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A season that started with so much promise quickly went wayward once the Sam Darnold of old showed up. Although the fourth-year quarterback appeared to be on his way to resurrecting his career operating Joe Brady’s offense, he ultimately reverted back to the same turnover-prone player who flamed out with the New York Jets.

Of course, head coach Matt Rhule has cycled through a few signal-callers during an up-and-down 2021 season. Cam Newton somehow became the best option, but he’s proven disappointing since he returned to Carolina. Meanwhile, former XFL star P.J. Walker doesn’t seem to have a future as a starter.

Luckily for the Carolina Panthers, they have talent at other positions. And while general manager Scott Fitterer hasn’t made all the right calls, there are several young players worth getting excited about, which is a bit of a silver lining for a team that finished 5-12, good for last place in the NFC South.

However, Carolina will never contend for the Lombardi Trophy without a franchise quarterback. And with several potential paths to fill that enormous roster hole, here’s a plan of attack Rhule and Fitterer should follow.

Biggest offseason questions

What should the Panthers do at quarterback? That’s easily the No. 1 question that must be answered over the course of the coming months. While getting rid of Darnold would seem like an easy step, the financial ramifications make it highly unlikely. The team already picked up his fifth-year option, which essentially seals his spot on the 2022 roster.

Still, there’s no doubt Rhule and Fitterer have to find a long-term solution. Newton isn’t that. Neither is Darnold. And neither is Walker.

Could Deshaun Watson finally make his way from Houston to Carolina? The Panthers remained heavily tied to the Houston Texans quarterback in trade rumors, and it even seemed possible that he could join Tom Brady in the NFC South by the 2021 trade deadline. Obviously, Watson’s legal situation makes things complicated, but from a pure football standpoint, dealing for the three-time Pro Bowler would make a ton of sense.

Would Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers consider playing in Carolina? Both quarterbacks could be on the move. However, the Panthers don’t seem like a particularly enticing fit for two high-profile stars.

Could they look to the draft?

That remains a possibility. But after passing on Mac Jones and Justin Fields in the 2021 draft, would the Panthers be willing to use a top-10 pick on the position in a weak quarterback class?

Top free-agency decisions

Key free agents: Stephon Gilmore (CB), Haason Reddick (DE), Cam Newton (QB), Donte Jackson (CB), Matt Paradis (C)

The Panthers scored a huge discount by securing Stephon Gilmore’s services for a 2023 sixth-round pick. However, if they want to pencil him into the 2022 starting lineup, they better prepare to pay up.

The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year essentially refused to suit up for the New England Patriots again without a new deal. And considering he suffered a season-ending quad injury in 2020 and turns 32 in September, the decorated corner knows this is his last shot to cash in. Gilmore has played well for the Panthers, and it would make sense for the Rock Hill native to stay with his local squad.

But if he wants $15 million per year, will Rhule and Fitterer agree to meet that asking price?

After all, it might make more sense to pay Haason Reddick, who’s racked up 11 sacks in his first season in Carolina. He’s clearly made the leap from underproducing first-rounder to elite pass rusher. A multi-year extension for someone who turns 28 rather than 32 in September would represent a wise investment.

The Panthers also need to consider re-signing Donte Jackson. The 2018 second-round pick is by no means a star, but he’s a solid starter who’s recorded double-digit pass breakups in back-to-back seasons. Again, it would make more sense to pay him rather than Gilmore based on their six-year age gap and career trajectory.

2022 NFL Draft needs and potential targets

Top picks: First round (own), first round (via Chicago Bears from Justin Fields trade), second round (own)

Draft needs: QB, OT, C, S

Carolina needs reinforcements at key positions, including quarterback and offensive tackle. Plus, with veteran center Matt Paradis set to hit free agency, the pivot spot should rank high on Fitterer’s priority list.

With two first-rounders, the Panthers have a prime opportunity to land two instant-impact starters on Day 1 of the 2022 NFL Draft. If they don’t acquire a quarterback via trade, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett could be in play. The Heisman finalist threw 42 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in his final collegiate season, and he seems to have all the intangibles needed to succeed at the next level.

Ole Miss star Matt Corral could also be a fit in Carolina. However, the Panthers could probably trade down, acquire more draft assets, and secure him outside top-10 territory.

If the Panthers go with an offensive lineman with one of their first-rounders, Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross boasts incredible upside. Alabama’s Evan Neal would be ideal, but he may not be on the board when Carolina’s on the clock. Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum is easily the top center in the class, and he would certainly help make whoever’s starting at quarterback’s life easier.

Safety is also a top need, and Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton projects to become a top-10 pick. A dynamic athlete with size, speed, and range, he could form a dynamic duo with 2020 second-rounder Jeremy Chinn. Jaquan Brisker of Penn State could be an option in the second round.

1 player on each side of the ball who must step up in 2022

The Panthers spent a 2021 second-round pick on Terrace Marshall Jr., but the former LSU standout hasn’t provided many impressive moments as a rookie. With a mere 14 catches in 11 games, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound wideout clearly hasn’t contributed much in the passing game.

But that has to change.

With D.J. Moore entering a contract year and Robby Anderson seemingly trending downward, Marshall needs to take a step forward and become a reliable weapon. He has the talent to make that happen, and having a better quarterback should help him put up better numbers in 2022.

On the other side of the ball, fellow 2020 draft pick Derrick Brown must go from solid to great. The powerful defensive tackle went seventh overall, which speaks volumes about his natural gifts and All-Pro potential. So far, though, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound lineman has been closer to good than dominant. Teams don’t take defensive tackles early to simply stop the run. Brown has to make a bigger impact as a pass rusher, as four sacks and 19 quarterback hits through his first 29 games simply isn’t good enough.

For the sake of the Panthers’ defense, hopefully the 23-year-old uses the 2022 NFL offseason to make improvements and set himself up for a breakout campaign.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference