CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Oddsmakers don’t give the Carolina Panthers much of a chance to win Super Bowl LVII.
Only the New York Jets (+20,000), Houston Texans (+20,000), Detroit Lions (+15,000), Jacksonville Jaguars (+12,500) and New York Giants (+10,000) have longer odds than the Panthers (+8,000), according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Then again, the Cincinnati Bengals' odds this time a year ago were ... +8,000.
Although the Bengals didn’t win Super Bowl LVI, thanks to a late touchdown by the Los Angeles Rams, they did make the title game. So that should give the Panthers a glimmer of hope after three straight five-win seasons.
For the record, that’s three more wins over the past three seasons than Cincinnati had in the three years prior to going 10-7 in 2021.
The one thing the Panthers don’t have that the Bengals did a year ago is a franchise quarterback like Joe Burrow. Sam Darnold has done nothing to prove he can be that, and the odds of finding one in free agency or via a trade are long.
At best, Carolina should expect to be a player for Jimmy Garoppolo or another midrange quarterback, since Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are looking for teams already built to win, if they go anywhere at all.
But Cincinnati had a lot of other missing pieces a year ago and was able to fill them in free agency and the draft. The first step for Carolina to put itself in position to make a run will be deciding which of their own free agents can help them do that.
With only $18.45 million in cap space, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System, general manager Scott Fitterer will have to be frugal with most of those decisions to have enough money in free agency to rebuild the offensive line – and possibly add a quarterback.
Here’s a close look at where Carolina’s focus should be when it comes to their offseason free agents:
CB Donte Jackson – He’s young (26) and fast, and he was having his best season before suffering a groin injury in Week 12. He won’t be among the top-paid corners. It may come down to choosing between Jackson and Stephon Gilmore (31), a five-time Pro Bowl selection who will demand big money unless he gives Carolina a hometown discount.
LB Frankie Luvu – Agreed on Thursday to a two-year deal. He’s a nice complement to Brian Burns as an edge rusher if the Panthers lose Haason Reddick. At 25, with upside as a defender and on special teams, this was a no-brainer.
RB Ameer Abdullah – He shouldn’t cost much but can do a lot of the same things Christian McCaffrey does as a receiver out of the backfield. That could be important if Carolina plays McCaffrey more in the slot.
S Sean Chandler – A disciple of coach Matt Rhule from his days at Temple, he’s low-cost and the type of player Rhule wants on special teams in particular.
K Zane Gonzalez – He made 90.9% of his field goal attempts, and at one point, he had made 17 straight field goals before suffering a quadriceps injury during warmups at Buffalo.
WR Brandon Zylstra – He’s a top special teams player and is serviceable as a receiver. And, as he showed when Gonzalez was injured, he can fill in there as well – as long as field goals aren’t involved.
OLB Haason Reddick – He led the team in sacks and has 23.5 over the past two seasons with Carolina and the Arizona Cardinals. He’s a disciple of Rhule’s from Temple and fits everything Rhule wants in a player. He’s also due a big payday, and with a tight cap and the Panthers looking to get bigger across the front, he might not be a good fit as badly as the team wants him back.
CB Stephon Gilmore – Who wouldn’t want to keep him? He’s still playing at a high level and represents the leadership and everything Rhule demands. The Panthers easily could go with him over Jackson if it comes down to that. Keeping both would be ideal but tough to pull off, since Gilmore will draw top dollar.
If the price is right
DE Marquis Haynes Sr.– He’s a decent backup coming off the edge but may not be a good fit if the team attempts to get bigger up front.
CB Rashaan Melvin – There’s not much demand for 32-year-old cornerbacks, but Melvin would bring depth and experience to a young unit, particularly if Gilmore goes.
TE Ian Thomas – The Panthers love him as a blocker, but he never materialized as a receiver. This almost feels like a luxury, since the Panthers need to give their quarterback a big, reliable target.
QB Cam Newton – Almost put him under luxury, but considering his age (33 in May), injury history and the fact he lost his past 13 games as a starter for Carolina, keeping him doesn’t make sense for a team trying to build for the long haul.
LB Jermaine Carter Jr. – The search for the next Luke Kuechly continues.
LB Julian Stanford – He’ll be 32 next season, and despite being a special teams leader, it’s probably time to move on.
S Juston Burris – Carolina needs more production out of this position, and Burris hasn’t shown he can be that kind of player.
OG John Miller – When Fitterer said he was going to rebuild the offensive line, this served notice on players such as Miller.
OL Trent Scott – See above. His only upside is he can play multiple positions.
WR Alex Erickson – Outside of returning punts, he wasn’t a factor in 2021.