SPARTANBURG, S.C. — While the Carolina Panthers continue to negotiate with Brian Burns on a contract extension, the first two weeks of training camp have shown they still need an edge rusher to complement their Pro Bowl pass rusher.
Marquis Haynes, Carolina’s top returning situational pass rusher besides Burns, has missed more than a week with a back injury. And their young edge guys, notably third-round pick DJ Johnson, have failed to distinguish themselves at Wofford.
Meanwhile, one of the top free-agent pass rushers came off the market when the Chicago Bears signed Yannick Ngakoue to a one-year, $10.5 million deal this week. But several veteran edge rushers remain available as the Panthers prepare for joint practices with the New York Jets and the teams’ preseason game Aug. 12 in Charlotte, N.C.
Here’s a look at the Panthers’ situation at the position and the free agents they could target.
Will Fitterer look for outside help?
Panthers coach Frank Reich said he and general manager Scott Fitterer have been monitoring the edge rusher market since Haynes was hurt, and my sense even before the injury was they would add at the position before the season. Watching the first two weeks of practice has only reinforced that.
“Scott and I have been talking through that a lot here in the last week,” Reich said Saturday, “so we’ll see how it plays out.”
Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said it will be easier to evaluate the outside linebackers once the preseason games start, and he’s not wrong. Still, I expect the Panthers to make a move to get Burns some help.
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Why haven’t they?
For starters, the Panthers weren’t interested in giving Ngakoue what he received from the Bears, who needed to spend some money to reach the salary-cap floor. Also, nearly all of the available pass rushers are in their 30s — some well into their 30s — and likely weren’t keen on being at camp in the dog days of summer if they didn’t have to.
Lastly, Reich said the Panthers didn’t want to rush into anything. “Don’t want to jump the gun early,” he said. “Wanted to see how it worked out with Marquis, but keeping a pulse on that.”
But with the Panthers set to break camp Thursday, I could see them adding a pass rusher in the next week or so.
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So, who’s out there?
It’s a long list of proven guys, which is to say they have some wear and tear and their best days are behind them. “All these guys are gonna be older,” a veteran NFC talent evaluator said. “All these guys are way up there in age.”
A look at the possible targets:
Justin Houston: There’s been buzz that the Baltimore Ravens will re-sign the 34-year-old, but it hasn’t happened yet. Houston makes a lot of sense for the Panthers, given his experience in 3-4 schemes most of his career and his background with Reich at Indianapolis. The four-time Pro Bowler had 9 1/2 sacks and an interception last season with Baltimore.
Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney’s production plummeted last season when he finished with just two sacks and four quarterback hits after racking up nine and 19 for the Cleveland Browns in 2021. Clowney, 30, went to the same Rock Hill, S.C., high school as Stephon Gilmore, who had a cameo with his hometown Panthers two years ago.
Melvin Ingram: Like Clowney, Ingram grew up in the Carolinas and played collegiately for the Gamecocks. The longtime Charger had a solid age-33 season in Miami last year, tallying six sacks and 10 QB hits while forcing a fumble and recovering two more.
Robert Quinn: The 33-year-old set a Bears record with 18 1/2 sacks in 2021 but came nowhere near that pace last season. Quinn had just one sack in 14 games and none after the Bears traded him to Philadelphia, where he was a non-factor.
Carlos Dunlap: Dunlap visited the Panthers last summer before signing a one-year deal with Kansas City in late July. Dunlap, 34, had four sacks in 17 regular-season games and none during the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run.
Carl Nassib: The NFL’s first openly gay active player signed with the Bucs in mid-August last year after an injury to outside linebacker Cam Gill. The 6-7, 275-pound Nassib, 30, posted 3 1/2 sacks and six tackles for loss in 13 games.
Trey Flowers: Flowers has played in only 18 games in the past three seasons, with just 3 1/2 sacks over that span. Flowers and Panthers defensive line coach Todd Wash were together in Detroit in 2021.
Kyle Van Noy: The 32-year-old visited the Ravens in late July after finishing with at least five sacks in each of the past four seasons.
Bruce Irvin: Irvin, who played with the Panthers in 2019, told reporters in January he has thought about retiring the past couple of offseasons so he might be done. The 35-year-old came up with 3 1/2 sacks in 11 games last year after signing with Seattle in October.
Jason Pierre-Paul: After a Pro Bowl season with Tampa Bay in 2020, Pierre-Paul’s productivity has dipped dramatically over the past two years.
Mario Addison: The former Panther could have trouble catching on with anyone. Addison turns 36 in September and is coming off a one-sack season for Houston.
Couldn’t the Panthers just trade for an edge rusher?
Teams typically are reluctant to deal pass rushers because they’re such a commodity. But trades do happen. Cleveland acquired Za’Darius Smith from Minnesota in May in a trade that also included a swap of multiple late-round draft picks.
The Jets, who will be in Spartanburg this week, have a glut of pass rushers after drafting Iowa State’s Will McDonald in the first round. Teams reportedly have called the Jets about Bryce Huff, a former undrafted free agent whose 25.6 percent pass-rush win rate (per Pro Football Focus) was the best among all NFL edge defenders in 2022. The Panthers will get a firsthand look over a couple of days at Huff, a defensive end in the Jets’ 4-3 scheme who might not be a great fit in Evero’s 3-4.
(Top photo of Jadeveon Clowney: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)
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