Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson are the top two free-agent pass rushers, but Miami will likely retain Vernon, and Jackson will fetch more money than Carolina will likely want to spend at that position.
Here’s a look at five soon-to-be free-agent defensive ends who could be in the Panthers’ wheelhouse.
New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul
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Strengths: This guy knows how to pressure quarterbacks. In just eight games last season he had 41 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He has shown the ability to rack up sack totals with 16 1/2 in 2011 and 12 1/2 in 2014. Pierre-Paul is 27 and should be hitting his peak.
Weaknesses: The obvious weakness is his hand. Pierre-Paul lost one finger and damaged two others in a July 4 fireworks accident last year. He played with a club on his right hand, though he probably won’t in 2016. The biggest question is how well he can play against the run and where his confidence will be after last year’s episode.
What’s likely to happen: If the Giants don’t keep him, Pierre-Paul will be wanted on the market by several teams. It’s likely he’ll get an incentive-laden deal because there’s so much uncertainty about his future production. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was on the Giants staff when New York drafted Pierre-Paul in the first round of 2010, but there might be too many question marks around the talented edge rusher.
New York Giants’ Robert Ayers
Strengths: A versatile pass rusher, Ayers has gotten better with each season. Last year at age 30, he had 9 sacks in 12 games, which was more than Carolina’s top three defensive ends combined. He has two accepted penalties in the past two seasons, so he rarely gets his team in trouble. Ayers is also able to go inside to tackle on third down, something Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott likes from his ends.
Weaknesses: He doesn’t have great speed, and that’s why he slides inside sometimes. You’d want your pass rusher to be able to track down a quarterback while pursuing, but that’s not Ayers’ strong suit. He’s not the blue-goose pass rusher Gettleman covets.
What’s likely to happen: Ayers will probably get a two- or three-year deal averaging upwards of $6 million per year based on age and performance. That’s a reasonable number, but it could rise if the pool of free-agent defensive ends dries up before March 9.
Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn
Strengths: At 280 pounds he’s more of a left defensive end who’s solid at stopping the run. Last season in Atlanta he was used inside at tackle in nickel situations. When healthy, Clayborn has been effective at getting to the quarterback.
Weaknesses: Clayborn has had injury problems in his short career. He played in three games in 2012 before a knee injury put him on injured reserve. Clayborn got in just one game in 2014 before a biceps injury sent him to IR again. The Bucs weren’t confident enough in their former first-round pick to pick up his fifth-year option, and that’s why he went to Atlanta on a one-year deal.
What’s likely to happen: The money won’t be an issue for Carolina, but health concerns will be. He’ll be 28 with two seasons on IR. The Panthers know Clayborn well after playing against him in Tampa Bay and Atlanta his entire career, but is he worth the risk of landing on IR a third time?
St. Louis’ Chris Long
Strengths: Long, released Friday by the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams to free up $14.25 million in cap space, was one of the league’s premiere pass rushers a few years ago. The son of Hall-of-Famer Howie Long averaged 11 sacks per season from 2011-2013 before injuries hit. Long (6-4, 275) has always been more of a power rusher than a speed guy.
Weaknesses: Long was sidelined for a combined 14 games the past two seasons, making just five starts in 2015 and finishing with three sacks. Long, who will turn 31 next month, conceded on social media he played, um, poorly in his final two years with the Rams.
What’s likely to happen: A number of teams will be interested in Long, who can sign with anyone immediately before free agency begins next month. But is he a fit for the Panthers, who received little production from two aging defensive ends in 2015? Gettleman might be better off looking for a young, edge rusher in the draft.
St. Louis’ William Hayes
Strengths: The High Point native and former Winston-Salem State standout was productive as a part-time player for the Rams. Hayes averaged about 5.5 sacks during his four seasons in St. Louis and last season ranked among the top five edge run defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.
Weaknesses: At 6-2 and 258 pounds, Hayes is a bit like Carolina’s Mario Addison in that he’s not suited to be an every-down end. But he has proven to be an effective rotational player who excels as a third-down pass rusher.
What’s likely to happen: Hayes is the type of player Gettleman has traditionally signed in the secondary and at receiver. A proven veteran (he’ll be 31 in May), Hayes could be a value signing on a two-year deal for the Panthers or another team.