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Scott Fitterer’s Year 2 review: Free agent signings

The Panthers GM had a high hit rate on his 2022 free agent class, but too many of them played on one-year deals.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we are looking back on Scott Fitterer’s second year as the Carolina Panthers general manager and assessing his performance in salary cap management (here), free agent signings, the 2022 draft, and player trades. This week we’ll review Fitterer’s 2022 free agent class.

The grades below reflect how each player performed in Carolina relative to his contract. The richer the contract, the higher the expectations. A “C” grade means the player met the expectations of his contract. Anything above a “C” means they exceeded expectations while anything below a “C” means they fell short.

Here are the grades for the Panthers key 2022 free agent signings:

Austin Corbett, G - 3-years, $26.3M ($19.6M guaranteed)

Key stats: 17 Gs, 17 starts, 69.1 PFF grade ranked 19th of 78 guards

Austin Corbett provided some much-needed stability and above average play along the Panthers offensive line. His annual average annual salary of $8.75 million ranks 16th among guards, which is right about where he performed in 2022 right up until his unfortunate ACL tear. Provided Corbett can return next year healthy and productive, this is a good contract for the Panthers.

Grade: B

Bradley Bozeman, C - 1-year, $2.8M ($1M guaranteed)

Key stats: 17 Gs, 11 starts, 63.1 PFF grade ranked 19th of 38 centers

This was another solid signing to shore up the Panthers offensive line and Bozeman more than outplayed his $2.8 million cap hit. The problem with this contract, however, is the one-year length (which will be a common criticism throughout this article). I’m giving this contract a “B+” with the grade being knocked down a bit because of the length. This signing would have been an “A” if it had been a multi-year deal. Let’s hope Fitterer can bring Bozeman back in 2023.

Grade: B+

D’Onta Foreman, RB - 1-year, $2M ($940k guaranteed)

Key stats: 17 Gs, 9 starts, 203 carries, 914 yards (4.5 YPC), 5 TD

Foreman was fantastic as the lead back after the Panthers midseason trade of Christian McCaffrey. The fifth-year veteran had five 100-plus yard rushing games in the 11 contests in which he saw significant snaps. There’s nothing wrong giving a one-year deal to a running back in today’s NFL, so this free agent signing was nothing but a win for Scott Fitterer. Let’s hope Foreman’s back in 2023, too.

Grade: A

Matt Ioannidis, DT - 1-year, $5.9M ($5.8M guaranteed)

Key stats: 13 Gs, 13 starts, 37 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 10 pressures

A $5.9 million contract for an above average but not spectacular interior defensive lineman is about the going rate (Ioannidis’s annual salary ranks 26th at his position), and Matt Ioannidis basically lived up to his contract. PFF gave him a 66.4 grade which ranked 44th of 127 interior defensive linemen, so his performance slightly lagged his contract. Ioannidis is another example of a one-year contract that likely would have been better as a two- or three-year deal to keep him in the fold at a position of need.

Grade: C-

Cory Littleton, LB - 1-year, $2.6M ($1.9M guaranteed)

Key stats: 15 Gs, 7 starts, 373 defensive snaps (36%), 47 tackles

This was a solid signing by Scott Fitterer. Littleton had six years of NFL experience before coming to Carolina and had started each of the prior four seasons. Over those last four years he registered 439 tackles, so he was a proven 100-plus tackle commodity. With the Panthers he became a situational player and appeared in just 36% of Carolina’s defensive snaps, but he still put up 47 tackles in a solid body of work. His PFF grade of 72.2 ranked 25th of 81 linebackers. The critique of Scott Fitterer, once again, is this was only a one-year deal.

Grade: B+

Damien Wilson, LB - 2-years, $6.9M ($3.3M guaranteed)

Key stats: 17 Gs, 5 starts, 204 defensive snaps (18%), 38 tackles, 2.0 sacks

Wilson, a seven-year veteran, had started each of his last three seasons before coming to Carolina and racked up a career-high 106 tackles in 2021 with the Jaguars. But with the Panthers he mostly played in specialized packages and appeared in just 18% of the team’s defensive snaps. He wasn’t a difference maker and his PFF grade of 57.1 left a lot to be desired, but with a 2022 cap hit of just $2.2 million (1% of the team’s total salary cap), he more than did his part given his reasonable contract.

Grade: B-

Xavier Woods, S - 3-years, $15M ($6M guaranteed)

Key stats: 15 Gs, 15 starts, 86 tackles, 6 passes defended

The Panthers got just what they were expecting from a six-year veteran who is good enough to keep a starting gig in the NFL but isn’t going to be in the Pro Bowl discussion. His $5 million annual average salary ranks 29th among safeties, which seems about right given his good-but-not-great level of play. Scott Fitterer gets a couple of bonus points though for only guaranteeing $6 million over this three-year deal, giving Carolina plenty of flexibility if they chose to move in the future.

Grade: B-

Johnny Hekker, P - 3-year, $7.62M ($4.9M guaranteed)

Key stats: 48.5 yards per punt (No. 7 in the NFL), 44.1 net average yards per punt (No. 3)

The 11-year veteran punter had one of the best seasons of his career after joining the Panthers in 2022. His 48.5 yards per punt was the highest of his career and ranked tied for seventh in the NFL. Better yet, his 44.1 net yards per punt ranked third in the league. His annual average salary of $2.5 million ranks 11th among punters, so the Panthers got a good deal on the four-time Pro Bowler.

Grade: A-

The overall summary

Credit to Scott Fitterer for a solid crop of free agent signings. Austin Corbett, Xavier Woods, and Johnny Hekker are all on good contracts through the 2024 season.

Fitterer’s biggest misstep, though, was signing guys to one-year contracts instead of multi-year deals. Yes, the Panthers 2023 cap sheet is already tight, but there are plenty of ways to manufacture cap space if it means retaining solid contributors. This is especially true for Bradley Bozeman, D’Onta Foreman, and Cory Littleton, each of whom outperformed their contracts in 2022. If these players return in 2023 it will probably be on higher cap numbers than if Fitterer had just signed them to multi-year deals last year.

When averaging out the individual grades for each of these eight free agent signings, it comes out to a solid 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Not bad, Mr. Fitterer.

Overall free agent signing grade: B