CHARLOTTE – The Panthers made an investment for the future Friday, with the reported trade up with the Bears to acquire the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft with the opportunity to find their quarterback of the future.
Carolina reportedly sent Chicago the ninth pick, their late second-round pick from the 49ers (61st overall), their 2024 first-rounder, and a 2025 second-rounder along with wide receiver D.J. Moore in the deal, leaving space open for a new WR1 in Charlotte.
Moore put up three 1,100-plus receiving yard seasons from 2019-21 and finished last season with a team-high 888 yards as the Panthers had three different starting quarterbacks through the year.
Now the Panthers have options to sift through when looking for the right pass catchers to pair with their new quarterback. They'll need to find a fill-in for Moore's productivity, and general manager Scott Fitterer had already mentioned finding another tight end as a priority.
Carolina retains the 39th overall pick early in the second round, so it's reasonable to think the Panthers' brass could use that selection on a pass catcher. There's also always free agency, and they could elect to pick someone with a proven track record to sharpen a rookie passer.
Here's a breakdown of where the Panthers stand and what they could do to bolster the receiving corps in the post-DJ Moore era.
Panthers roster status
A sliver of good news from last season is that wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. appeared to turn a corner and take on more of a WR2 role in his second year, putting up 490 yards on 28 catches in 2022. He came up with some long catches and some crafty plays from all three of Carolina's starting quarterbacks last season, averaging 17.5 yards per reception.
Carolina also returns Laviska Shenault Jr., a yards-after-catch threat acquired via trade last year from Jacksonville. He battled through injury for much of the year but finished with 272 yards on 27 catches, including a memorable 67-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Saints in Week 3.
Shi Smith never fully reached the flashy potential he'd teased throughout the preseason, finishing the year with 296 yards and two touchdowns primarily out of the slot. The Panthers also have 6-foot-5 Preston Williams on the roster, though he only played two snaps in the last game of 2022 after signing with the practice squad from the Dolphins. They also bring back practice squaders C.J. Saunders and Derek Wright, who have shown the ability to get open in the preseason and during the week.
The Panthers could use some more pass-catching help at tight end, as no tight ends recorded more than 21 catches last season. Ian Thomas, praised for his blocking skills, finished the year with 197 yards, while Tommy Tremble added 174 on the season. Carolina re-signed depth pieces Giovanni Ricci and Stephen Sullivan ahead of the 2023 season.
Draftable receiver options
Should the Panthers choose to swing at a wide receiver with their second-round pick, they could have quite the wide selection of NFL-caliber talent still left for the taking at No. 39 overall.
Some of the top-rated wideouts, such as TCU's Quentin Johnston, USC's Jordan Addison, or Ohio State's Jaxon Smith-Njigba, won't be there at 39, but this is a deep class at the position.
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Johnston showed all the necessary physical traits and his upside as a deep ball threat during three seasons at TCU. Addison, the top-rated wideout according to NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah, isn't the largest prospect on the board at 5-foot-11, 173 pounds. Still, he is shifty and reliable, with Jeremiah predicting he'll become a "high-volume pass catcher very early in his pro career."
Smith-Njigba was primarily a slot receiver throughout his time at Ohio State and is a 6-foot-1, 196-pound prospect with keen route-running abilities. Jeremiah compared Smith-Njigba's traits to the Lions' Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Zay Flowers, another wide receiver in Jeremiah's top 50, is a fast, smaller wideout, standing at 5-foot-9, 182 pounds. The Boston College product's speed and potential remind Jeremiah of the Cowboys' T.Y. Hilton.
Carolina could also find themselves in the market for some productive receivers with Carolina ties. Tennessee's Jalin Hyatt, an Irmo, South Carolina native, broke out in his junior year with the Vols as a quick, reliable option, as the 6-foot, 176-pound receiver finished the season with 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns.
From UNC, Josh Downs is an option the Panthers could consider as well. He's another option on the smaller side at 5-foot-9, 171 pounds, but he put up two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Tar Heels and could grow to become a reliable threat in the league.
Draft a tight end
The Panthers have made it clear they're looking at tight ends in the draft, and the class offers a variety of options with diverse skill sets to select from.
Utah's Dalton Kincaid would immediately bolster the pass-catching prowess at the position, as the 6-foot-4, 246-pound tight end is a talented route runner with explosive potential and put up nearly 900 receiving yards with eight touchdowns last year. Michael Mayer has been a consistent target for the past two seasons, putting up over 800 yards as a pass catcher for consecutive years. The 6-foot-4, 249-pound Notre Dame product also provided value as a run blocker.
There's depth at the position as well, with a number of potential contributors figuring to go in the second round and beyond.
Darnell Washington's physical prowess impressed at the combine last week, as the 6-foot-7, 264-pound prospect showed power and athleticism through drills in Indianapolis. The massive tight end flashed big-play potential at Georgia, playing a key role in the Bulldogs' two national championship runs as both a blocker and pass catcher.
Oregon State's Luke Musgrave is another option as a high-upside prospect with room to grow after an injury-marred 2022 season. At 6-foot-6, 253 pounds, Musgrave is a speed threat and a consistent ball catcher when healthy.
Pick up a free agent
The Panthers will likely be looking for another pass catcher in free agency, with several contracts hitting their expirations across the league.
Carolina could potentially consider some of the top unrestricted free agent tight ends, including Dalton Schultz or Mike Gesicki.
Schultz has been a valuable pass catcher with the Cowboys since 2018, putting up over 2,100 receiving yards on 211 receptions in five seasons. Gesicki has spent his career in Miami since the Dolphins drafted him with a second-round pick in 2018, and he's tallied more than 2,600 yards on 231 catches in his career.
At receiver, two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen was added to the pool of options after his release from Minnesota. Thielen, 32, has been consistently productive across his decade with the Vikings, totaling 55 career touchdowns and over 6,600 receiving yards.
Another choice for a receiver could be a reunion for new head coach Frank Reich, Parris Campbell. Selected by the Colts with a second-round pick in 2019, Campbell put up the best season of his career last year despite poor quarterback play, finishing the season with 623 yards on 63 catches in his first full season of action.
Jakobi Meyers is one of the top-performing wideouts available in free agency, as he has been a consistent receiver in New England for three seasons after the Patriots picked him up as an undrafted free agent in 2019. Last year, the 6-foot-2 Meyers put up 804 yards on 67 receptions, averaging 12 yards per catch.
DJ Chark will become a free agent after his one-year deal with the Lions expires. The 6-foot-4 wideout missed six games last season with an ankle injury but returned with a solid finish to the year, tallying 502 yards and three touchdowns on 30 catches in 2022. Chark was a Pro Bowler in 2019 with the Jaguars, who selected him with a second-round pick in 2018.
Other names coming up in free agency include Allen Lazard, the top option for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay last season; Mecole Hardman, who missed a chunk of his second Super Bowl season with the Chiefs this year; and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who totaled over 900 yards in his one-year deal at Kansas City.
Here's a look at some of the top quarterbacks in this year's class, including Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis.