The Carolina Panthers were a mess last season with San Darnold busting at quarterback and Christian McCaffrey missing almost the entire season with another laundry list of injuries.
But one thing the Panthers do have going for them entering free agency is a decent amount of salary cap space, sitting at about $30 million.
Given an opportunity to improve the team through free agency, here are four top targets the Panthers should be focusing on this March:
Jameis Winston, QB
The Panthers gave it a try with San Darnold and Cam Newton last season. And while the loss of Christian McCaffrey for the majority of the season was a death-blow under the best of circumstances, it was pretty obvious that the quarterback situation simply wasn’t sustainable.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, this is not the year to draft a franchise quarterback, although Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett will try to challenge that assumption. Absent the draft, the Panthers could try making a trade, but the price for someone like Russell Wilson is going to be prohibitive.
The free-agent market doesn’t seem to be much better, in terms of starting quarterbacks. But there is one man the Panthers are extremely familiar with who could provide the jolt the offense needs.
Jameis Winston makes things happen, just not only for the team he plays for. When he ran the offense in Tampa Bay, he was capable of throwing four touchdowns and four interceptions in the same game almost every week.
But in the past two seasons with the New Orleans Saints, and particularly 2021 when he started the first seven games, he was a different guy, owning a 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 102.8 passer rating as the Saints went 5-2 under his leadership in the post-Drew Brees era.
But then he blew out his knee on Oct. 31 and was lost for the season. Now he is a free agent and both he and the Panthers are well aware of each other, as Winston has spent his entire career in the NFC South.
Coming off his injury, he should be available at a discount for a player with his starting background. If the knee is sound, having Winston throwing to D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson would make the Panthers a dangerous offense, especially if McCaffrey can stay on the field.
Stephon Gilmore, CB
The Panthers have a pretty exciting group of young cornerbacks on their roster and between free agents Gilmore and Donte Jackson, one is going to have to be let go into free agency not to return. The question facing the Panthers is which of the two to retain, if at all.
Gilmore is entering his age-32 season and will probably be looking for a deal beyond his worth after being acquired at midseason from the Patriots in a trade. But Gilmore is still one of the better corners I the league and would be the kind of veteran presence to help the next generation of corners get up to speed.
Gilmore is from South Carolina, and on his final free-agent contract of his career, it’s possible he would entertain a hometown discount. If so, the Panthers should leap at the opportunity to keep the veteran in the fold.
Brandon Scherff/Connor Williams, G
Having McCaffrey back healthy and making an upgrade at quarterback will certainly make the Panthers’ offense more viable in 2022, but if the offensive line is the mess that is was in 2021, it might not matter how talented the backfield is.
Scherff, from the Washington Commanders, and Williams, from the Cowboys would firm up the guard positions and give right tackle Taylor Moton some badly-needed help. Scherff is going to fetch a pretty decent contract, but if the Panthers are going to spend up for anyone, a solid, dependable offensive lineman is the place to start. Williams might be available for a cheaper price after a difficult year in Dallas with a slew of holding penalties. But his talent is there and would be a major upgrade from what the Panthers trotted out there last season.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference