NFL star Julius Peppers' road back home

After seven years away from the Carolina Panthers, Peppers is returning home.
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After seven years away from the Carolina Panthers, Peppers is returning home.
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Carolina Panthers

Panthers free agency frenzy is over. Here’s what it means for team’s draft strategy.

March 13, 2017 12:57 PM

What a wild ride last week was.

The frenzy of the first three days of free agency for the Carolina Panthers brought many faces, both new and familiar, to Charlotte, and sent others elsewhere.

As Dave Gettleman likes to say (and we like to repeat, often), the moves the Panthers make in free agency directly complement what the team does in the NFL draft at the end of April. So as the dust settles, here is what the Panthers’ decisions in free agency might mean for the draft.

Receivers

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Ted Ginn Jr. was the team’s only shot at speed in 2017, and he departed Carolina for a three-year deal in New Orleans (making the teams’ two annual showdowns much more interesting). Carolina also let slot and special teams man Philly Brown test the market, and he found a new home in Buffalo, announced Sunday night. Finally, the team gave backup Brenton Bersin a 1-year extension.

Last week, Panthers signed speedy Charles Johnson from Minnesota to a 1-year deal, and reliable Tampa Bay wideout Russell Shepard (who will likely fill the “gunner” role on special teams in Brown’s absence) to a 3-year deal.

Russell Shepard thoroughly impressed in podium session. "I'm the guy who catches a touchdown, and then runs to cover the kickoff."

— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) March 11, 2017

Johnson’s 1-year deal means that he’s basically on a trial period to see if he’s a replacement for Ginn Jr. quarterback Cam Newton’s second-favorite target for two years in a row (behind tight end Greg Olsen).

The Panthers will need immediate draft help at receiver, and as mentioned many times before, this is the perfect year to pick up a quick, crisp-route-running slot player who can also move to the outside – such as Zay Jones, John Ross or Corey Davis (all potentially first-rounders).

But if we’re talking No. 8 specifically, consider this: The Panthers both want and need another franchise tight end to complement Olsen in two-tight-end sets and eventually take over for the veteran. They want a player who can be an immediate receiving threat and also an excellent blocker for Newton, who won’t be running the ball as much himself anymore. The player that checks all of these boxes, and will definitely be gone in the first round, s Alabama tight end O.J. Howard.

Defensive ends

The Panthers brought back veteran (and NFL legend) Julius Peppers on a one-year deal and re-signed veteran defensive end Charles Johnson to a two-year extension. They also extended situational edge rusher Mario Addison for three years, and traded Kony Ealy and a third-round pick to the Patriots for a second-round pick. Whew.

But just because Johnson, Peppers and Addison will be big factors on the defensive line, doesn’t mean the Panthers aren’t looking at drafting a rookie defensive end this April.

Peppers probably will play a more situational role and Johnson was injury-prone last season (although fully healthy now), while Addison’s role may or may not expand to include more downs. Plus, Peppers’ 1-year contract means the team will be looking for a replacement soon, so why not pick up a rookie to come in and learn from one of the best ever at the position?

The bottom line: The Panthers simply cannot let this defensive end class pass them by without a pick – although it’s less likely they use No. 8 on that particular position now.

Defensive backs

Carolina also stockpiled its secondary with veteran Pro Bowl safety (and apparent age-defier) Mike Adams and brought back prolific nickel corner (and fan favorite) Captain Munnerlyn.

Charles Johnson accidentally lets it slip that he saw Captain Munnerlyn upstairs. Felt bad about it...but... (!!!)

— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) March 11, 2017

Of all of the moves Gettleman made in free agency, these may have been the wisest. Not only will the team finally have its dependable nickel after years of struggling to find the right fit, adding Adams’ experience alongside stalwart Kurt Coleman lends a prodigious edge to the ball-hawks in the back.

Plugging holes at safety and nickel also frees up early rounds in the draft for decisions on offense – the side of the ball the team desperately needs to fix.

But just like with the defensive ends, the Panthers can’t – and won’t – let this tremendous crop of corners and safeties go without snagging one or two in later rounds, to prepare for the future. Adjusting to the NFL learning curve behind Adams, Coleman, and Munnerlyn has got to be a rookie’s dream scenario.

Offensive line

Carolina signed former Minnesota left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal, which is an even larger investment than the one they made in left tackle Michael Oher when they extended his contract last year. If Oher returns, he’ll probably slide over to right tackle while Kalil mans the left. Veteran Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will be back and healthy, as will backup Gino Gradkowski. The team just re-signed everyone’s-backup Chris Scott to a one-year deal as well, and will continue to rely on Trai Turner, Daryl Williams and Andrew Norwell this season.

The Panthers lost tackle Mike Remmers to Minnesota, a situation that at worst depleted a little depth and at best got Remmers some money.

If the line’s health entering the 2017 season is as expected, the offense may have a very different year than it did in 2016. Still, it’s never too early to stockpile tackles, and even in a weak draft class such as this the Panthers may pick up at least one in mid-to-later rounds.

Running backs

The Panthers did next to nothing with their running backs in free agency, other than releasing fullback Mike Tolbert and extending complementary back Fozzy Whittaker.

This, combined with the fact that lead back Jonathan Stewart has one year left on his contract, seems to double down on the heavy implication that Gettleman will pluck the team’s future running back from this year’s draft class.

But with additional need emerging at receiver, and the possibility that fan-favorite LSU running back Leonard Fournette gets scooped before No. 8, the team could dig deeper into a very talented class to find a player in a later round.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

Russell Shepard thoroughly impressed in podium session. "I'm the guy who catches a touchdown, and then runs to cover the kickoff."

— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) March 11, 2017