest-graded member of the Panthers’ secondary, per Pro Football Focus, joined the team in Week 5 and played no less than 79 percent of the team’s defensive snaps over its final 13 games. He recorded 71 tackles, one sack and one interception in what was essentially a “prove it” season. Ron Rivera expressed interest in bringing Reid back this offseason, and Reid said he enjoys being in Charlotte.

Mike Adams: The ageless wonder Adams added three interceptions to his career total in 2018 but ultimately turned in the lowest-graded season of his career, per Pro Football Focus. Although he’s an always-needed veteran presence in the locker room, the Panthers could decide not to re-sign Adams as they look to get younger on defense.

Rashaan Gaulden: The Panthers’ third-round pick in 2018 only played 15 percent of the team’s snaps during his rookie season. The Panthers’ trust in him after his limited role this season will not only determine whether they re-sign Adams, but also how they approach the position this offseason via the draft and free agency.

Also: Special teams mainstay Colin Jones adds depth while Da’Norris Searcy should return to action after a concussion forced him to miss the team’s final 14 games.

Free agent possibilities

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: The former Second-Team All-Pro safety was traded from Green Bay to Washington and turned in one of the best seasons of his career. He hasn’t missed a game in his five professional seasons and likely won’t be cheap to sign.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is wrapped up by Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) during second quarter action at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. The Packers defeated the Panthers 38-17 on Sunday, October 19, 2014. Jeff Siner

LaMarcus Joyner: The Los Angeles Rams could want to re-sign Joyner for continuity’s sake, but his market value could push eight figures. Either way, the converted cornerback set a career-high in tackles in 2018 and will be an interesting name to watch this offseason.

Earl Thomas: The five-time First-Team All-Pro has likely played his final snap in Seattle, considering he missed the final 12 games of the season with a broken leg he suffered after ending a holdout in hopes of a new contract. He has been linked to the Dallas Cowboys, but with several key players needing new contracts soon, they may not be willing to shell out too much money for him. At only 30 years old, he still has football left in him.

Draft possibilities

Deionte Thompson, Alabama: Thompson has great size for the position and a pedigree from Alabama, a program that generally churns out good defensive pros. He was exposed a bit in the College Football Playoff Championship Game against Clemson’s elite receivers, but it shouldn’t drastically affect his first-round draft grade.

The big plays Alabama free safety Deionte Thompson gave up against elite pass-catchers should make the Panthers hesitant to draft him in the first round. Brynn Anderson AP

Taylor Rapp, Washington: Rapp is a reliable tackler who spent three seasons in Washington’s vaunted secondary, where he flashed playmaking instinct and versatility. He won’t get pushed around by tight ends at 6-foot, 210 pounds, and he’s still quick enough to keep up with receivers on short-to-intermediate routes. He isn’t particularly fast, however, and should come off the board around the second round.

Jaquan Johnson, Miami: Johnson was highly productive during his final two seasons at The U, racking up 188 tackles, six interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He’s almost reminiscent of Reid as far as his physicality goes and is an option in the second round.

The bottom line

The Panthers have several roads to choose from this offseason, but all of them should end in an improved secondary. Reid is a starting-caliber player who knows the system and is well-liked in the locker room. Carolina could choose to sign Reid and draft a replacement for Adams, but it seems unlikely the team lets both players walk.

As far as additions, the Panthers have bigger needs to address in the first round of the draft, so don’t expect them to take Thompson. If Rapp or Johnson falls to them in the second round, however, don’t be surprised if one of their names is called. Carolina doesn’t have an extravagant amount of cap space this offseason but if there’s mutual interest between the team and Clinton-Dix, signing the 26-year-old would go a long way toward solidifying the back-end of this secondary, long-term.

Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.