The Panthers offense was one of the worst in the league last year. Carolina’s 17.9 points per game ranked 29th among all NFL offenses which led to the in-season scapegoat firing of offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Other major contributing factors to the offensive ineptitude included some of the worst quarterback play in the league, an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked second-worst in the league, and another injury-riddled season from Christian McCaffrey.
Heading into 2022, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, an experienced NFL coach, will be able to install some different schemes. The quarterback spot is still in flux, but the offensive line should be improved and CMC should be healthy entering the season.
But one clearly subpar positional group that has continued to fly under the radar and wasn’t addressed this offseason is tight end.
Since Greg Olsen’s departure after the 2019 season, the Panthers tight ends have been largely invisible in the passing game. In 2020 Ian Thomas led all Carolina tight ends with a scant 145 receiving yards over 16 games, or just 7.3 yards per game. Last year Thomas once again led the Panthers tight ends with a paltry 188 yards in 17 games while rookie Tommy Tremble, the No. 83 pick in the 2021 draft, registered 180 yards in 16 games.
Rather than upgrading the tight end spot during free agency, Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer doubled down on Ian Thomas, curiously giving him a 3-year, $16.95 million deal. While this contract doesn’t break the bank, it was surprising to see the vote of confidence in Thomas, a player who in four NFL seasons has just 90 receptions for 802 yards and four touchdowns. His PFF grade of 42.7 in 2020 was the lowest among Carolina’s regular offensive players that year, and his 52.1 grade in 2021 ranked 69th of 73 tight ends.
Selecting Tommy Tremble in the third round of the 2021 draft was a promising move, but he’s more of a blocker than a legitimate pass-catching tight end. In 19 college games over two seasons at Notre Dame he had just 35 receptions for 401 yards. As a rookie with the Panthers last year his 180 receiving yards were about what should have been expected. It’s doubtful he’s going to emerge as a viable threat in the passing game any time soon.
Other tight ends on the Panthers roster include Colin Thompson (one reception in two NFL seasons), Stephen Sullivan (zero receptions in two seasons), and a couple of other fringe players. Carolina has issues with both quality and depth at tight end.
It’s something of a head scratcher for a team like the Panthers with a bad quarterback situation to not aggressively look to upgrade this position. A reliable tight end who can consistently get open over the middle can be a comforting security blanket for a struggling quarterback like Sam Darnold.
Carolina has an estimated $25.6 million in available cap space, per Spotrac, and a few decent free agent tight ends are still floating around.
Now, each of the free agents highlighted below has their flaws — there are reasons why they’re still on the market — but they are more proven pass catchers than anyone the Panthers currently have on the roster. Here are the players the Panthers should be targeting:
The eight-year veteran has struggled with drops over the years but has also exceeded 500 receiving yards five times in his career. He was a Pro Bowler in 2018 with the Colts when he produced 66 receptions for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Sure, he’s past his prime at 35, but Cook has surpassed 500 receiving yards in each of his last five seasons. He made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and 2019 and could pass on some veteran learnings to Thomas and Tremble.
He’s on the older side at 32, but he’s also a two-time Pro Bowler who could be effectively used in the right packages. Over the last two seasons he has played in 28 games with 54 receptions for 591 yards.
The five-year pro and former Dallas Cowboy has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, appearing in just nine games, but in 2018 and 2019 he combined for 58 receptions and 672 yards.
Each of these players could likely be signed to an affordable 1-year deal, especially at this point in the free agency process. None of these guys will transform the Panthers offense, but the team’s tight end quality and depth issues are still glaring.
The Panthers have some cap space available and the roster continues to be shored up. Adding a pass-catching tight end should be a priority before training camp opens in July.
Which player would you sign assuming the salary makes sense?
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