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Ask The Old Guy: The market is not cornered

Gilmore-Jackson

CHARLOTTE — One of my favorite questions I get, usually from well-meaning friends and family or new acquaintances, is some version of: "What do you do during the offseason?"

To which I generally reply with some version of: "I'll let you know."

While the NFL regular season is long and getting longer, there are few gaps in the calendar where the league doesn't announce its presence with authority. If baseball isn't going to play, football will certainly be happy to fill the vacuum.

Since it turned 2022, I've been to New Orleans, Tampa, Mobile, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis, tropical destinations all. In some ways, it's busier than a regular season, because when you wake up on a Thursday in Week 11, you have a pretty good idea of what the day will hold.

No such luck for the next few weeks.

With big decisions to be made on free agents, the potential for trades, and preparations for a critical draft with the sixth overall pick, this isn't a great time to try to steal a few days off. But I do it for the people, and they had questions. So here we go:

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Is defense an option in the draft? — Sreenivas, Apex, NC

Depends. Are all the left tackles gone? Are we sure yet they're not drafting a quarterback? Did both Stephon Gilmore and Donte Jackson leave in free agency?

The first two have gotten the majority of the attention, and for good reasons. Improving the offensive line is the top priority for the Panthers, and quarterback moves will happen until they get it right.

But the specter of free agency means there's also a growing chance the Panthers end up without their two veteran cornerbacks, adding to the list of things they could do on that side of the ball with a first-round pick.

Listening to the numbers that were getting thrown around Indianapolis last week, it's quite possible that what initially seemed like an either-or, could quickly turn into a neither-nor. Free agents have choices, and both may end up somewhere else.

Gilmore is still worth top money, and Jackson is viewed as a player on the rise, with his youth and speed making him an attractive target. So while the Panthers like their existing corners on the roster, there's no guarantee one of those veterans will be there to supplement Jaycee Horn, CJ Henderson, and Keith Taylor Jr.. Which means they still need some people there.

While I giggled at a mock draft earlier that slotted Cincinnati's Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner their way — and I still think it's unlikely — there are plenty of people around the league who think he's a top-five player in this draft. He's fast, and has the length you want at the position. So if the Panthers find themselves in a spot where their preferred positional targets are gone, it makes more sense to take a player with the highest grade on their board than to reach for a guy to fill a position. I still don't think they'd use their first-rounder on a corner, but everything's fluid right now, so you'd be unwise to rule anything out.

Also, if one of the top pass-rushers is sitting there at six, you think about it, because of the value of that position. Look at what they get paid in the open market. Haason Reddick may be about to cash in, so the Panthers could always backfill his spot.

But deeper in the draft, it's reasonable to think this won't be an all-one-side-of-the-ball affair like in 2020. They need some help at defensive end (particularly with a little size) and defensive tackle. They're still short on linebackers, even after keeping Frankie Luvu. There's a big hole at safety, though that seems like the kind of thing they'd fill in free agency rather than with a rookie.

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From what I've read, this appears to be a very deep draft class this year. Given trade talk seems to be heating up with the new league year right around the corner, do you think Carolina ultimately ends up with more than one pick in the top 100? — Donovan, East Bend, NC

Long-Winded Donovan is back, everybody, and he's downright succinct today.

That would certainly be the goal, and it won't be for lack of trying, or at least curiosity.

Having a gulf between their own first-rounder (sixth overall) and the Rams' fourth-rounder (which could be in the mid-130s after compensatory picks are awarded) is less than ideal.

General manager Scott Fitterer has made no secret of wanting more picks, and there are a few ways to do so, some more desirable than others.

Trading back in the draft is the easiest way to do that, but I'd only consider that if the top three left tackles are off the board. In my opinion, if you have a chance to draft Evan Neal, Ickey Ekwonu, or Charles Cross, you don't overthink it, and you just do it. Fix what you can fix, and the chance at a long-term left tackle (and around here lately, that means longer than one season) is too valuable to ignore.

If they're all gone — and that's possible — you would then see what you could get. But it might be harder unless there's some perceived competition for a quarterback (or a pass-rusher or a corner). To trade back, you have to find someone to trade up.

They could deal future picks for stuff this year, but they'd rather not do that, because then you get into a chasing-your-bets situation (Jeff Otah begat Everette Brown begat Armanti Edwards), and that's not ideal either.

The easiest way to do it is to deal existing players. Depending on who it is, you almost have to listen. They get a lot of calls. Some more serious than others. At this point, it's mostly talk. Until someone says, "I'll give you (a specific and tangible thing) for __," it's too soon to go overboard. And in Indy, most conversations never get to that point.

