Eric Reid, the Pro Bowl safety who knelt in protest of racial injustice alongside Colin Kaepernick and who filed a collusion grievance against the NFL in the spring, has signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers.
One of the top free agents available, Reid fills an immediate need for a Carolina team depleted in the secondary after placing starting safety Da’Norris Searcy on injured reserve on Sept. 21. But more broadly, the transaction signifies the end of the perceived blacklisting for one of the most prominent “kneelers” in the NFL while also ushering in a new era in Carolina with team owner David Tepper.
After playing his first five years in San Francisco, Reid was not re-signed by the 49ers after the 2017 season. He had conversations this offseason with the Bengals and Titans that never materialized into anything more.
Carolina began inquiring about Reid early into its Week 4 bye and inked Reid to the deal on Thursday. Posing for a team photographer, Reid held a pen in his left hand and raised his right fist.
“After we put Da’Norris Searcy on injured reserve, Ron [Rivera] and I discussed our options, and Eric was at the top of our list,” general manager Marty Hurney said in a statement. “He is a physical safety with good ball skills and play-making ability.”
It cannot be overstated how unlikely this signing would have been if Jerry Richardson still owned the Panthers. When protests sparked across the league last September, Richardson opted against either a full-throated endorsement of his players or some wishy-washy statement, instead writing “politicizing the game is damaging.” It was well understood that any public protest would be frowned upon by the owner, and only future NFL Hall-of-Famer Julius Peppers protested in any form by staying in the locker room during the national anthem.
Richardson, accused of both sexual misconduct and using a racial slur toward a black scout, sold his team to Tepper for nearly $2.3 billion in May of this year. The billionaire hedge fund manager has been a vocal critic of Trump since the president was the Republican nominee. He has not sparred with Trump since buying the Panthers, but he has clearly been on the opposite of Trump as it relates to NFL players protesting during the national anthem.
Earlier this month, Tepper refuted the notion that players who protest are un-American.
“That was the biggest pile of bull-dingy ever,” Tepper told CNBC. “These are some of the most patriotic people and best people. These are great young men. It just makes me so aggravated and angry. OK? It’s just wrong. It's just dead wrong.”
Tepper has spoken multiple times about his commitment to helping the community. On Monday, Tepper and every member of the Panthers assembled 1,500 relief boxes for victims of Hurricane Florence. Tepper’s charitable foundation donated $1.45 million to hurricane victims the previous week.
Reid has long been active in the community, and his personal website is filled with examples of such. In 2015, according to nola.com, nearly a half-dozen sponsors of Reid’s golf tournament—which would fund a summer camp for kids with sickle cell anemia—pulled their funding due to his continued protest. Rather than cancel the tournament, Reid pledged an additional $10,000 to cover the expenses of 50 campers.
“I know how he is as a talent,” Panthers receiver Torrey Smith told reporters earlier this week. “If this is something where they come and talk to me about him, I’ll be glad to talk about him as a player, as a person. He’s one of the best men I've been around, so I hope that is something that can happen for us because I know that with the injuries we have, he’s a guy that can help this team.
“I really hope he gets a shot. He deserves it, and it's not right what's happened to him.”
There was at least some hesitation on Carolina’s part this week about the attention a Reid signing would bring, according to a team source. The 2–1 Panthers want to keep the focus on football, but a source indicated that after an initial wave of media coverage, the Panthers feel the story will eventually die out. (It’s unclear how, or if, this affects Reid’s current grievance against the NFL as it relates to collusion.)
And any worries about a locker room being overrun with camera and recorders for a few days were outweighed by the basic need for Carolina to win—in last week’s 31–21 win against Cincinnati it became dreadfully clear the team needed reinforcements in the secondary. The Panthers like third-round rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden but do not feel he’s ready for extended playing time this early in his career. Colin Jones, a captain on special teams, played two-thirds of the snaps Sunday to poor reviews.
The Panthers realize they have a strong offense led by Cam Newton—Hurney and Rivera think Newton has returned to his 2015 MVP form—and called by Norv Turner, a stout front seven and a promising cornerback duo in James Bradberry and rookie Donte Jackson, who already has three interceptions this season. The team could get by in the regular season with a less-than-average safety group, but a team source admitted recently that it likely wouldn’t be enough to win in January. Hence, Reid to Carolina.
In Charlotte on Thursday morning, Reid signed a contract few thought would ever materialize and one that certainly would have been impossible a year ago today.
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