It wasn't until week three when the Panthers registered their first sack of the season and it was just a precursor to the team's pass-rushing struggles that lasted nearly the entire year. Brian Burns led the way with nine sacks but if all the attention wasn't directed toward him, he could've had a few more. About midway through the season, teams started double-teaming Burns on a regular basis, making it even more challenging to disrupt the pocket.
The Panthers would love for Yetur Gross-Matos to develop into a reliable starter but it all starts with him being able to stay healthy. The potential is there, it's just going to take some time. While the Panthers develop YGM, they clearly need to build their depth on the defensive line and especially on the edge.
Today, we look at four free agents that the Panthers should target with the help of some publishers across the Sports Illustrated network.
Benson Mayowa - 24 tackles, 6 sacks, 7 tackles for loss (13 games, 9 starts)
Analysis from Corbin Smith of Seahawk Maven on Sports Illustrated: Earning a starting role at the LEO defensive end spot for the Seahawks out of training camp, Mayowa registered a sack and a key fourth-down pass deflection in the team's Week 1 win over the Falcons. However, he only produced one sack and four quarterback hits over the next five games before suffering a high ankle sprain that cost him three games. Once he returned, he split starts with newly-acquired Carlos Dunlap and wrapped up the season on a tear, generating 4.0 sacks and five tackles for loss in Seattle's last six games. He’s proven that while he likely isn’t a starter in the league, he can be a force as a key rotational pass rusher and should generate some interest in free agency as a result.
My analysis: Mayowa has been a consistent pass rusher over the last three years averaging just over 5.5 sacks per season. Obviously, he doesn't need to be a double-digit sack producer but he would give Brian Burns a ton of help. Panthers GM Scott Fitterer has a connection to him after playing in Seattle this past season and back in 2013.
Brent Urban - 36 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hits (16 games, 8 starts)
Analysis from Gene Chamberlain of Bears Digest on Sports Illustrated: Like Robertson-Harris, Urban took to the coaching from Rodgers and went from a Titans castoff to a valued extra edge who could stop the run while occasionally harassing a quarterback. His pass rush off the edge as Kirk Cousins tried to run a bootleg pass on fourth down helped earn a victory and ultimately a division title. Urban's 6-7 height made it tough at times for passers to throw outside the numbers. He had three tipped passes in his 25 games and added 2 1/2 sacks and nine pressures. It's not enough production to make him a highly paid starter somewhere but could be just enough to keep him at a pay rate just over what the Bears can afford for a fifth defensive lineman. This is why they will be looking at the interior defensive line later in the draft.
Urban played for $1 million last year and has been projected by PFF at about $1.5 million a year in the marketplace.
My analysis: Urban is the perfect type of free agent for Carolina. He's a veteran that's been in the league for seven years but is not going to warrant a big payday as Gene mentioned above. The Panthers don't need to hit a home run with a free-agent defensive lineman, they just need to establish quality depth behind their starters and Urban can do that.
Dawuane Smoot - 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, 17 QB hits, 5.5 sacks (16 games, 7 starts)
Analysis from Demetrius Harvey of Jaguar Report on Sports Illustrated: Dawaune Smoot has been a perplexing player for the Jaguars since he was drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft. Selected over a lot of other talents along the defensive line, Smoot was thought to be someone you could get later on in the draft. In his rookie season, Smoot didn't contribute much as a rotational piece with what was known as "sacksonville" at the time. In his second season, he didn't contribute at all, a healthy scratch for half of the season.
It wouldn't be until his third and fourth years when Smoot finally "clicked" as a true pass rusher as a rotational player. He was able to bulk up to nearly 275-280 pounds and was able to play both interior and exterior defensive line positions, rushing inside and out as a defensive tackle and edge. He's an intriguing player due to his versatility, but likely would be a scheme-specific fit for any team wanting to acquire his services as a rotational pass rusher.
My analysis: Smoot may not be ready to be a full-time starter just yet, but man, having a player like him sitting behind Burns and Gross-Matos would really help Carolina's depth. It also gives the Panthers some insurance incase Gross-Matos or Burns were to miss any time with injury. He would give very similar production to that of Benson Mayowa.
Carl Lawson - 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 32 QB hits
My analysis: Lawson is coming off the best year of his four-year NFL career and in my opinion, the best is yet to come. He missed some time earlier in his career due to a torn ACL, which set him back a little bit but he's finally back to being exactly what the Bengals thought he would be when they drafted him out of Auburn in 2017. It's likely that with the season he just had that he will be the priciest of all the options listed, but he would be well worth it. Signing Lawson would cure many of the Panthers' pass-rushing issues.
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