Former general manager Marty Hurney signed several free agents last March and nine of them ended up playing prominent roles for the 5-11 Panthers. Let’s take a look at how well these signings turned out by comparing each players’ performance compared to his 2020 cap hit.
Outperformed their 2020 cap hit
Zach Kerr, DT: 2 years, $3.0 million ($1.4 million cap hit in 2020)
In 13 games Zach Kerr played 390 snaps (30 per game) and racked up 32 tackles, nine quarterback hits, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and forced a fumble. Pro Football Focus absolutely loved Kerr and graded his season at 83.3 (or “very good” for his position) which seems excessively high to me, but he did have a solid season. With a cap hit of just $1.4 million in 2020, Zach Kerr may have been the Panthers best free agent bargain. Even better, he’s back next year with a $1.6 million cap hit.
Robby Anderson, WR: 2 years, $20 million ($8.0 million cap hit in 2020)
Let’s see, 95 reception for 1,096 yards against an $8.0 million cap hit? Yeah, that’s a great season! Anderson finished the year ranked 15th in receiving yards while having the 31st highest cap hit among wide receivers. Anderson performed similarly to some high-end receivers but with a much lower cap hit such as Allen Robinson (102/1,250; $15 million), Tyler Lockett (100/1,054; $12.5 million), and Amari Cooper (92/1,114; $12 million). Anderson’s cap hit will jump to $12 million next year, but in 2020 he far outperformed his $8 million cap hit. This was a great signing.
Juston Burris, S: 2 years, $8.0 million ($2.96 million cap hit in 2020)
The 27-year-old journeyman had the best year of his career, starting 12 of the 13 games he played in and registering career bests with 53 tackles and three tackles for loss. He was also credited with four passes defended. His PFF grade of 55.4 (below average starter) seems a bit low, and I’d call Burris a perfectly capable though not impactful starting safety. But with a cap hit of just $2.96 million, Burris outperformed his contract in 2020.
Performed as expected versus their 2020 cap hit
Teddy Bridgewater, QB: 3 years, $63.0 million ($13.95 million cap hit in 2020)
While he won’t strap an offense on his back and carry it to the Super Bowl, Teddy Bridgewater is a perfectly average starting NFL quarterback. Teddy’s $13.95 million cap hit ranked 18th among quarterbacks and most of the starters who were paid less than him were on rookie contracts. It would’ve been difficult for the Panthers to find a better veteran starter (not on a rookie contract) who could have outperformed Bridgewater at his cap hit — think Marcus Mariota at $9.1 million, Ryan Fitzpatrick at $8.0 million, or Tyrod Taylor at $7.5 million. With a slightly below average cap hit for the quarterback position, the Panthers got a pretty average quarterback. That may have been fine for 2020, but Teddy’s cap hit jumps to $22.95 million next year, and that’s an issue.
John Miller, G: 1 year, $4.0 million
I’m going to defer to CSR’s in-house offensive line expert Erik Sommers who summed up Miller’s season this way: “John Miller turned out to be a very serviceable starter on the right side, and we should be able to work him into a modest multi-year deal.” Miller started all 14 games he appeared in and earned a PFF grade of 61.1, or a low-end average starter. Seems about right for a $4.0 million cap hit.
PJ Walker, QB: 2 years, $1.6 million ($685,000 cap hit in 2020)
The Panthers got exactly what should be expected from a 25-year-old quarterback who had never taken a regular season snap, and that was high-highs and low-lows. With a cap hit of just $685,000 in 2020, Walker makes the NFL equivalent of minimum wage, so any contribution is gravy. He had one good start (23-of-34, 258 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) in a 20-0 win over the Detroit Lions followed by a horrendous outing (5-of-14, 95 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT) in a Week 17 mauling by the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers got what they paid for.
Pharoah Cooper, KR/PR/WR: 1 year, $1.2 million
The Panthers have had a revolving door of both kick and punt returners for the last several years and Cooper brought some stability this season. He played in all 16 games and his 23.9 yards per kickoff return ranked tied for eighth best in the NFL (min. 15 returns). Cooper fielded all 20 of the team’s punt returns this year but averaged a paltry 5.8 yards per return, placing him second to last (21st of 22) among returners with at least 15 attempts. He also caught five passes for 73 yards in some fill-in wide receiver duty. He wasn’t great but he wasn’t a disaster, either, and that’s fair for a $1.2 million cap hit.
Underperformed their 2020 cap hit
Tahir Whitehead, LB: 1 year, $2.5 million
We all know this signing didn’t work out and his PFF grade of 31.9 sums up his season. But let’s be fair to Tahir in light of his cap hit. When a 30-year-old veteran signs a 1-year, $2.5 million deal a reasonable expectation is he will be a backup who plays selectively in packages that cater to his strengths. Instead, the Panthers used him heavily and he played in more than 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in each of the first eight games. Let’s remember the Panthers were trying to get starter contributions from a player on a low-end salary, and that rarely works.
Stephen Weatherly: 2 years, $12.5 million ($4.5 million cap hit in 2020)
After four years in Minnesota, including starting the last three seasons, Stephen Weatherly earned the starting defensive end position with the Panthers after signing a 2-year, $12.5 million deal. He started the team’s first nine games before missing the rest of the season with a finger injury that required surgery. Even though Weatherly started, he wasn’t very impactful in light of his $4.5 million cap hit in 2020 (it will balloon to $7.9 million in 2021). He registered just 17 tackles, three quarterback hits, and zero sacks, which isn’t nearly enough of an impact for a $4.5 million cap hit.
Carolina had a few other minor signings like DeAndrew White, Seth Roberts, Seth Devalve, and Keith Kirkwood who aren’t worth the time to break down.
Former general manager Marty Hurney’s final free agent class featured three solid signings, four acceptable contracts, and two misses. The good news is all three of the solid signings — Kerr, Anderson, and Burris — will be back next year and still playing on what should be team-friendly contracts. Teddy Bridgewater’s $22.95 million cap hit next year will be problematic, as will Stephen Weatherly’s $7.9 million cap figure. We’ll see how new general manager Scott Fitterer addresses these contracts next year, but overall Hurney did a pretty good job on his way out.
Which 2020 free agent signing was the best value for the Panthers?
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