Panthers’ 2023 Draft Needs Breakdown for Offense: Updates After Free Agency Splurge

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers will be on the field Tuesday and on the clock Friday night.

Panthers’ 2023 Draft Needs Breakdown for Offense: Updates After Free Agency Splurge

And what they see early this week will help inform the decisions they make in days to come.

The team that steps on the field for a voluntary minicamp Tuesday will look very different than the one coach Dave Canales inherited when he was hired in January.

That’s because a busy March changed the roster considerably and moved certain positions up and down the hierarchy of needs for the draft. 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.


Who they have: Starters Ikem Ekwonu, Damien Lewis, Austin Corbett, Robert Hunt, Taylor Moton. Reserves Yosh Nijman, Brady Christensen, Cade Mays, Chandler Zavala, Nash Jensen, J.D. DiRenzo, Ilm Manning, Ricky Lee, Badara Traore.

Rate the need: Medium-low
Analysis: In January, this was high. Probably the highest, after they allowed 65 sacks in 17 games last season. But then they invested $150 million worth of contract in 650 pounds (or so) of guards in Hunt and Lewis. Hunt’s one of the highest-graded blockers at his position in the league, and Lewis is a still-ascending presence who knew Canales from their days in Seattle. Those additions allowed them to move steady veteran Corbett to center (after they released Bradley Bozeman). With incumbent tackles Ekwonu and Moton (both of whom played every snap last season), it’s a stable place for a new coaching staff to begin.

Nijman was signed to be the swing tackle, offering experience (22 starts in four years with the Packers) on the edge. Christensen also has tackle experience, and he’s the top backup at guard in the current configuration. They have some other players on the roster who have played, but that’s what happens when you churn through lineups the way they did last year (seven left guards, eight right guards). Between Mays, Zavala, and Jensen, there are some young players with potential.

Outlook: Corbett’s age (29 in Week 1), contract status (one year left on his deal), and a year’s worth of knee injuries (a torn MCL last October after returning from a torn ACL in the 2022 finale) make the depth in the middle a reasonable concern. Corbett’s a smart player, and his ability to communicate and lead makes him a strong candidate to man the middle. And other than finding someone there for the future or some more depth at tackle, it’s hard to call this position as a whole a priority. There are a few high-end centers available (Graham Barton, Jackson Powers-Johnson, Zach Frazier), and they could be available when the Panthers pick at 33 and 39. But it’s not the biggest positional need, so they could wait for later-round guys such as Tanor Bortolini, Sedrick Van Pran-Granger, or Beaux Limmer. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them come out of the weekend with someone to back up or push Corbett.


Who they have: Starters Adam Thielen, Diontae Johnson. Reserves Jonathan Mingo, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Terrace Marshall Jr., David Moore, Mike Strachan, Jalen Camp, Cam Sims.

Rate the need: High
Analysis: Trading for Johnson was a much-needed piece of business, but it’s not a long-term fix. He’s the kind of get-open-and-catch-it guy this offense needed to work opposite Thielen after his 103-catch season in 2023 (one of the few offensive bright spots last year). But Johnson’s entering the final year of his contract (the Panthers swapped rentals with the Steelers, sending a year’s worth of Donte Jackson in exchange), and Thielen will turn 34 before the start of the season. Moore joins the team again after he was here in the 2021 offseason. But he made some plays for Canales and the Bucs last year, and has deep speed, which is never a bad thing.

So yeah, they need more people. The Panthers have a number of players who could play roles here, as Mingo started most of the year and had some moments, Marshall has the kind of size they lack at the position, and Smith-Marsette showed the kind of versatility and shake any offense can use.

