Carolina Panthers NFL offseason preview: No matter the QB, an upgrade on the O-line is essential

The Carolina Panthers hoped that Sam Darnold (14) would be their long-term solution at quarterback, but the position remains a concern heading into the 2022 offseason. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. –- Scott Fitterer summed up the 2021 season, his first as Carolina Panthers general manager, best when he explained his offseason goals after a 5-12 record.

“We’re not going to be blind to the defense,’’ he said. “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. We need to build this the right way.’’

The leakage became magnified after a 3-0 start turned into a four-game losing streak and two wins over the final 12 games. Blame the offense, because the second-ranked defense played well enough to win. Carolina gave up 52 sacks -- only four teams gave up more.

That, and poor play by quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Cam Newton, left the Panthers 30th in total offense and 29th in scoring. That led to coach Matt Rhule firing offensive coordinator Joe Brady with five games remaining and, later, to the dismissal of offensive line coach Pat Meyer.

Fixing the line and quarterback position are the No. 1 priorities this offseason, or the next change could be at head coach.

Projected salary-cap space: $18,132,452

Top free agents: CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Donte Jackson, OLB Haason Reddick, LB Frankie Luvu, TE Ian Thomas, RB Ameer Abdullah, K Zane Gonzalez

Potential cut candidates: CB A.J. Bouye, LB Shaq Thompson

Bouye, 30, plays a position loaded with young talent. Cutting him would save $3.5 million in cap space. Thompson is a team captain and leader. He also represents $18.2 million in 2022 cap space. Cutting him would clear $12 million in space for a team that needs a lot of upgrades without much money to do it.

What to do at quarterback: Darnold is the only quarterback under contract, and he has an $18.9 million salary-cap hit, so he’s almost impossible to trade. He also isn’t the answer after going 4-7 with nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions as the starter. Protecting him was an issue (35 sacks), and upgrading the line is a priority, regardless of who is under center.

Carolina’s options, however, aren’t great. The free-agent class is weak. It’s unlikely Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, or even Jimmy Garoppolo, could be had in a trade, given Carolina’s lack of draft capital. The same goes for Deshaun Watson, who would have to clear up his legal issues -- he faces 22 civil suits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior -- first. If that happens, the price would likely be too high.

Drafting Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett or Liberty’s Malik Willis with the sixth pick feels like a big reach, particularly with the need for a left tackle. Neither appears to be Year 1 starting material. The best solution might be to stick with Darnold, build the line and hope for the best.

Best-case scenario for the team’s offseason: Upgrade quarterback and the offensive line in one of several ways: Trade for Garoppolo and rebuild the offensive line through free agency and the draft; if the team takes care of the line in free agency, then use the sixth pick on a quarterback to groom for the future; if not, select one of the top three left tackles and find a quarterback project in the middle rounds.

Worst-case scenario for the team’s offseason: Darnold remains the starting quarterback, no left tackle is found in free agency, the top three offensive tackles are selected ahead of Carolina in the draft and the team fails to re-sign cornerbacks Jackson and Gilmore.

Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: Offensive line and quarterback are the two major areas of concern for the Panthers entering the offseason. After trading for Darnold and welcoming back Newton in 2021, it's clear neither is the quarterback of the future. With heightened expectations and pressure mounting to win next season, the Panthers could be aggressive with attempting to solidify the position. They haven’t selected an offensive lineman in the first round since 2008 (Jeff Otah). Fortifying the offensive front could be the route that they decide to take as well.

Top needs: QB, OL, WR

Top pick: No. 6