Here is a breakdown of the Carolina Panthers' 2018 free-agent signings:
The Carolina Panthers on Friday signed free-agent guard Jeremiah Sirles, who played the last three seasons for the Minnesota Vikings. Here’s a closer look at the signing:
Grade: C-plus. Sirles won’t be expected to immediately replace All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell, who signed with Jacksonville. But he provides solid depth at guard and tackle, and started four games at left guard for the Vikings last season. So he ups the level of competition to fill that void. He was available because the Vikings didn’t place a restricted free-agent tender on him.
What it means: Sirles’ versatility is what the Panthers seek on their offensive line. While 2017 second-round pick Taylor Moton will get the first shot to start at left guard, Sirles will figure into the competition in case Moton doesn’t easily transition from tackle. Sirles may even have an edge, having played in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system in 2015 and the first part of the 2016 season before Turner stepped down at Minnesota. Sirles (6-foot-7, 308) also started 10 games in 2016 beside second-year Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil.
What’s the risk: The Panthers didn’t replace an All-Pro with another All-Pro, but remember Norwell was an undrafted free agent coming out of college. The risk here could be if Sirles wins the starting job and performs well, he’ll be a free agent again in 2019.
Ross Cockrell, CB
The Carolina Panthers on Friday signed cornerback Ross Cockrell, who played last season for the New York Giants after spending the two previous seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s a closer look at the signing:
Grade: B-minus. The signing came a week after free agent Bashaud Breeland had his three-year, $24 million offer rescinded because he failed his physical. Obviously, the Panthers felt Breeland was the better choice to replace starter Daryl Worley, traded to Philadelphia. But Cockrell, who got a two-year, $6.8 million deal, has started 32 games.
What it means: The Panthers needed experience at the position opposite James Bradberry and Cockrell offers that. Although he started only nine games, he got an above average rating of 81.6 by Pro Football Focus in 2017. He’s got good coverage ability, but not great overall speed. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds at the combine coming out of Duke in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
What’s the risk: Not a huge amount for the cost. If he can play close to what the Panthers initially expected out of Breeland, then he could be a steal. His speed has to be the main concern facing wide receivers with the potential to blow past him.
Grade: C-plus. There are no guarantees Searcy, 29, will replace Kurt Coleman, released prior to free agency, as the starting free safety. He lost his starting job with the Titans this past season. But he will offer a veteran presence much like Coleman was and gives the team a proven starter for the moment.
What it means: Searcy immediately will compete with Colin Jones, Demetrious Cox, Dezmen Southward for the starting role opposite Mike Adams. But it doesn't mean the Panthers won't still use a draft pick, maybe even the No. 24 overall pick, on a safety. Among those that could be tempting in the first round are Florida State's Derwin James and Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick. But at least the Panthers a veteran option at a position they weren't willing to spend a lot on. Don't be surprised if other safeties aren't given a look as teams make cuts in training camp.
What's the risk: Not a lot on Searcy. The risk will come if the Panthers don't get a solid prospect in the draft to develop long-term to play either safety position. Adams turns 37 on Saturday, and you never know when a player will show a dramatic decrease in production.
Jarius Wright, WR
The Panthers on Monday agreed to terms, per source, with Wright, who played the past six seasons for the Minnesota Vikings. Here's a closer look:
Grade: B-minus. You may not be familiar with Wright, but he gets a decent grade because he won’t cost a lot under the salary cap and because he had two of his better seasons (2014-15) in Minnesota under new Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner, primarily as a slot receiver.
What it means: It means the Panthers are serious about rebuilding their much-maligned receiving corps outside of Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd. Wright is the second receiver added to the roster since the end of last season. He joins former Philadelphia wide receiver Torrey Smith, acquired in a trade that sent cornerback Daryl Worley to the Eagles. Wright likely will compete for time as the slot receiver with the timing of Samuel’s return from ankle surgery somewhat uncertain. The 28-year-old had a career-best 42 catches in 2014 and 34 in 2015 when Turner was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator. This also likely means the Panthers eventually are going to move on from Russell Shepard, who was signed last year in free agency. Wright brings more speed to the offense than Shepard and that is an offseason priority. The former Arkansas star ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds at the 2012 NFL combine.
What’s the risk: Not a lot since the cost won’t be high and he is familiar with Turner’s scheme. He’s also at an age that will bring some experience to the receiver room. This definitely doesn’t mean the Panthers still won’t consider taking a wide receiver in the first two rounds of the draft.
