CHARLOTTE — Over the course of last season, the Panthers found a stable foundation in a place you might not expect.
The same was true for a young family, and that creates one of the more interesting free-agent decisions of the offseason for both Bradley Bozeman and the Panthers.
The veteran center came here last year on a one-year deal and became part of the personality the Panthers established in the latter part of the season. Long a weakness, the offensive line became a strength of the team. And as the only free agent in such a stable group (the other four starters are under contract through at least 2024), Bozeman knows that has value.
"This place is awesome," Bozeman said. "This offensive line room, with coach (James) Campen, you're not going to find a better coach. That group and how consistent it is, and knowing they're all going to be back next year, it definitely plays a part in it. To know you're going to have two really good guards next to you, two really good tackles that understand each other. We really hope we can keep it together."
Like a lot of things that almost sound too good to be true, there's a "but" at the end of that sentence.
"But we know it's a business," Bozeman said. "And we've been part of that business last year, and we get it. There's cap space and different stuff through the offseason, and we hope we can make it all work."
For their part, the Panthers would also like it to work. While there are a number of uncertainties any time there's a coaching search, Campen's work with Bozeman, guards Brady Christensen and Austin Corbett, and tackles Ikem Ekwonu and Taylor Moton was one of the high points of 2022 and the kind of thing that ought to carry over. But there is the small matter of the contract, and general manager Scott Fitterer said he's already started to talk in general terms with Bozeman about that.
"Bradley's great," Fitterer said the day after the season ended. "He's a great teammate. Great leader. He's great in the community. He's one of the bigger centers in the NFL. He's very physical. What he does he takes a lot off the quarterback's plate as far as line calls and managing the line up front. We have a really smart offensive line. Very well coached with Campen. With Corbett at right guard, Brady at left guard, and Bozeman at center, great communication up front, which is what you need.
"Bozeman was a great addition. Really happy about him. We had a good talk this morning about his future. He's a guy that we would like back. He wants to be back. He's part of our future."
Bozeman's insertion into the starting lineup came a week after interim coach Steve Wilks took over, and was part of the physical style the Panthers used the rest of the year. The Panthers were 27th in the league in rushing after five weeks but averaged 146.8 yards per game over the final 12 (which would have ranked fifth in the league). They ran for more than 100 yards in seven of the last 12 games, including three games over 200 yards, and a franchise-record 320 against the Lions.
So it makes sense to want to keep it all together, and Bozeman is clearly on board with that plan.
But he also remembers last offseason.
After spending his first four years with the Ravens and becoming a reliable starter and key part of a strong running personality, he thought he was in line for a long-term deal to stay there. It didn't happen, and when he got into the open market, he was faced with a number of short-term offers.
There were several of them, but Bozeman and his wife Nikki chose to come here for a few reasons. When they were early in their relationship, they spent time living together in an RV, but they were hoping for somewhere a little more permanent.
And Charlotte was the kind of place they were looking for then, and again this offseason. But a one-year deal isn't the same as putting down roots, and that experience colors the way he thinks about this year's free agency.
"You definitely go into it more humbled," Bozeman said. "My offseason last year in free agency didn't work out the way I planned it to. I was expecting to be on a long-term deal. My market just kind of fell apart. It didn't quite work out, so you go into it this year with a more humble mindset and see what's best for us, and giving us financial security for my family, and then for them as well in the front office.
"I definitely want to stay; I can definitely say that. But unfortunately, at the end of the day, I have to take care of my family, and they have to budget whatever money they have to budget. I really, really hope that it's here. But if it falls through here or something else, I have to do what's best for my family."
Yes, family. That just became more than a talking point. The Bozemans welcomed their son into the world this week, and Bozeman is already walking around in a pair of new dad shoes (the Air Monarchs were a gift from a friend who sends them to all his new-dad buddies).
And now that they have a son, the consideration of where they want to raise him is a factor in all their decision-making.
But it's not the only factor, and after carrying the scars of last offseason (when he didn't find the long-term security he sought), he's aware of what could happen.
The uncertainty works both ways, as well. Corbett tore his ACL in the finale against the Saints, which means his comeback will be pushing up against the start of the regular season. So if the Panthers want to keep a stable thing stable, having Bozeman back in the middle would be an important component. They have Cade Mays on hand (he subbed for Corbett against the Saints and played well), but if Bozeman's here, it keeps them in a reasonable position of depth during the offseason while Corbett won't be able to practice.
There are a lot of unanswered questions, including who the head coach might be and what other things might become priorities that no one's able to consider at the moment.
And there's a new mouth to feed.
But the Panthers like the idea of having Bozeman in the middle of the line. And the Bozemans like the idea of raising their son Brody here, so there are plenty of factors to consider.
"It definitely plays a role," he said of their adopted city. "Nikki and I were talking the other day, and this place definitely checks all the boxes of where we want to live long-term. This is such an amazing city, and it would be a great place to raise a family.
"But it's business, unfortunately. I wish it wasn't."
View photos from Monday's clean-out day as Panthers players packed their things and bid farewell to their teammates for the offseason.