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The line starts here for the Panthers

Scott Fitterer

CHARLOTTE — As the Panthers begin the transition to planning for 2022, there are plenty of big names and familiar faces on the list of free agents.

But for all the talk Monday about the future of Cam Newton (and holdover quarterback Sam Darnold), and all the questions about how they might or might not afford cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore or pass-rusher Haason Reddick, the Panthers' focus this offseason is clear.

Throughout their season-ending press conferences, head coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer both came back to the need to improve the offensive line, atop their list of priorities.

"We have a limited amount of money we can spend, we have buckets for Donte, and other players. But how this fits, it'll be interesting once the numbers start coming in," Fitterer replied when asked about a potential contract for Reddick. "But again, our emphasis is going to be solidifying the offensive and defensive lines. We need to get big bodies. We need to get tough, gritty guys up front, so when it comes to December, we can run the ball. When it's third-and-2, we can count on them getting push at the line of scrimmage to run the ball."

If that wasn't enough for you, there were numerous other references to it throughout the day.

"Offensively, solidifying quarterback and solidifying our offensive line are the priorities," Rhule said. "We have some really good skill players, but we have to be able to win up front."

The Panthers allowed 52 sacks this season, fifth-most in the league. They also struggled to run at times, particularly in the absence of Christian McCaffrey. But with so much talk about the struggles of Darnold (and, to a degree, Newton), the topic of protection has been near the top of the offseason to-do list for some time.

They have at least one cornerstone player in right tackle Taylor Moton. They have a pair of rookies in Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown, who have some promise for the future. But they know they need to add in free agency, the draft, or preferably both.

"Our focus is on building that offensive line," Fitterer said. "We have to get stout up front, both lines, offensive and defensive line. But we're not going to be blind to other spots either. We're not going to be blind to defense, we're not going to be blind to the quarterback position.

"But we absolutely know we have to fix the offensive line. We can't have all this leakage. That's going to help the quarterback play."

There is a chicken-egg quality to the problem, as the issues up front kept any of the quarterbacks from having a fair chance at times this year.

As such, Fitterer mentioned being "open" to future conversations with Newton, and Rhule was effusive in his praise for the veteran quarterback, talking about the leadership he brought to the position and the energy and high standards he brought to the team.

Speaking of large topics, Fitterer said that while there has been talk on the outside about moving McCaffrey after his second injury-plagued season, the priority was building alongside him. Rhule also mentioned diversifying the offense to keep them from being so reliant on any one player, but McCaffrey's still a significant part of their plan.

Fitterer said he talked to the running back for 30 to 45 minutes Monday morning to clear the air.

"What I did tell him was, as a GM, I'll take any call," Fitterer said. "Call and make any offer you want. That doesn't mean we're going to do it; it doesn't mean we're shopping you. I'll listen.

"I look at Christian as a foundation piece on this team, one of those building blocks. We're a better team when he's on the field. He's one of the elite players in the NFL. I told him I'd love for him to be here. I will never not take a call. If somebody calls and offers something crazy, yeah, you look at it. But there's no intentions right now of trading Christian McCaffrey."

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