Dontari Poe, DT
The Panthers on Thursday signed defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who played last season for the Atlanta Falcons. Here’s a closer look at the signing:
Grade: A. The Panthers needed a space-eater to start beside Pro Bowler Kawann Short after losing 2013 first-round pick Star Lotulelei to Buffalo in free agency. They couldn’t afford to keep Lotulelei, but they could afford the three-year, $27 million deal (per a source) they gave to Poe. And they might have gotten a comparable, if not better, player in Poe; the two-time Pro Bowl selection is more effective than Lotulelei as a pass-rusher, with 15.5 career sacks in 94 games compared to 11.5 sacks in 76 games for Lotulelei.
What it means: The Panthers still have a solid four-man rotation with Poe, Short, Vernon Butler and Kyle Love. Butler, the team’s 2016 first-round pick, is more like Short in terms of his ability to rush the passer. Love is a solid backup as a space-eater. But the Panthers’ scheme is predicated on being able to stop the run and pressure the quarterback up the middle, and it begins with the tackle rotation that has been among the NFL's best the past few seasons. Poe, the 11th pick of the 2012 draft, should assure it stays that way.
What’s the risk: Poe, 27, has had weight and back issues in the past. He had $500,000 in weight bonuses built into his one-year deal with Atlanta last season. Poe played at just under 350 pounds at Kansas City, where he spent his first five seasons out of Memphis. The Falcons asked that he play at a lower weight, and Poe got down below 330 pounds at one point last summer as he made the transition from a 3-4 nose tackle to Atlanta’s 4-3 scheme, which is similar to Carolina’s.
Julius Peppers, DE
The Carolina Panthers on Wednesday re-signed defensive end Julius Peppers, who last season returned to the team that drafted him in 2002. Here’s a closer look at the signing:
Grade: A. Peppers, 38, was a bargain last season at $4.25 million, including $750,000 in incentives after he maxed out in bonuses with 11 sacks, tied for the team lead. He continues to be a bargain with his new one-year, $5 million deal (per sources) that includes $2.5 million guaranteed.
Most players of this caliber in the sack department are far more expensive. So Peppers got a raise and the Panthers got the player they wanted.
What it means: The Panthers now have a solid rotation at end in Peppers, Mario Addison and Wes Horton, along with second-year players Daeshon Hall and Bryan Cox Jr. Had Peppers not returned, it would have cost way more for a proven pass-rusher in free agency -- not to mention the market is thin -- and the Panthers are somewhat strapped under the cap. Or they might have had to use a first- or second-round pick on an end and risk having to go with a rookie at a key position. They still might use one of those picks on an end to build for the future, but the urgency isn’t there. This also means Peppers, with 154.5 career sacks, has a chance to surpass Kevin Greene (160) for third on the NFL’s all-time list.
What’s the risk: Age. Peppers is 38 and you never know when production will begin to decline. That the Panthers have a solid plan for keeping him rested in the offseason, training camp and during the week once the season starts works to their advantage. That Peppers is a rare athlete at 6-foot-7, 295 pounds also helps. But Carolina is one injury away from having to play without Peppers or forcing him to play more snaps than he or the team wants at this stage in his Hall of Fame career.
Graham Gano, K
The Panthers re-signed place-kicker Graham Gano, who has been with the team since 2012, to a four-year, $17 million deal. Here’s a closer look at the signing:
Grade: B-plus. You could give this an "A" because Gano is coming off a career season in which he connected on an NFL-best 96.7 percent (29-of-30) of his field goal attempts. However, an average of $4.25 million over the next four years is a big number when you consider the Panthers had the opportunity last season to keep 2017 seventh-round pick Harrison Butker at $550,000.
What it means: Gano gives the Panthers long-term security at a position that general manager Marty Hurney wasn’t willing to turn over to a rookie last season with the team hopeful of making a Super Bowl run. Although Butker, picked up by Kansas City from Carolina’s practice squad, proved worthy of being drafted with comparable stats, Gano is the safer choice based on his past six seasons with the Panthers. Last year, he put behind a somewhat shaky 2016 season that began with him missing a 50-yard field goal in the opener that would have somewhat avenged a loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.
What’s the risk: It's not a huge risk, considering the Panthers are getting one of the NFL’s top kickers. But the average of $4.25 million, which makes Gano the second-highest-paid kicker in the league, is a big number for a team that doesn’t have a huge amount of cap space. The Panthers will have to be somewhat frugal in going after free-agent needs at wide receiver, safety, defensive end and guard. You wonder if they’d be more likely to keep All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell if they had Butker’s salary in 2018.