PHOENIX — Knowing the Panthers will be investing heavily in their next quarterback, they took deliberate steps to surround him with playmakers.
And head coach Frank Reich made it clear Tuesday morning that their most recent addition could be among the most significant.
Reich said Friday's addition of free agent wideout DJ Chark would give the next quarterback the kind of downfield threat they needed, completing a move he's has been thinking about since before he coached the Panthers.
"Make no mistake; I really wanted DJ — a lot of us did. I've had my eye on him for a couple of years now," Reich said at the league meetings. "I think DJ is a down-the-field threat. I think he's a very competitive, hard-working player, from all the intel that we've gathered. And if you look at his career, even though there have been some injuries along the way, he's consistently producing over 14 yards per catch. That's not a mistake. You might do that for one year, but to do that year in and year out . . .
"And you need that in your offense, right? Anybody you guys know, as well as it, you need those chunk plays. And he's been a proven chunk-play guy."
Chark's career average of 14.4 yards per catch holds up well over time; the question has always been whether he does.
He's missed 19 games the last two years because of injuries and has never played a full season. The closest he came was 15 games for Jacksonville in 2019, and he had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns. But a broken left ankle in 2021 was among a list of issues that have limited him to 54 games in five seasons (of a possible 82).
Reich said Chark had surgery to correct a foot/ankle problem and that the hope is that he'll be on the field for part of OTAs, which is a more optimistic report than he initially got. They also hope that the recent surgery gets him back to his old form since it's something they clearly value.
"And we're very optimistic that the procedure that he had done is going to end up to be a good story that is going to clean up the issue that he's been fighting for a couple of years and really give him the best chance to stay on the field," Reich said.
Chark was part of an aggressive early run in free agency, which also saw the Panthers retain center Bradley Bozeman, then stack skill-position talent including running back Miles Sanders, veteran wideout Adam Thielen, and tight end Hayden Hurst.
But getting more out of Chark, and adding to his speed-guy resume, is something Reich thinks veteran receivers coach Shawn Jefferson (13 years in the league as a player, 17 as a coach) can unlock some things.
"DJ's your big-play receiver," Reich said. "Also, I talked to DJ about this; we're going to expand his role. We want to develop him into a complete receiver, and widen his route tree. It's not just going to be all the vertical stuff down the field.
"We feel like we got one of the best wide receiver coaches in the business in Shawn Jefferson, and Shawn will do a great job working with those guys."
DJ Chark began his career in Jacksonville where he played from 2018-21 before going to Detroit in 2022.