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Post-free agency draft needs reset: Defense

Jadeveon Clowney

CHARLOTTE— The Panthers return to the field this week for voluntary minicamp, as players and coaches get the first look of what this team will be for the 2024 season. Of course, that team will get another overhaul before the end of the week, when the NFL draft kicks off on Thursday night. The Panthers are on the clock beginning Friday night.

General manager Dan Morgan put in a ton of work during free agency, bringing in big names, while a number of old faces were headed the other direction. After trading Brian Burns for draft picks and then signing an impact pass-rusher in Jadeveon Clowney along with all the other moves, the Panthers aren't heading into the draft as desperate as they were in February, and are now set with two picks in the Top 40. Before the festivities begin on Thursday night (the Panthers pick first in the second round on Friday; you can see all their picks here), it's worth taking a look back at what they did this offseason and how it impacts the next set of moves.

Defensive Linemen

Rate the need: Medium-low

Analysis: Morgan was able to address the biggest questions, concerns and general musings about the defensive line well before the draft, as the front office inked Brown to his extension, and paired him with a mountain of a man in Robinson. The latter comes to Charlotte after a season with the New York Giants, and the two previous years with the Los Angeles Rams, where he won a Super Bowl. Robinson, at 6-4 and 330 pounds, posted a career-best season in 2021, with 67 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. His presence can help shore up the rushing defense, which was in the second half of the league last season, giving up an average of 122.4 yards per game on the ground, a function of allowing the fifth-most rushing attempts in the league.

Luckily for the Panthers, their three presumed starters are under contract beyond 2024, meaning this season, the trio of Robinson, Tuttle and Brown are somewhat afforded time to find and create their chemistry, carrying it on to the following season.

Outlook: Even with the trio of starters set to be here past 2024, the Panthers depth is currently a short term solution. The position is one with a notably difficult transition from the college level, so with the time allowed the club with Tuttle under contract till 2025, Robinson through 2026 and Brown through 2028, the Panthers could find a lineman in the draft this year, with the understanding that they would spent the next couple of years for development. Someone in a later round, like Ruke Orhorhoro (Clemson) or Michael Hall Jr. (Ohio State) could be a good grab; and while legacy prospect Kris Jenkins Jr. (the son of the 2001 Panthers second-rounder of the same name) would likely be gone by the time the Panthers want to grab a defensive lineman, if the board falls in such a way, the Michigan product could be an interesting tackle to keep an eye on.

A'Shawn Robinson

Outside Linebackers

Rate the need: High

Analysis: One doesn't just replace Brian Burns, ... but Jadeveon Clowney is a pretty good successor. The former No. 1 overall pick is 31 and heading into his 11th season. This is typically when a club wouldn't expect game-changing play from a position that is so dependent on physicality and reaction time. But Clowney is coming off his best year in the past five seasons, with 47 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, four passes defended and two fumble recoveries. For most of Wonnum's career, he has oscillated between being a high quality reserve, or near full-time starter. As Morgan looks for more talent for the room (we'll get to that below), Wonnum will likely be expected to play a lot of quality snaps. Barno, Chaisson (a former first-round pick) and Johnson all have at least some starting experience as well.
Clowney is one piece but this is a unit that is needy for some twitch and speed. The Panthers defense produced the fewest amount of sacks of any team in the league last season, with 27. While sacks can come from anywhere, the OLB's lead the way, and the unit needed a makeover.

Outlook: This would be a higher need if they Panthers had only traded Burns and not brought in a guaranteed starter to replace him, but Clowney—and for that matter, Wonnum—gives Evero's group a bit of breathing room. Additionally, Clowney, Wonnum, Barno and Johnson are all under contract past 2024. Still, this will be a position that is addressed early in the draft. Wide receiver is likely the bigger need, but if best available lends itself to the Panthers using one of their two top 40 picks on an edge rusher, grabbing a prospect like one of the two Penn State options, Adisa Isaac or Chop Robinson, isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Jadeveon Clowney

Inside Linebackers

Who they have: Starters: Shaq Thompson, Josey Jewell Reserves: Claudin Cherelus, Tae Davis, Chandler Wooten

Rate the need: Medium

Analysis: This was another unit that the front office stripped down at the beginning of free agency, only to quickly build it back by the end of the week. Thompson will be returning from a broken fibula that kept him out of all but two weeks of the 2023 season. His return to the field (and return to jersey No. 54) will bring steadiness to the middle of the field. Additionally, the Panthers added free agent Jewell who has signal-calling experience, and familiarity. The former Denver Bronco had his best season under defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, which was a large part of the reason Jewell wanted to play under Evero again. Both guys have experience running the defense and Jewell is set to be here through 2026. If Thompson and Jewell can stay healthy, this is a position group that shouldn't require intense attention for now, but could be worth a look.

Outlook: The qualifier that Jewell and Thompson must stay healthy is also the issue. There isn't a ton of depth behind the duo, and Thompson, who is also in the final year of his contract, is coming back from a significant injury. A prospect like Payton Wilson is a homegrown talent who grew up a Panthers fan, but he will likely be a Day 2 pick out of the Panthers reach in relation to their needs, and has a history of injuries as well. Another local guy, like Cedric Gray, could be an option on Day 3.

Josey Jewell


Rate the need: Medium

Analysis: Where to even start? The secondary has a lot of bodies but still has questions. This is a unit that is coming off a season in which they posted the third best passing defense in the league (171.5 yards per game through the air) but have seen their personnel fluctuate greatly in recent months. Donte Jackson was sent to Pittsburgh as part of the Diontae Johnson trade, meaning Dane Jackson could start opposite Horn, with Hill a proven option as a passing-down nickel. In the back end, the Panthers return Woods, and added Fuller in free agency. Like Jewell, Fuller had his best years in Los Angeles under Evero. Only four current defensive backs (Horn, Jamison, Jackson and Robinson) are on contract past 2024 though, so these questions will come to the forefront sooner rather than later.

Outlook: Neither the corner nor safety group is top heavy in the upcoming draft, but both have a run of talent in the mid-rounds (late Day 2, early Day 3). Prospects like Max Melton (Rutgers), Caelen Carson (Wake Forest), or Jarvis Brownlee Jr. (Louisville), the latter of which had a great showing at the Senior Bowl), are all in the realm of possibility after the Panthers take care of their biggest needs. The point is, this is a draft class that is rich in the middle rounds in the secondary, and Carolina could possibly afford to wait till then to draft someone who, if all goes to the plans made in free agency, will be a developmental depth player for this coming year, and a starter in the next year or two. But as with many positions, if the right value presents itself, you can't discount them using one of the second-rounders here.

View photos of the Panthers' second week of voluntary offseason workouts on Tuesday.

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