What are the Panthers doing?! Carolina resets in free agency


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Country music star Luke Combs is a huge fan of the Carolina Panthers. The native of nearby Huntersville isn’t shy about wearing their colors onstage and off. He went so far as to jokingly predict before the 2023 season that the Panthers would go 17-0 (they finished an NFL-worst 2-15).

“Bryce is the guy!” Combs said of then-rookie quarterback Bryce Young, the No. 1 pick of the 2023 draft.

But on Monday, when the Panthers traded edge rusher Brian Burns to the New York Giants for a second-round pick (No. 39) in April’s NFL draft and a 2025 fifth-round pick (plus a swap of 2024 fifth-round picks), the two-time country music Entertainer of the Year took to social media to express his frustration.

The frustration is understandable and shared by other Carolina fans.

It stems from the Los Angeles Rams suggesting before the 2022 trade deadline they’d consider giving up two first-rounders (2024, 2025) for Burns, the No. 16 pick of the 2019 draft.

It stems from Carolina trading running back Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick of the 2017 draft, to the San Francisco 49ers before the 2022 trade deadline for second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023, and a fifth-rounder in 2024.

It stems from six straight losing seasons since owner David Tepper purchased the team.

So when Carolina didn’t get even one first-rounder for Burns, the reaction was outrage and disbelief — and not just from Combs. NFL analysts gave new general manager Dan Morgan low grades for the move. ESPN’s Matt Miller gave the Panthers an “F.”

But let’s get some perspective. Like in Combs’ songs, there’s a story behind the lyrics.

Burns wasn’t happy when he didn’t get a long-term deal before last season. You could hear disappointment in his voice when he did interviews. He admitted he had thoughts of playing not to get hurt instead of going all-out.

Burns also wasn’t willing to back down from the $30 million annual contract he felt he’d earned in 2022 (when he had a career-high 12.5 sacks), which he eventually got from the Giants.

The Panthers, who are more than one player away from becoming a contender, were never going to pay that much. They were willing to let Burns play under the franchise tag for $24 million this year, but no long-term solution was in sight.

When the Giants reached out last week and again on Monday, Carolina listened. That the market for Burns was now minimal compared to 2022, when he was still under contract for a reasonable amount, meant the offer wasn’t going to include any first-round picks.

Instead of keeping Burns for another season, running the risk of him being unhappy, letting that filter through the locker room, and then seeing him move on after that, Morgan & Co. took what they could get.

Remember, the Panthers were 2-15 with Burns last season. That largely had to do with an offense that was one of the worst in the NFL.

But how much better could Carolina get in 2024 with Burns and his $24 million eating up a huge chunk of cap space?

So the team hit the reset button and moved on.

On the surface, it is a bad look for Morgan in his first year as a general manager, but it’s one that needed to be made.

During his NFL playing career as an inside linebacker for the Panthers, Morgan played with a purpose and a plan. Those who have watched him grow as an executive insist he will rebuild Carolina with the same mentality.

Remember, he was part of the 2001 Carolina team that went an NFL-worst 1-15 and two years later reached the Super Bowl.

That growth happened because Carolina built from the inside out. That’s what the start of free agency has been for Morgan. He got deals with guards Robert Hunt (Miami Dolphins) and Damien Lewis (Seattle Seahawks) to provide Young the protection needed to improve.

Stats tell the story. Of the 62 sacks made on Young last season, 23 came from the guard position, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the second-highest total in the league, ahead of the Giants’ (31).

Carolina guards had the worst pass block win rate in the NFL at 86.2%. The Kansas City Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl, ranked first at 97.3%.

Morgan plans to release Bradley Bozeman, who was responsible for an NFL-worst 12 sacks in 2023, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The 35 sacks Carolina surrendered from interior pressure ranked 31st in the league. Their combined pass block win rate (86.6%) ranked last.

So the Panthers gave Hunt a five-year, $100 million deal and Lewis a five-year, $53 million deal to fix the problem. They’ll fix the center position with Austin Corbett (who has been a fixture at guard when healthy), or another free agent, or maybe even a draft pick.

There is a plan, and it starts with fixing the offense and helping Young play to the potential he showed at Alabama.

The defense likely will suffer. Beyond trading Burns, the Panthers lost inside linebacker Frankie Luvu to the Washington Commanders despite efforts to re-sign him. They are moving on from cornerback Donte Jackson (traded to Pittsburgh), safety Vonn Bell and 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos.

This week, Carolina acquired receiver Diontae Johnson from the Pittsburgh Steelers and agreed to terms with defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Troy Hill.

Call it a cleansing of the Matt Rhule and Frank Reich coaching eras that were short-lived failures.

While none of this makes sense to Combs and others, the lyrics to this season haven’t been finished. As with most country hits, times could get worse before they get better, like in Combs’ song “When It Rains It Pours.”

But as he reminded us in those lyrics, things can get better: “Then I won a hundred bucks on a scratch-off ticket. Bought two 12-packs and a tank of gas with it. She swore they were a waste of time. Oh, but she was wrong.”

What are the Panthers doing?

Stay tuned, Luke.





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