CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule didn’t have to think long when asked what Tampa Bay and Kansas City had in common prior to Super Bowl LV.
“Elite quarterbacks with really well-invested offensive lines,” Rhule said while coaching at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
Quarterback already has been an offseason focus, as league sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the Panthers offered the No. 8 pick, a fifth-round pick and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions eventually decided to go with the Los Angeles Rams‘ trade offer.
Carolina, per league source, also has serious interest in Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson should the Texans give in to his request to be traded.
But the offensive line also has to be a priority with only one starter — center Matt Paradis — under contract. The Panthers won’t have much cap room — projected between $12 million and $13 million — to work with, although that number will more than double if the team releases defensive tackle Kawann Short.
That has to be a concern for whoever is playing quarterback.
Here’s a breakdown of the offensive roster as the Panthers begin their second offseason under Rhule:
Free agents: None
Bridgewater’s 4-11 record in 2020 — and 0-8 with a chance to win or tie on the final possession — has the Panthers looking for an upgrade, if possible. His $23 million cap hit makes him tough to trade and the $27 million in dead money makes him tough to release. If there’s no trade, drafting a quarterback at No. 8 becomes an option in the pursuit of an franchise player. At least one of the top four quarterbacks should be there. It’s obvious the Panthers don’t believe backups Walker or Grier have the potential to be the answer. Grier, a third-round pick in 2019, didn’t play a snap this past season and spent much of the season inactive. He’ll be hard-pressed to make the roster in 2021. Bridgewater ultimately could end up going into camp as the starter. If so, building to give him the best chance to succeed becomes the priority.
McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020 due to injuries, which had a negative impact on the entire offense, since coordinator Joe Brady spent the offseason building around him. He should be 100 percent and ready to resume his status as an elite back, but Carolina has to have a capable replacement just in case. Re-signing Davis, who had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage as McCaffrey’s replacement, is an option if the price is right. With so many other needs, the Panthers may opt to fill that role with a draft pick or an undrafted player.
Samuel had a career year with 77 receptions for 851 yards and 40 rushes for 200 yards, which likely will drive his cost up too high for the Panthers to re-sign him. That he does many of the same things McCaffrey does lessens the likelihood he returns, since McCaffrey sometimes will keep him off the field. This should be an area the Panthers attempt to maintain quality depth with a draft pick in the first four rounds. They already have solid starters in Moore and Anderson, who both topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2020. And they have McCaffrey, who topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2018 and 2019.
Free agent: Chris Manhertz
One other thing Tampa Bay and Kansas City have are upper-tier tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. That was a big missing piece from the Carolina offense. Thomas had only 20 catches for 145 yards in 2020. Kelce topped 100 yards receiving nine times this past season, including all three playoff games. If the Panthers don’t use the No. 8 pick on a quarterback, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts would be a logical choice if he’s still on the board.
The Panthers have their work cut out here. Re-signing right tackle Moton to a long-term deal or using the franchise tag on him has to be a priority. Finding a way to keep at least two of the trio of Miller, Reed and Scott also makes sense if the price is right, Miller in particular. Left tackle is the biggest issue. Little hasn’t shown he can be the solution, and Carolina likely won’t have the cap space to invest in a top free agent. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Panthers went draft-heavy here, as they did defensively a year ago. The staff got a good look at several top prospects, such as Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood and Tennessee’s Trey Smith, at the Senior Bowl.