General manager Scott Fitterer has had a very busy offseason on both sides of the line, as well as addressing the linebacker position and secondary. Here is Part 2 of free-agent signings for the Panthers' 2021 offseason:
LB Damien Wilson
The Panthers came into the offseason looking for linebackers to replace former 5th round pick Jermaine Carter Jr, who just signed with Kansas City, and the signing of Damien Wilson and the subsequent signing of Littleton (below) should signal a shift to middle linebacker for breakout player Shaq Thompson.
The 2021 season was kind to Wilson who amassed 106 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 pass deflections, 1 interception, 5 TFLs, and 1 FF during his short stint with Jacksonville. He is more of a run stuffer, not grading out particularly well in pass coverage. If the Panthers draft a starting caliber linebacker in the middle rounds, Wilson could take a backseat later on in the season.
LB Cory Littleton
As one of the league's rising stars entering the 2020 offseason, Littleton signed a reasonable deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, totaling 3 years of up to $35 million. Needless to say, he flopped. Interacting with Raiders fans on Twitter, they were nothing but glad to see him gone. Some Panther fans thought this move reeked of Tahir Whitehead, though I assure you that is not the case.
In 2016, the former Washington Husky signed as an undrafted free agent with the Rams who saw potential in him. From 2017-19, under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Littleton exploded onto the scene as a nice coverage linebacker with 295 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 26 pass deflections, 6 interceptions, 20 TFLs, and 3 FFs. I have trust in Phil Snow to utilize him properly within the scheme and return him to his glory days in LA.
CB Donte Jackson
You either love him or you hate him; the story of Donte Jackson. One of the most polarizing players on the Panthers, the fiery young defender has caught flak for getting burned pretty badly in crucial moments. You may recall the 2018 primetime matchup in Pittsburgh that saw rookie Donte get torched by Antonio Brown in an embarrassing blowout that also saw Cam get his shoulder popped by TJ Watt. In 2019, Jackson shouldered much of the blame for a 93-yard touchdown by no-name receiver Olamide Zacchaeus late in the fourth quarter of a blowout. Needless to say, he wasn't a favorite of the coaching staff who became increasingly frustrated with him later on in the season.
Getting a clean slate with Matt Rhule's staff was exactly what the doctor ordered for the now-26 year old corner. Though injury has still been a concern, having suffered multiple from the toe and foot area, Jackson turned in one of his best seasons to date alongside rookie Jaycee Horn before falling to the injury bug. General manager Scott Fitterer named the former LSU Tiger a franchise player, one they were determined to secure on a long-term deal, which they did in the form of a 3-year $35 million contract.
P Johnny Hekker
Booyah; Keep doing your job, Scott Fitterer! We just got the best punter in the league by far. The four-time Pro Bowler finally moved on from his home in LA after 10 seasons of more than stellar play at the position, even getting in a few trick plays at QB. Hekker received a new 3-year $7.6 million deal to stay here through the 2024 season.
DL Matthew Ioannidis
One of the more underrated pickups among free agency, Ioannidis had been a rock for Washington in the middle of the defensive line for over five years. Before the 2019 season, he signed an extension for three more years but was somewhat surprisingly cut this offseason due to miscommunication with the front office and a surplus of talent on the interior defensive line.
Over the 2018 and 2019 season, the former Temple star (you shouldn't be surprised at this point) accumulated sixteen total sacks. He should pair well with run-stuffer Derrick Brown who showed flashes of pass rush potential in his first two years. If Yetur steps up, we could have a quite scary front featuring Burns, Brown, Ioannidis, and Gross-Matos.
IOL Bradley Bozeman
Finally, we got Bradley Bozeman. The rumors had been swirling the first week of free agency but at that point, Carolina was still enthralled with the idea of trading for Deshaun Watson. The departure of Matt Paradis is one factor in this signing as well as the Panthers' lack of draft capital in the middle rounds. Fans were once throwing around the possibility of drafting Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum in the first round before the news hit.
The signing of Bozeman gives the front office flexibility to operate along the offensive line which now includes Christensen, Elflein, Bozeman, Corbett, Moton, Brown, Erving, and Miller. We now have a starting-caliber NFL offensive line, so that's a start. Bozeman will likely slide into the center spot, and give us stability at one of the most important positions on the line. Another great bargain for Fitterer, having secured him for one year $6 million.
S Juston Burris
To be honest, this was a confusing move (1 yr $1.1 million). The Panther's plan in free agency was to address the safety spot and they did so with the addition of free safety Xavier Woods. This allows for Chinn to transition back to his natural spot at strong safety; what is Juston Burris' role within the defense now?
For one, we could see Chinn playing more snaps at linebacker. It could also mean a more significant role for Burris at slot corner. After Myles Hartsfield got injured early on in the season, Burris stepped up to cover tight ends like Kyle Pitts, Mike Gesicki, and Rob Gronkowski, defending pretty well. Whatever spot he finds himself in, whether it be a starting spot, rotational piece, or depth, I'm sure Phil Snow will utilize him to the best of his ability.
CB Rashaan Melvin
With the sheer amount of talent that we have at the cornerback position (Horn, Jackson, Taylor, Troy Pride, and STO), you might wonder why we re-signed Melvin who gave up quite a few plays late in the season. The main reason is a veteran presence; Scott Fitterer mentioned having dinner with the Gilmore's the other night but that doesn't mean that Stephon will come back on a team-friendly deal when contending teams like the Chiefs, Raiders, and Bengals are calling his name. Melvin, 32, can serve as a mentor to the youngsters in the secondary alongside Jackson and Woods.
Now that I'm all caught up with the free agency signings, what was your favorite move they made? Or didn't make? Let me know in the comments below.