But to run the risk of being Long-Winded myself, and to get back to the original point, they're still evaluating players who are likely to be chosen somewhere between 10 and 125. So yeah, they're considering the possibility. And with COVID-19 pushing more players into this year's draft class, it's absolutely a deeper class, with the chance to find contributors later in the process, as well as in undrafted free agency.

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Hola Darin, I saw a discouraging report earlier, that the Panthers may be possibly looking at trading Robby Anderson to New England. Please, put me at ease and say this isn't true! — Jeff, Mustang, OK

Everybody thought it was cool when Fitterer talked about being "in on every deal." But that means you end up on a lot of calls about a lot of people, and sometimes that makes people feel uncomfortable.

Without putting too fine a point on it, there have been conversations with multiple teams about multiple players so far. When you're trying to fix an offense after spending two years doing a solid job putting together a defense, that's the situation you're going to be in. You listen to everything.

Anderson has been of interest to Bill Belichick for some time, which Anderson mentioned last season before playing the Patriots.

"When I was in free agency, he told me, 'I'm tired of scheming against you,'" Anderson said last fall, before calling it "a business decision" to sign here.

But other teams who could use receiver help would also be interested in Anderson, despite an off year. While his numbers were roughly half what he posted the previous season, people understand the entire offense was out of sorts last year, so it wasn't just him. He has value to other teams. Multiple teams. And so do multiple players on this roster.

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Do we see the team try and extend DJ Moore possibly before the season to ease his cap hit this year since his salary this year is fully guaranteed? It doesn't seem like we have many contracts that can be restructured now, but that would be one option? — Eric, Charlotte

Sure, you could extend Moore right now, and beat down that $11.116 million cap hit. But that's going to require a significant long-term investment.

And when players get to within a year of the free agent market (which Moore could join in 2023), they often have different ideas of their value than teams do.

They've talked. They'll continue to talk. Mostly, because you always would like to secure one of your top talents. Moore is the kind of guy you want to have around, because he can make big plays (three straight years of 1,100-plus yards) and because he's willing to do things like block downfield. When your best players are among your hardest workers, that benefits the entire operation.

He's also got the potential to do more in a more polished offense. I watched Deebo Samuel in the playoffs and kept wondering what Moore could do in such a position, because he's solid enough to run well.

But when you extend a guy like Moore, you're doing it because you want to keep him for a long time, rather than just for temporary cap relief. Call it a win-win.

Offensive line in free agency. Quarterback at 6. Am I crazy or do these restructures point to that? — John, Matthews, NC

You might be. That has nothing to do with the Panthers though, John.

Restructuring Shaq Thompson and Taylor Moton might have gotten people more lathered up than they should be about free agency. The Panthers still aren't in a position to be the big headline-makers next week, despite the added room.

Quarterback in the draft will be a possibility right up until it isn't, but those paperwork-shuffling moves don't have anything to do with that. They were mostly about creating enough margin that you can sign some free agents to fill some needed spots, as opposed to blowing out the top of the market for a left tackle like free agent Terron Armstead.

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Which offensive line position is most likely to be addressed in free agency? My guess is interior, since Matt Rhule seems to not value interior lineman as high first-rounders. — Carter, Charlotte

The entire league values tackles more highly than guards, so it's not particular to any one guy.

But the economics of free agency also point to Carter's thesis being correct.

With Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown getting the franchise tag already, every other tackle in the market is getting a little bit richer. The Saints didn't tag Armstead, but he's going to ring the bell in a big way, probably $20 million a year or more.

Especially if you think there's a chance to get a tackle at No. 6 (see above), the prudent play would probably be to invest in a high-quality guard, and shore up two spots at more reasonable rates.

Honestly, if you could add a rookie left tackle and a better-than-average guard to a mix with Taylor Moton, Brady Christensen, Deonte Brown, and Pat Elflein at center (where he was better than the early work at guard), it gives new line coach James Campen a chance to put together a decent group. It will still take time, but it's the start they need.

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Obviously, the Panthers front office has made it clear the QB spot is open during Scott Fitterer's press conference last week. Do you anticipate the Panthers to draft a QB, or do you think it's more likely they'll pick one up in free agency? — Cody, Four Oaks, NC

I think it's certainly easier to do it in March, because there are a lot of variables involved in waiting until late April in the draft.

