Inside the Panthers

Carolina Panthers moves this week seem to signal shift in team’s offseason priorities

Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage, shown breaking a tackle in the Senior Bowl, is the type of big, physical back the Panthers need to replace Jonathan Stewart.
Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage, shown breaking a tackle in the Senior Bowl, is the type of big, physical back the Panthers need to replace Jonathan Stewart. AP

After the Carolina Panthers cut defensive starters Kurt Coleman and Charles Johnson on Monday on the eve of the NFL combine, a team official pointed out how things are usually fluid in the run-up to free agency.

That point was reinforced Wednesday with the release of running back Jonathan Stewart, leaving the Panthers with a fluid draft board, as well.

Before this week’s moves, most observers listed edge rushers, interior offensive linemen and wide receivers as high on the Panthers’ list of offseason needs.

But that list likely has been revised, and might go through a couple more revisions before the start of free agency on March 14.

How releasing Coleman, Johnson and Stewart affects the Panthers’ offseason priorities:

Edge rushers?

Panthers’ need before this week: Edge rusher.

Need now: Edge rusher.

What changed: Not much. Most saw the release of Johnson coming. The veteran defensive end had started breaking down, and his production had dropped significantly. Considering Julius Peppers’ uncertain status, adding a young edge rusher to complement Mario Addison remains critical.

Players to watch at combine: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State; Rasheem Green, Southern Cal; Marcus Davenport, Texas-San Antonio; Harold Landry, Boston College.

Players to watch in free agency: Adrian Clayborn, Falcons; Muhammad Wilkerson (cut by Jets on Wednesday).

landry
Boston College defensive end Harold Landry, right, could be a draft target for the Panthers after they cut Charles Johnson this week. Richard Shiro AP

Interior offensive linemen?

Panthers’ need before this week: Interior offensive lineman

Now need: Safety

What changed: The sense here is Marty Hurney did not free up an extra $10 million in cap space to use it on free agent guard Andrew Norwell. Instead, Hurney was making the kind of moves teams make to give them room to work in free agency. The Panthers still would like to add a young lineman who can compete with Tyler Larsen and be groomed behind center Ryan Kalil. But with Coleman gone, the only starter-caliber safety on the roster is Mike Adams, and he turns 37 in three weeks.

Players to watch at combine: Derwin James, Florida State; Justin Reid, Stanford; Jordan Whitehead, West Virginia; Kyzir White, West Virginia.

Players to watch in free agency: Tre Boston, San Diego; Morgan Burnett, Green Bay; Lamarcus Joyner, Rams; Eric Reid, San Francisco.

boston
Chargers free agent safety Tre Boston, right, played for the Panthers his first three seasons. Carolina, which cut Kurt Coleman this week, has a need at the position. Jae C. Hong AP

Wide receivers?

Panthers’ need before this week: Wide receiver

Now need: Wide receiver and running back

What changed: The Panthers are excited about what Norv Turner will mean to Christian McCaffrey’s development. But CMC is not an effective between-the-tackles runner, and there’s not a proven back on the roster to fill that role now that Stewart is gone. The Panthers still need a dynamic slot receiver to pair with Devin Funchess. Now they need a workhorse back to pair with McCaffrey.

Players to watch at combine: Nick Chubb, Georgia; Jaylen Samuels, N.C. State; Kalen Ballage, Arizona State.

Players to watch in free agency: Carlos Hyde, San Francisco; Dion Lewis, New England; Darren Sproles, Philadelphia (not a big back, but strong ties to Norv Turner and Ron Rivera).

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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