Soon-to-be Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made one thing clear as he entered free agency: He wanted to go to a contender.
And the Panthers have made one thing clear: With McCoy, and a handful of other offseason moves general manager Marty Hurney made this spring, they are one.
The Panthers’ players already believed that. Their goal was to prove that to McCoy when he met with the team on Friday.
A league source told the Observer that a group of core players, including captains, took McCoy to lunch. There, he saw the team’s chemistry in action. The source believes that was a big factor in McCoy’s decision-making process.
And, another source said, the six players who took McCoy to lunch wasted no time in rallying the rest of the locker room in their enthusiasm to bring aboard the six-time Pro Bowler they have faced twice a year since McCoy was drafted third overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010.
“Carolina was a great fit for me. Being around the guys, we just meshed and I love the instant chemistry we had,” McCoy told ESPN’s Josina Anderson via text message shortly after the news of the deal was first reported Monday evening by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
McCoy, who agreed to sign a one-year deal with the Panthers on Monday for $8.5 million according to a league source, becomes one of their splashiest free-agent acquisitions in years.
And the push to get him came with a very long setup.
When Hurney returned to the Panthers in the summer of 2017, he inherited a used car with a boot on it in former left tackle Matt Kalil’s five-year, $55.5 million contract.
But that contract ultimately was key. Kalil didn’t play a single snap for the Panthers in 2018, prompting Hurney to designate him as a post-June 1 cut in March.
That meant that Carolina, while still eating some dead money from the deal, cashed in a $7.5 million check on Sunday, June 2.
On Thursday night, Hurney also restructured veteran wide receiver Torrey Smith’s contract (something Smith had to agree to do), to open up another $2 million, a league source told the Observer.
Though Smith’s deal was not related to McCoy’s signing, a source said, the extra $9.5 million from both transactions ultimately sweetened the pot for McCoy as he flew into Carolina last Thursday night after visiting both Baltimore and Cleveland.
But money wasn’t everything to McCoy, he told ESPN’s Anderson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cut him in May.
He wanted to win, too.
And the quiet moves Hurney made in free agency and the draft throughout the spring makes the Panthers look pretty good, on paper.
Carolina signed veteran Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis, re-signed tackle/guard Daryl Williams and traded up in the second round of the draft to select left tackle Greg Little. The Panthers also drafted prolific, speedy pass-rusher Brian Burns at No. 16 overall, extended safety Eric Reid for three years, and added veteran receiver Chris Hogan on a one-year deal. They also are getting quarterback Cam Newton on track for a training camp return after offseason shoulder surgery.
The “win now” season Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera need seemed to be lining up nicely prior to this week.
But still, the Panthers had a big question to answer on their interior defensive line.
And that answer clearly wasn’t on the roster, after Carolina decided to decline defensive tackle Vernon Butler’s fifth-year option despite moving to a more multiple defense in which Butler likely would see more playing time.
Now, the Panthers will start three Pro Bowlers in a three-man front, in Kawann Short, Dontari Poe and McCoy.
That should certainly be a cardiac jolt for a defensive line that produced only halting gasps of interior pressure last season.
And it’s a heck of a team morale boost, too, considering how invested Carolina’s players were in signing McCoy.
The Panthers plummeted out of the national football conversation after their Super Bowl appearance during the 2015 season. Since then, they are 24-24 with one postseason appearance, a wild-card loss after the 2017 regular season.
But the moves that paved the way, and helped make the push for McCoy were a message from Hurney, head coach Ron Rivera and from each player who helped persuade him to come to Carolina: