Now that the draft is done and free agency is only progressing in drips and drabs, the Panthers depth chart is starting to come into sharper focus. Some position groups have been bolstered this offseason such as quarterback (Bryce Young, Andy Dalton), defensive tackle (Shy Tuttle), and safety (Vonn Bell), there are still a few positions where Carolina is lacking either quality or depth.
GM Scott Fitterer and the Panthers have an estimated $27 million in available cap space, per Spotrac, which is third most in the league. Carolina has some money to spend, and here’s where they might want to go shopping:
Signing free agent Hayden Hurst this offseason was a huge win for the Panthers. The duo of Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble have given the Panthers perhaps the most toothless tight end receiving corps in the NFL over the last two seasons. Tight ends that can get open are often a warm security blanket for rookie quarterbacks, and Bryce Young could benefit from another big target.
That said, the list of available free agent tight ends is really, really thin. With both Thomas and Tremble already in the fold it’s not worth trading away draft picks to get another tight end, but it’s still a position that needs better pass-catching depth than what’s currently offered.
While the starting duo of Ikem Ekwonu and Taylor Moton provide a solid tandem of starting tackles, the depth behind them is more than concerning. As things stand today, Ekwonu’s backup on the left side is Larnel Coleman, a 2021 seventh round pick by the Miami Dolphins who has played a grand total of one professional snap. On the right side a gentleman named Ricky Lee is backing up Taylor Moton. Lee just recently joined the Panthers as an undrafted free agent from North Carolina A&T, so he’s not ready for prime time.
In summary, the Panthers two backup tackles have played a total of one NFL snap between them.
Now, if either Ekwonu or Moton go down with injury in 2023 (perish the thought) then Brady Christensen could slide over from guard to tackle, his natural position. Moving Christensen to tackle would create a hole at guard, but it’s easier to find a stopgap solution at guard than tackle. Still, the Panthers need more options at tackle than what’s currently on the roster.
The Panthers will move from a 4-3 defensive to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero so there isn’t as much need for traditional linebackers, but Carolina still has a major gap. Frankie Luvu and Shaq Thompson are fantastic and Jeremy Chinn will be used closer to the line of scrimmage this year, but there’s no depth behind them.
Depth charts available at Ourlads and ESPN show the following players backing up Luvu and Thompson: Chandler Wooten, Arron Mosby, Austin Ajiake, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Brandon Smith, and Bumper Pool. The only one of these guys who has played any meaningful snaps in his career his Grugier-Hill who had 108 tackles in 2021, but over the last two years he has registered just 48 tackles in 15 games.
I’m still surprised the Panthers didn’t bring back Cory Littleton and they’ll likely need to another player or two like him to provide some capable depth at linebacker.
Oof. This is the unit that probably gives the most heartburn to Panthers fans, both in terms of quality and depth.
Jaycee Horn is a Pro Bowler in the making, but he can’t cover everybody. Donte Jackson’s play has been hot and cold at times and he’s frequently playing through injury or sitting on the IR. Both CJ Henderson and Keith Taylor struggled mightily last year. Stanley Thomas-Oliver has only played sparingly in his three seasons in Carolina.
In 2022 PFF ranked 122 qualifying cornerbacks. D-Jax was ranked No. 103, Taylor was No. 107, and Henderson came in at No. 109, and those rankings seem about right. That’s not a sustainable plan.
If the Panthers are going to open the checkbook and spend some of that $27 million of available cap space, they should first go shopping down the cornerback aisle.