Outlook: Yeah, they’re probably drafting one, if not two, this weekend and likely in the early stages. This year’s class is deep at the top, and, in general. Between six and eight receivers could go in the first round. That leaves a bit of a waiting game to see what’s left when they pick first on Friday night, but this will definitely be a position they take a close look at. They brought more receivers in for 30 visits than any other position, so it’s obviously a spot they plan to address. Whether it’s guys who could be available in the second round, such as Xavier Legette, Xavier Worthy, Ladd McConkey, or Ricky Pearsall, or someone from deeper in the group, such as Malachi Corley, Tez Walker, Brenden Rice, or many others, there’s a lot to consider. And they will consider it. Even though the top of the current depth chart is smaller in stature, they can’t get locked into types and force a pick on a bigger player if a smaller one is rated higher. They need productive players, plural, so short-term needs can’t be the biggest factor.


Who they have: Starter Chuba Hubbard. Reserves Miles Sanders, Raheem Blackshear, Tarik Cohen, Spencer Brown, Mike Boone.

Rate the need: Medium
Analysis: Hubbard running for 900 yards for a team that was always behind and catching a career-high 39 passes (when it was an area he struggled with early) stood among the unsung heroic accomplishments of last season. He showed big-play speed in college and, since coming here, has proven he can run hard inside as well. He has earned everything he’s gotten so far — including the starting nod heading into the year — by working hard. Sanders’ 2023 was a disappointment, but he wasn’t alone there, and he’s a year removed from a 1,269-yard rushing season with the Eagles. Bringing back third back/return man Blackshear was a no-brainer, as he’s consistently shown pop when he gets chances (and his special teams ability will be a big factor in a year with new kickoff rules). There are also other intriguing options, including Cohen’s continued comeback bid.

Outlook: Considering everything else they need to do, using a high pick here seems less likely. But they could clearly add since Sanders is the only one of the bunch currently under contract beyond 2024. Running backs might be undervalued in the current climate, but Canales has talked about wanting to “run stubbornly.” So if the right guy starts to fall, it won’t be the biggest surprise. General manager Dan Morgan has vowed to take the best players available regardless of positional need, so if the value is on the board, it could happen.


Who they have: Starters Tommy Tremble, Ian Thomas. Reserves Stephen Sullivan, Jordan Matthews, Chris Pierce.

Rate the need: Medium
Analysis: If you think about this year only, you’d rate the need lower since it’s a stable enough group. Tremble continues to grow as an all-around player, and Thomas is a capable blocker who is useful in the run game. This opinion has come with context, though. Last year in Tampa Bay, when Canales was calling plays, only one tight end on the roster had more than five receptions (Cade Otton had 47 catches, fourth on the team). However, none of the tight ends on the Panthers’ current roster are under contract beyond this year, so the position is very much in flux. If Tremble continues to grow, it’s easy to see them wanting to keep him around, but for these guys, the future is now.

Outlook: Other than first-rounder Brock Bowers, there isn’t a sure thing at the position (though this position offers fewer sure things than others in recent drafts, as a lot of can’t-miss tight ends have missed). Beyond Ja’Tavion Sanders, there are a lot of interesting mid-round guys, such as Cade Stover, Ben Sinnott, Theo Johnson, and Jared Wiley. As with many positions we’re talking about, it’s not the biggest need, but if the right guy is staring at them on the board, it can’t be a surprise if they go there because of the extreme unknown at the position beyond this season.


Who they have: Starter Bryce Young. Backup Andy Dalton.

Rate the need: Low

Analysis: Young’s rookie year was not a smashing success, but it’s also exceedingly unfair to declare it entirely his fault. The entire offensive system was broken, so there was only so good anyone was going to look. Now, he has a new coach who believes in him and wants to build an offense where he can play to his strengths (decision-making, distributing the ball quickly). How well it works will determine the course of the season. Dalton provides a capable backup and a trusted voice for Young, and he has proven in his career that he can step in and win a game.

Outlook: The new rules allow teams to carry a third quarterback on game day, who can be activated from the practice squad. It’s an interesting wrinkle since few teams were interested in carrying three on their active rosters. That makes it seem like a spot for a late-round pick. But Canales has said he would prefer to have a veteran in that role to offer more perspective in meetings and on the practice field. It’s not inconceivable if a mid-round quarterback slides that they could take him late, but it still seems more likely they’d have an older player in that role.

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