Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman uses free agency to fill holes on the roster, freeing him to use a “best player available” approach in the draft.
And while it was mostly an uneventful offseason for the reigning NFC champs, Gettleman checked several boxes over the past five-plus weeks, including:
▪ Placing the franchise tag on All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman;
▪ Signing unrestricted free agent Gino Gradkowski to back up Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil;
▪ Addressing the defensive tackle depth by adding UFA Paul Soliai and re-signing Kyle Love;
▪ Finding a nickel corner in Brandon Boykin, who arguably has the most upside of any of the newcomers;
▪ Bringing defensive end Charles Johnson back on a team-friendly deal.
But Gettleman didn’t address every area of need. And some of the moves Gettleman didn’t make could signal the team’s intentions in the draft, held April 28-30 in Chicago.
A look at several positions of interest for the Panthers as they finalize their draft preparations:
While Johnson was lauded for taking less money to return to the Panthers than he was offered elsewhere, it was a one-year deal that means 2016 likely will be his final season in Charlotte.
The Panthers have several situational pass-rushers such as Mario Addison and Ryan Delaire, but a young, disruptive edge rusher would look good lined up opposite of Kony Ealy.
Clemson’s Shaq Lawson won’t be available when the Panthers pick 30th, but his teammate Kevin Dodd might. A lot of mock drafts have the Panthers taking Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah, who was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year last season after finishing with 12.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss.
This is only a need position if you believe the Panthers should begin grooming a successor for Star Lotulelei, and Gettleman has given no hint of that. But it’s hard to ignore the draft’s deepest position group, especially considering Gettleman’s affinity for defensive linemen.
It’s like the perfect Hog Molly storm, and don’t be surprised if Gettleman scratches that itch in the first round with a difference-maker such as Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler.
The Panthers chose not to bring back Roman Harper and they might be a little hesitant to hand the starting job to third-year safety Tre Boston, who came off the bench last season after starting several games as a rookie.
Carolina has had a number of pre-draft meetings with safeties, including Ohio State’s Vonn Bell, Clemson’s Jayron Kearse and Boise State’s Darian Thompson.
The Panthers may decide there is not an impact safety available at 30, but picking up a safety to compete with Boston and help on special teams in a later round might be worthwhile.
Tight end/running back
These two positions might be a higher priority that some observers think. Yes, the Panthers have established starters at both spots in Greg Olsen and Jonathan Stewart, as well as capable backups.
But the Panthers as currently constructed can’t run many two-tight end sets without wearing down Olsen and Ed Dickson.
Stewart has strung together a couple of strong seasons while staying healthy, but he turns 30 in March and could be a salary-cap victim next offseason. The Panthers picked up a back in a later round last year in Cameron Artis-Payne, but Gettleman might go after one earlier this year.
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry could be available at 30, but he’ll be gone by the time the Panthers pick late in the second round.
Gettleman has drafted only one corner since joining the Panthers – selecting Bené Benwikere in the fifth round in 2014. It would seem to be a good time to take another one.
Given the lack of progress in the Norman contract talks, it’s possible – maybe likely – the Pro Bowler plays this season under the tag and then walks in free agency. Even with Norman locking down one corner spot, there’s not a lot of depth behind him and Benwikere after the Panthers parted ways with Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan.