Brian Burns, Frankie Luvu among Panthers' top free agents

Carolina Panthers linebackers Brian Burns (53) and Frankie Luvu (49) will be free agents this offseason. Will the Panthers find a way to keep them both? Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brian Burns pondered last month how another coaching change impacted his future with the Carolina Panthers as he sat on the arm of a recliner while teammates cleared out their lockers following a 2-15 season.

"This is my third -- third? -- official coaching change. Second? Third?'' said the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker, who will have his fourth head coach this season since Carolina made him the 16th overall pick of the 2019 draft. "It kind of feels the same. I feel like we've been having a fresh start every year since I've been here.

"It is frustrating. ... When stuff is stacked against you and you know the odds aren't playing in your favor, you've got to find a way to come out strong. But you know, it will feel good to have a little stability and a little consistency.''

The Panthers hope they created stability by pairing new general manager Dan Morgan with new head coach Dave Canales, the first time in more than two decades the team hired that combination at the same time.

The defensive staff was kept in place, as Burns had hoped, with defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and his staff returning.

There are still a lot of personnel decisions ahead for a team trying to end a skid of six straight losing seasons despite not having a first-round pick in the NFL draft after trading this year's pick as part of the 2023 deal to draft quarterback Bryce Young at No. 1.

But with 21 Panthers set to become free agents on March 13, keeping Burns has to be at the top of the list.

Let's take a closer look at five players Carolina should focus on keeping from their relatively weak group of free agents:

LB Brian Burns

Just like last year, Burns believes he should be among the highest-paid edge rushers in the NFL even after having a down season with eight sacks a year after having a career-high 12.5. He understands that Carolina not leading in the fourth quarter in any game last season was a factor in the drop-off because it's hard to get sacks when opponents aren't passing.

"I feel like I earned that before this season,'' Burns said of the right to be paid among the top rushers. "Given our circumstances, it is what it is. But my feeling never changed from that point to now, because I put the work in for years prior to this.''

Burns was seeking a long-term deal with an average salary of close to $30 million last season, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. The two sides never got close. With Carolina expected to have about $39 million in cap space, it seems unlikely it will dedicate that much now to one player since they have so many other needs.

But they need to do whatever it takes to keep Burns, whose 46 sacks over the past five seasons put him among the NFL's elite edge rushers.

The franchise tag, which would guarantee Burns about $23 million in 2024, seems the most likely option, allowing the team to continue negotiating a long-term deal.

Canales, Morgan and new cap manager Brandt Tillis are evaluating all options, understanding their first draft pick is at No. 33 and there are no immediate plans to move into the first round. Having those three united could help get an extension for Burns. A source familiar with the team structure last season said the former staff didn't have that unity.

Burns, who will turn 26 in April, is ready for whatever happens.

"The only thing I can do is control what I can control,'' he said. "All I can do is train and be prepared to either come back and have a great year, or go somewhere else.''

LB Frankie Luvu

He's coming off a career-high 111 tackles and seven sacks. He fits the "dawg'' mentality that Morgan said he is looking for. He is also somebody Burns wants as a teammate.

"I know if I come back, I definitely want him here,'' Burns said. "I'm pretty sure the feeling is mutual.''

If the team can't find a way to keep Luvu, it almost assuredly would have to keep linebacker Shaq Thompson, set to turn 30 in April. Thompson suffered a season-ending broken fibula in Week 2. That injury and his age are factors to consider.

Keeping both seems ideal, so they can save draft picks and free agent moves for other positions.

OLB/DE Yetur Gross-Matos

He didn't seem like an ideal fit for Evero's 3-4 scheme, but he had a solid season and showed he has value. Gross-Matos had a career highs in sacks (4.5), tackles for loss (7) and quarterback hits (10) during a season in which injuries limited him to 12 games and six starts.

That Gross-Matos knows the system and won't cost a lot is a plus. Much of the decision on him will depend on whether they bring Burns back and if Carolina spends on an edge rusher opposite him. If a player like Minnesota's Danielle Hunter were lured to Carolina after a 16.5 sack season, Gross-Matos would be expendable.

S/LB Jeremy Chinn

Many expected him to play a huge role in Evero's defense last season, but that never happened for the 2020 second-round pick. His ability to play safety and linebacker makes him versatile enough to keep around at a low price, likely a one- or two-year deal around $3 million per season.

WR DJ Chark Jr.

That Chark lands at No. 5 shows how weak Carolina's free agent class is. He had only a 43.9% catch rate last season, which played a role in stunting Young's growth at quarterback.

With more productive receivers -- such as Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Michael Pittman Jr. of the Indianapolis Colts -- currently scheduled to hit the open market, the Panthers could make a much-needed upgrade over Chark if they can work out a deal with one of them that fits their budget.