Putting the full puzzle together

Panthers puzzle

CHARLOTTE — The puzzle that is the Panthers' offseason is far from complete.

But at least they've filled in most of the corners, and long stretches of the edges.

There are still some holes, but the Panthers believe they've put themselves in a position to not reach tonight, based on the work done to this point.

"That's what we did in free agency, and we filled a lot of needs," general manager Scott Fitterer said. "We're a build-through-the-draft team. And that's what we want to do is take the best available player. We don't want to be forced into taking a need."

The Panthers have been there before.

Former GM Dave Gettleman got caught in that trap a few times. In 2013, there was a hole in the middle of the defense, leading to defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the first two picks. It didn't work out nearly as well for him in 2016, when the shortage of corners caused by rescinding the franchise tag on Josh Norman led him to use three straight picks at the position (after the regrettable defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round) on James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez.

Last year, the Panthers spent the entire draft on defense, refreshing the side of the ball that needed young players. But even that was spread among all three levels.

This year, they've checked off enough boxes to justify picking nearly any position, as long as they're convinced that player will be good for them years from now.

"I think the job that was done in free agency allows us, there's no one position where we feel like 'Hey we need to take someone here,'" Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "What we want to do is look back five or six years and say 'Hey, we have a couple of great players that came out of this draft,' and if we look at it from that perspective, it's not about filling a need for this season, it's about building the team that can compete year in and year out.

"We'll try to take the best players and know we have a roster that allows us to do that."

There are still obvious areas of need, or at least a lack of depth. Perhaps not coincidentally, those spots match up with the three positions Fitterer identified as being the deepest positions in the draft — cornerback, tackle, and wide receiver.

The Panthers brought in veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye in free agency along with Rashaan Melvin. But with Donte Jackson in the final season of his rookie contract, going into camp with two guys in their 30s and one in his walk year is less than ideal — and the situation is acute enough to demand a significant move.

The Panthers made their biggest play of the offseason to help the offensive line, using the franchise tag to retain right tackle Taylor Moton, with hopes of extending his deal before the July 15 deadline. After that, they spent much smaller amounts on some capable players, bringing back guard John Miller and importing free agents Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving, two guys with the kind of flexibility to play multiple spots along the line.

At receiver, they lost Curtis Samuel in free agency, and have one more year of Robbie Anderson on his current contract. Knowing DJ Moore is about to get more expensive when they pick up his fifth-year option for 2022, moves will need to be made. Bringing in former Seahawk David Moore helps, but in a class with potential contributors deep in the draft, it's clearly something they need.

Otherwise, most of the lines on the depth chart are filled in.

Sam Darnold tunnel

They're hoping for stability and clarity at quarterback after trading for Sam Darnold and moving Teddy Bridgewater to Denver. They're betting on upside there, hoping a better grade of talent around him (and a more positive coaching atmosphere) helps Darnold look like the player he appeared to be when he was the third overall pick in 2018.

Glaring needs on defense were filled with DaQuan Jones, Haason Reddick, Morgan Fox, and Denzel Perryman. That allows them not just to draft flexibility, but enough parts in the front seven to let second-year hybrid defender Jeremy Chinn play less linebacker and more safety.

All that said, the roster is still very much a work in progress, to the extent that not drafting anyone with the eighth pick is a solid option. Trading back a few spots (think mid-teens) would allow them to stockpile assets for the future and still meet some current needs. Fitterer's "in on every deal" ethos also means they could be looking at other means to upgrade the roster this weekend.

At the moment, Carolina has eight draft picks (and five next year). By the end of the weekend, those numbers could change. So will the Panthers' roster, as they continue to try to put this thing together.

The way Fitterer described the challenge made it sound simple, even if it's far from easy: "I believe in bringing in the best players that can fit your team, create competition and upgrade your roster."

View the NFL Draft stage and setup in Cleveland before the full event kicks off on Thursday night.

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