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Combine notebook: Free agent discussions continue

Haason Reddick

INDIANAPOLIS — Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer continues to have discussions with a number of his own free agents, but said he considers last month's deals a good start to the offseason.

When he met with the media Wednesday at the Scouting Combine, Fitterer confirmed he's continued to stay in touch with the agents for a number of Carolina's own guys, including cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore, as well as pass-rusher Haason Reddick and others.

The corners are likely an either-or proposition, while Reddick, whose 11.0 sacks last year gave him 23.5 sacks over the past two seasons, figures to draw plenty of attention when the negotiating window opens on March 14. Deals can be signed when the league year opens on March 16.

"Haason has earned the right to go out and see what he can get," Fitterer said. "He's got two years in a row with double-digit sacks. He's going to command a lot of money on the market. I'm happy for him. We just want the dialogue to be open, give us a chance, and we'll see where it goes."

Fitterer also specifically mentioned wanting to keep kicker Zane Gonzalez, who made 20 of his 22 field goal attempts last season, including 17 straight before he injured a quad in pregame ahead of the Panthers' Week 12 loss in Miami. Generally, by this point, a player who hasn't signed intends to test the market to see how other teams value them.

"We'd love to have Zane back," Fitterer said. "We'll see where that goes. We've been talking to his guy. (I) thought he really kicked well for us last year. He just wants to see what's out there and then we'll hopefully get him done. If not, we have options."

— Fitterer said Wednesday he considers two of the Panthers' previous moves part of the free-agent haul for this year, with new deals for linebacker Frankie Luvu and tight end Ian Thomas part of their calculations.

Particularly with Reddick hitting the open market, having Luvu back offers security at a thin position as well as versatility.

"I wouldn't say insurance," Fitterer said. "We just identified him as a player we wanted on this roster to help us from a special teams standpoint, a leadership standpoint, a pass rush standpoint and we think he can play on the edge and behind the ball as a linebacker. And the person himself, we didn't want to lose him. He means too much to our team.

"He can be a starter, yes."

As for Thomas, some criticized the size of his three-year deal, but Fitterer said they thought he was still an ascending player, who could flourish in new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system.

"Ian, the way he plays for us, he's an in-line blocker that has the ability to get down the seam," Fitterer said. "He's hit 20-plus mph on the GPS. The guy, when he opens up, can really run. He's got receiving skills. He probably has not shown that as much, probably in the past year or two. And there's other positions that have had troubles because of offensive issues.

"I do see a big future with him. One thing it does, having a guy like that: Defenses can't match personnel. When he comes in, they can't run another nickel on the field. They have to stay in their base personnel. So when you have a guy that can block in-line, get down the seam and catch the ball, that really helps us. That and Ben McAdoo and how he uses tight ends in this offense was a big factor in this, too. He identified this as a player that could really help us.

"The contract itself, we took it right down the middle – he's a mid-level, starting tight end. That's how he was paid. But we see big upside with him as a receiver, and he's a really good blocker."

Ian Thomas

— As much as the Panthers have talked about the need to reinforce the line — and it's a huge issue — Fitterer said the evaluations of new offensive line coach James Campen have been helpful, and could mean they don't need as many bodies.

"Coach Campen is optimistic about the guys we have on the roster, their development, guys he thinks can play," Fitterer said. "We're also going to go outside. We are going to address it in free agency and the draft as well. We'll get that position settled. That's been an emphasis since Day 1 since the season ended, is getting this offensive line right. And that's what our focus is."

— As the guy who declared himself "in on every deal," it's no surprise that Fitterer effectively covered every base Wednesday.

He suggested the Panthers could easily trade back from sixth overall to accumulate more picks, though he stressed the chance to add an impact player. He also mentioned trading existing players to make up for missing picks (their second, third, and fourth), or dipping into future picks (though he's hesitant to do that).

"Oh, yeah. We can definitely look at that," he said of trading back. "Now, if there's a franchise-type player sitting there and we think he can be a cornerstone for us the next 10 years, we're going to take him. You don't pass on a really good foundation piece. However, if there's opportunities or the compensation is so much you can't pass on it, we'll always go back and look at other options, because there's a lot of good players in this draft."

— Fitterer mentioned that while there has been discussion about how to use Jeremy Chinn in the future, he's likely a safety based on the current roster. Incumbent starter Juston Burris is an unrestricted free agent as well.

"He's probably around the ball more when he's up, but he's a really good safety," Fitterer said of Chinn. "Luvu can play linebacker, Shaq (Thompson) is there, we have several guys that can play safety. And we have a hole at safety, so he's probably better at safety this year."

— In other news, both quarterbacks Kenny Pickett and Malik Willis confirmed they met with the Panthers here, though that's an obvious point considering where they are in the quarterback search.

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