They're still evaluating the incoming rookies, but if you wanted to paint with a broad brush, it's not inaccurate to describe Kenny Pickett as the one with the higher floor, and Malik Willis as the one with the higher ceiling. The question you have to ask yourself is not how they compare to Matt Corral or Desmond Ridder, but to Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud, the quarterbacks who will be available next year.

There's an economic benefit with rookies, for sure. And if you're convinced one of them can be the guy, it's worth investigating. But if the cost is a rookie left tackle, that could be the difference between a 401k contribution and a lottery ticket.

Not that there are so many sure things available otherwise, but you at least have a better idea of what quarterbacks can or can't do once they've been in the league for a few years. If the goal is to bring in competition for Sam Darnold, there are ways to do that without using a top-10 pick in the process.

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Hi Darin! Good to hear Fitterer conversation with the Panthers' own free agents - let them test the market and see what kind of offers they get. Like the 2021 draft was, it gives more confidence to the fan base that the right approach is followed. What still worries me (and I guess a lot of fans) is the urgency (and overpaid and bad deals) for the positions that we all know are lacking on the team (QB and OL). It seems that the probability on hitting the free-agent signings at offensive line on the first day and of Sam Darnold playing well (for the trade package and fifth-year option) wasn't great - it looked kind of desperate. I know that you have to try, but maybe it'd be better stop trying to hit home runs on low percentage pitches that hinder your options on the next year (draft picks and cap wise). Here's hope that this year they don't do that again on QB and OL. If there are not great options, wait and see until it becomes available (and then we have the resources to make a run). — Fernando, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Fernando hits on one of the key points of this offseason. It might take more than five minutes to fix the offense. (It took two years to get the defense in a good place, after all.)

And while the Darnold trade and option decisions didn't turn out the way they hoped, the other moves he referenced aren't necessarily as egregious as some people think. Cameron Erving signed for high-end backup money, the kind of contract you give a swing tackle. Elflein's deal wasn't out of line for a sixth-man or starting center. Those were kind of the roles they had in mind, and cost certainty is a thing when you're putting together a roster. So when they had a chance to do them, they did them. Doing them the first day made it look like more of a priority than it might have been considered at the time. When they signed Erving, there was a realistic hope they'd get a left tackle in the first round of the draft. And if they had, Erving wouldn't have had such a big role to play, and Elflein would have transitioned into center this year for Matt Paradis, and it would have resembled stability.

Things don't always work out the way you hope.

We'll see in the first week or so of free agency what the approach figures to be. My guess is they know they can't fix it all at once.

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Hi Darin! I finally got to see our boys play for the first time up here in Buffalo. Despite the outcome, I enjoyed being able to cheer for them in person instead of yelling through the screen. My question is when is the best point in the season to come down and see them in Bank of America? Thinking about a trip down for the upcoming season. — Jake, Rochester, NY

When it's warm. Sorry, I have a thing about being cold, so escaping to a place where the sun shines sounds great to me. And the fact you can get a good beef-on-weck at more than one place in Charlotte speaks to the fact that many of your countrymen agree, Jake.

This will be easier to answer when the schedule comes out later this spring, but there are a few other things to consider. The Panthers will be honoring Hall of Famer Sam Mills at one game this year, and there's always a chance of other special events as well.

Ask me this again in a couple of months, and maybe when you come down, the first Labatt's will be on me. Or maybe you can get one of the other hundred thousand Western New Yorkers who live here to. Or, maybe I can just declare you this week's Ask The Old Guy Friend Of The Mailbag, and get the appropriate honorarium coming your way when the new shipment comes in.

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Sooooo, Carolina (the Tar Heels) got an epic non-playoff regular season win over the weekend. In all your years covering the Panthers, what was the most epic non-playoff win for the team? — Rich, Mount Olive, NC

Clearly, Rich is one of those UNC fans who was unmoved by the emotion of Mike Krzyzewski's final home game the other night. Honestly, most of the Carolina fans I know are the same way. And I want you to know; I find you all petty. (But in the way I like.)

There are so many to choose from, but the first thing to pop into my mind was Chad Cota's interception against the Steelers that sealed the 1996 NFC West title.

It was a historical moment for a number of reasons, but the setting made it perfect — at home, in the mud, a goal-line stand. It was a striking visual, to say the least.

I'm sure others have thoughts, send them to me here. I'll consider alternatives. But this was my knee-jerk reaction on one of the last slow days of the offseason.

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And with that, we'll call it a Wednesday. Stay tuned; there's lots going on.

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