Who will the Carolina Panthers target in free agency?

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Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer speaks during a press conference at the NFL Football Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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Hold your Twitter devices close. Keep your TVs on and be prepared for anything. Things are about to get even more transactional in the NFL.

Monday at noon, the NFL’s legal tampering period begins. Teams can start negotiating with free agents before the start of the league’s new year on March 16.

Simply put, free agency is here.

The league has already had a crazy offseason. Aaron Rodgers has agreed to a contract extension with the Packers which will make him the highest paid player in football. Seattle traded its franchise’s biggest player, quarterback Russell Wilson, to Denver for a batch of young players and high picks. The Colts have dealt Carson Wentz to Washington and Khali Mack is leaving Chicago for the Chargers.

Then Deshaun Watson re-entered the mix.

On Friday, a Houston grand jury decided not to charge Watson with any crime. He was facing 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct and sexual assault during massage sessions. Watson still faces 22 different civil cases and could be punished by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. The league is conducting its own investigation.

Expect the Panthers to aggressively pursue Watson while probing the free agent market for a veteran quarterback. But Carolina could slow the quarterback market until a Watson trade develops. Conversely, the Panthers will be active players in the offensive guard and security market.

Carolina has approximately $29 million in cap space according to overthecap.com. The recent contract restructurings of tackle Taylor Moton and linebacker Shaq Thompson have more than doubled the team’s cap space. But not all that money is for free will. The Panthers plan to save about $10 million for in-season moves and an additional $6 million for rookie contracts after the draft, leaving about $13 million available for free agents.

It’s not a lot, but Carolina ranks 12th in cap space and should be able to land a proven starter or two. Here’s a look at the free agents the Panthers should consider next Monday.

Guards

A quick way for a general manager to set his team back is to overpay premium players in premium positions. The Giants are a recent example of how not to attack free will.

Panthers fans shouldn’t worry about Carolina making some drastic mistakes this week. General manager Scott Fitterer, assistant general manager Dan Morgan, vice-president of player personnel Pat Stewart and vice-president of football administration Samir Suleiman are proven decision-makers. Also, the Panthers do not target marquee players. Instead, the team hopes to land a starting guard at an affordable number.

Brandon Scherff is the top protection available. But according to a former NFL executive who spoke to The Observer for this story, Scherff will command “over $15 million” a year, knocking him out of the Panthers’ budget.

Other guards likely to prove too expensive for Carolina include James Daniel (Bear), Laken Tomlinson (49ers), and Alex Cappa (Bucs). But there are still quality guards available. Here are some names to watch out for.

Austin Corbett

Former team: Rams

Provisional contract: $8.5 million APY, $10 million guaranteed

Corbett rebuilt his career in Los Angeles after the Browns drafted him No. 33 in the 2018 NFL Draft. Considered a bust, Corbett benefited from the Rams’ wide-area running program. According to Pro Football Focus, Corbett ranked above the 50th percentile among all guards in the zone and gap running programs last season. He honed his pass-blocking technique and took great care of his body.

At just 26, Corbett could still be entering his prime. The Panthers want to become a powerful downhill team under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Corbett fits that description.

connor williams

Former team: Cowboys

Provisional contract: $6.5 million APY, $12 million guaranteed

Williams has had back-to-back seasons as a top-12 goaltender based on PFF wins above the substitute metric. He is coming off a disappointing 2021 season. His league-high 11 holding penalties are a big reason Dallas is moving on.

But Williams has started 51 games for one of the best offensive lines since 2018. Plus, at just 24, he’s entering his prime. Last season, he allowed a sack on 569 pass blocking snaps and 13 total pressures.

Carolina likes guard Michael Jordan and isn’t ready to move on from rookie Deonte Brown, but Williams would be a major upgrade.

Other possibilities: Andrew Norwell (Jaguar), Spain (Bengals), Marc Glowinski (foals), Trai Turner (Steels)

Securities

The Panthers are unlikely to bring in safety Juston Burris, which leaves them looking for traditional deep safety to partner with Jeremy Chinn. There are some available. stand out Tyrant Matthew (Chefs) will command another lucrative contract. It will be too expensive for Carolina, according to a well-placed source.

Other safeties the Panthers probably can’t afford include Marcus Williams (holy) and Whenre Diggs (Seahawks).

Marcus Maye

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Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey, left, stiff arms New York Jets Marcus Maye at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. Khadejeh Nikouyeh [email protected]

Former team: Jets

Provisional contract: $5.5 million APY, $4 million guaranteed

Maye nearly landed a lucrative multi-year contract from New York after the Jets traded safety Jamal Adams to Seattle two seasons ago. In an expanded role, Maye has proven himself capable of playing deep in the center or closer to the line of scrimmage. Then he tore his Achilles in November, sending his off-season value into a tailspin.

Maye was limited to six starts last season and hasn’t produced much behind the Jets’ defense. During his five years in the league, Maye recorded 312 tackles and six interceptions. In 2020, PFF ranked Maye as their No. 4 safety with an 82.9 season rating.

Anthony Harris

Former team: Eagles

Provisional contract: $3.5 million APY, $3.5 million guaranteed

Like Maye, Harris nearly landed a big contract with the Vikings two seasons ago. His six interceptions led the league in 2019. But he’s had one interception in 30 starts since.

There’s value in Carolina targeting once-elite safeties like Harris and Maye. They are available for a reason. But for cheap money, the Panthers can land a proven starter with a legitimate edge.

Harris was PFF’s No. 1 ranked safety after the 2019 season.

Other possibilities: Xavier Woods (Viking), Devin McCourty (patriots), Karim Jackson (Broncos)

Quarterbacks

Carolina probably won’t spend on a quarterback until it’s certain Watson won’t waive his no-trade clause. By then, the market for free-agent quarterbacks could evaporate. It’s also unlikely the Panthers will have the cap space available to sign a veteran listed below, draft a first-round quarterback and still have Sam Darnold on the roster.

Anyway, here are the quarterbacks the Panthers are beckoning up close during free agency.

Marcus Mariota

Former team: Raiders

Provisional contract: $8 million APY, $12 million guaranteed

Mariota is ready for a starting opportunity after supporting Derek Carr for several seasons. He would be relatively cheap compared to Jameis Winston or Mitchell Trubisky.

“You could do a lot worse than Marcus Mariota at quarterback,” Draft Network’s Bryan Perez told The Observer. “He’s a really good bridge quarterback, especially if the Panthers lean towards a Malik Willis type.”

Pairing Mariota with Willis makes sense. Unfortunately, Carolina doesn’t have the cap available due to Darnold’s nearly $19 million guaranteed salary. A league executive told The Observer that Carolina will find it difficult, if not impossible, to trade Darnold.

Mitchell Trubisky

Former team: Invoices

Provisional contract: $10 million APY, $10 million guaranteed

Earlier in the offseason, the Panthers were hoping Trubisky and Mariota would be available for less than $10 million a season. This expectation changed after the combine.

An NFL coach told The Observer that Trubisky is believed to have successfully rebuilt himself supporting Josh Allen at Buffalo. It sounds too good to be true. But if he starts next season and does well, a team will have landed an athletic quarterback on the cheap.

That’s exactly what the Panthers need if they don’t acquire Watson. However, Trubisky will likely cost Carolina too much.

Other possibilities: James Winston (Saints), Cam Newton (Panthers), Andy Dalton (Bear), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Washington)

Minnesota native Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover for the Carolina Panthers. Previously, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Cleveland.com/the Plain Dealer. Having escaped the cold winters, he is delighted to consume football, hoops, music and films in the queen city.

Christy J. Olson