The Panthers had a quietly efficient offseason that was overshadowed by their lack of QB signings. Nonetheless, Carolina was able to add talent at virtually every weak spot from 2021. GM Scott Fitterer started with the most pressing concern (apart from Sam Darnold): the offensive line. He also added starting-caliber players in all three levels of the defense as well as the backfield and special teams before the draft even took place. This is every spot where the Panthers should see noticeable improvement from new talent in 2022:
Offensive Line – G Austin Corbett, C Bradley Bozeman, T Ikem Ekwonu
After ranking 28th in the league in total sacks and 27th in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, Carolina needed to spend big on the o-line this offseason. Fitterer added a reigning Super Bowl champion guard in Austin Corbett (3-years, $26 million) as well as center Bradley Bozeman, who came in at #23 on PFF’s top-32 most team-friendly contracts (1-year, $2.8 million). Not to mention, Ravens Twitter was devastated to see him go, as Baltimore sports reporter Bobby Trosset called him, “one of the classiest guys to ever suit up as a Raven.”
Bradley Bozeman should be remembered in Baltimore as one of the classiest players to ever suit up as a Raven and a rock-solid, versatile offensive lineman. #Ravens pic.twitter.com/XYYRyyyH89
— Bobby Trosset (@bobbytrosset) March 18, 2022
Then came the big ticket: Ikem Ekwonu. The gargantuan Carolina native and NC State alum came home to Charlotte with the sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft. Ekwonu displayed brilliantly controlled violence at NC State this past season, which jetted him all the way up the draft boards. He was the first offensive player taken in this draft. Ekwonu’s pure might combined with Bozeman and Corbett’s experience will make for much-improved protection in 2022. Add these three guys to a line with an established anchor like Taylor Moton and the Panthers might actually manage to keep Christian McCaffrey healthy (knock on wood).
Backfield – RB D’Onta Foreman
Speaking of keeping McCaffrey healthy, meet D’Onta Foreman, his new compliment. Not backup, compliment. The former Titan filled in for Derrick Henry when he went down last season, which should tell everyone how differently he plays than McCaffrey. Posting 566 yards and 3 TDs on 4.3 Y/C in nine games, Foreman runs angry, using his brute force and low center of gravity to seek contact from defenders and bounce off would-be tacklers. His power running will contrast McCaffrey’s elusive style very well.
McCaffrey’s otherworldly snap percentages are a thing of the past, as Foreman and Chuba Hubbard are more than capable of taking advantage of 8-12 carries a game. This lightning/thunder combination will keep McCaffrey fresh and defenses keying on the run. The more attention being drawn to the backfield is that much more pressure off of Darnold or Corral.
Defense – DT Matt Ioanidis, MLB Damien Wilson, S Xavier Woods
Adding starters at all three levels of the defense, Carolina bolstered what is already an extremely talented young core. Matt Ioanidis is a high-upside player who got overlooked in a stacked Washington front-four. At the 2016 combine, he put up 32 reps on the bench, which is in the 87th percentile of all defensive linemen, according to Mockdraftable. As he finally gets another starting opportunity, Ioanidis could be the missing piece that takes the Panthers’ young d-line over the top into elite status.
After a Super Bowl loss in Kansas City, MLB Damien Wilson went to Jacksonville on a 1-year prove it deal last season, and that’s exactly what he did. Starting in every game, Wilson racked up 106 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 5 passes defended and 5 tackles for loss, all career highs. Carolina added him on a 2-year $6.9 million deal to patrol the middle of the field next to OLB Shaq Thompson. Wilson is an explosive tackler, as he was a former safety at junior college in Minnesota, who will give the Panthers some much-needed speed at linebacker.
FS Xavier Woods is another addition that is coming off a career year on a 1-year deal. With career highs in games played (17), tackles (108), picks (3) and passes defended (10), Woods was one of the few bright spots in a Vikings defense with major holes. He was also fantastic in run support, boasting an 87.5 PFF grade in run defense. The Panthers ranked 20th in open field rushing defense last season, according to Football Outsiders, so Woods fills a glaring weakness in the secondary.
These moves fortified the Carolina defense at every level. Most of the team’s advanced metrics were middle-of-the-pack last season despite the offensive woes and consistently terrible field position. So, Fitterer’s fix was to look at what type of player the Panthers needed at each level. They needed to match Derrick Brown’s strength on the inside to free him up, they needed speed at linebacker, and they needed a deep safety who can tackle. All of those needs were met, so expect a revitalized and creative Panthers defense in 2022 with DC Phil Snow at the helm.
Special Teams – P Johnny Hekker
The four-time Pro Bowler with the Los Angeles Rams will come to Carolina after the Panthers ranked 24th in Special Teams DVOA last season, according to Football Outsiders. Hekker had just one touchback last year and only allowed 9 returns and 60 return yards, both of which were the least of anyone who played in at least 12 games, according to The Football Database. With a lot of uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position and offense in general, Panthers fans should take comfort in knowing that they have an All-Pro punter who can boot the ball out of their own end zone if need be.
Carolina’s lack of quarterback depth is undoubtedly concerning, but that shouldn’t take away from all the positives from this offseason. The offense runs through the backfield, and they added significant protection and running back depth in order to make sure that aspect of the offense stays consistent. On the defensive side, they added veteran talent who are entering their primes to sure up weaknesses. That’s about as much as any Panthers fan could have asked for this offseason (other than, you know, a starting quarterback).
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