Carolina Panthers Free Agency Recap: Scott Fitterer and the Panthers have been busy this offseason

By Zach Goins

April 14, 2023

Photo: Jacob Kupferman / AP

The NFL Draft is fast-approaching and the Carolina Panthers are on the clock.

New head coach Frank Reich and his staff own the first-overall pick after a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bears, giving Carolina their choice of quarterback to help jumpstart a new era of Panthers football.

Will it be Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud? Only time will tell, but while the flashy trade to the No. 1 pick has garnered all the headlines, the Panthers have been quietly assembling an impressive roster of offseason additions throughout free agency. Carolina has filled holes at wide receiver, tight end, and along the defensive front with proven veteran players. 

Let’s take a look at the newest Panthers on the roster: 

Wide Receiver 

The biggest downside of the Panthers acquiring the top pick in the draft was losing standout wide receiver DJ Moore in the trade to Chicago. Moore led the Panthers in receiving yards the last four seasons and ranks fourth all-time in franchise receiving yards, which means Carolina has a serious amount of production to replace. After all, what good is a rookie quarterback with no one to throw to?

Fortunately, the Panthers have put two playmakers around their future quarterback with veteran possession receiver Adam Thielen and an explosive, downfield threat in DJ Chark. Thielen’s nine seasons in the NFL have proven him to be one of the league’s most reliable targets, which will be a huge benefit for a rookie quarterback.

Meanwhile, Chark has the speed to take the top off of a defense– but he hasn’t ever played a full season during his five-year career, missing 19 games over the past two seasons due to injury. Chark broke his ankle in 2021, and recently had an additional surgery to help correct lingering problems with his foot and ankle, but Carolina is hoping he can bounce back to full strength. 

Chark and Thielen join a fairly inexperienced wide receivers corp in Carolina, with Terrace Marshall Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr., Shi Smith and Preston Williams.

Running Backs 

The post-Christian McCaffrey era of Panthers football continues, with 2023 as the first full season without Carolina’s former superstar. D’onta Foreman excelled last season following McCaffrey’s departure, but signed with the Bears in free agency.

So, the Panthers brought in Miles Sanders, one of the league’s best rushers last season. Sanders was the top running back on a dominant Eagles offense and helped lead the team to the Super Bowl, racking up 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, both career highs.

Sanders didn’t play a significant role in the Eagles’ passing attack last season, but as a rookie in 2018 he hauled in 50 catches for 509 yards. If he can get back to those numbers in Carolina, CMC will become a distant memory for Panthers fans.

Tight End 

The Panthers haven’t had a true threat at tight end since Greg Olsen left following the 2019 season. Now Carolina hopes Hayden Hurst can change that. The former South Carolina Gamecock has bounced around the NFL throughout his five-year career with stops in Baltimore, Atlanta and Cincinnati. Most recently Hurst hauled in 52 passes for 414 yards and two touchdowns from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, proving to be a pivotal part of the team’s offense during their playoff run.

Last year, the Panthers’ three tight ends Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble and Giovanni Ricci combined for 48 catches and 471 yards– numbers that ranked 15 individual tight ends ahead of them in the NFL last season. 

Now with five tight ends on the roster, Hurst is clearly the top talent, and could be the weapon Carolina is looking for to elevate the offense.

Offensive Line 

Most of the Panthers’ big moves in free agency were fun, splashy signings at skill positions, thanks in large part to stability along the offensive line.

For the first time in what feels like forever, there are no question marks along the O-line for Carolina. All five starters are back, and the backups are too, giving a rookie quarterback everything he could ask for up front. 

Resigning center Bradley Bozeman to a three-year deal was one of the Panthers’ biggest moves in free agency, and the team also signed veteran guard Justin McCray for added depth.

Defensive Line 

The moves on the defensive side of the ball weren’t as flashy, nor were there as many, but important depth was added to reinforce the Panthers’ already sturdy defense.

While the Panthers will likely look for an edge rusher in the draft to pair opposite Brian Burns, the team shored up the interior defensive line with two veteran Carolina native tackles in Shy Tuttle (Midway, NC) and DeShawn Williams (Central, SC). 

Both players are coming off career-best seasons with Williams recording 4.5 sacks and 37 tackles in Denver, while Tuttle tallied 49 tackles and 2.0 sacks in New Orleans. The two will pair nicely with Carolina’s current leader on the interior defensive line, Derrick Brown, who also recorded his most productive season of his career in 2022.



Secondary 

Carolina added veteran safety Vonn Bell to the secondary in a move that could have a ripple effect throughout the entire defense. Bell’s coverage skills and ability to play downhill in the run game should allow the Panthers to be more flexible in how they use Jeremy Chinn. With Bell at safety, the Panthers can move the safety/linebacker hybrid Chinn back into a more traditional linebacker/nickelback role that saw tremendous success during his rookie season.

Bell spent the last three seasons with the Bengals and recorded a career-high four interceptions in 2022, along with eight pass breakups and no touchdowns allowed.

Quarterback 

While the future of the franchise is set to join the Panthers at the end of the month, Carolina still wanted to find a veteran presence to mentor their young quarterback– and back him up. The answer came in the form of 12-year NFL veteran Andy Dalton. The three-time Pro Bowler spent the 2022 season with the Saints, where he started 14 games and posted his best quarterback rating since 2015, proving he still has what it takes to get the job done. 

Dalton won’t be the Panthers long-term starter once the No. 1 pick gets up to speed, but he’ll be well-suited to serve as a bridge and a safety net for the young rookie. Plus, statistically Dalton is a significant improvement from last year’s options in Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker, both of whom left Carolina during free agency.


Kicker

Carolina had their choice of kicker, with both Eddy Piñeiro and Zane Gonzalez as options entering the offseason. Gonzalez was reliable for the Panthers in 2021 prior to an injury, but was injured again ahead of the 2022 season which opened the door for Piñeiro.

The team decided to move forward with Piñeiro, re-signing the kicker to a two-year deal and trading Gonzalez away to the 49ers for a conditional late-round 2025 pick. 

Piñeiro went 33-of-35 on field goals in 2022, including 19 straight makes, and 30-of-32 on extra points.

The 2023 NFL Draft takes place Thursday, April 27 (Round 1), Friday, April 28 (Rounds 2-3), and Saturday, April 29 (Rounds 4-7) on ABC, ESPN, and NFL Network.




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