Free agency is right around the corner, lets take a look out the defensive line. Both free agents we should target and players we have already signed.

After a flurry of early roster moves, the Panthers have a little over $36m in cap space. That’s most the money Dave Gettleman has had to spend since he landed in Charlotte. Don’t be shocked to see a few more rosters subtractions before Thursday gets here. Ed Dickson and Graham Gano, could both be on their way out, only giving DG more money to spend.

The franchise tag isn’t as scary as we remember. Kawann Short received the franchise tag and all indications say, he will sign it soon enough. Unlike Josh Norman, Short seems perfectly happy with taking a deal that carries a value three time of his first four years in the league. I expect both sides to continuing working on and reaching a long-term deal before Camp Wofford in August. Don’t expect the fireworks we saw with Norman last spring.

Short is a big-time player for the Panthers and is one of the top DT’s in the league. Most people don’t realize that Short was hurt during the first half of last season. As the year went on, Short started to play like the All-Pro he is. Gettleman builds from the inside out, he knows the value of guys getting after the QB.

The Panthers are loaded at the top three DT spots with Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and last year’s first round pick, Vernon Butler. If you ask Dave Gettleman, you can never have enough big guys. Don’t expect a big move here, the Panthers will be looking for a veteran minimum deal. Kyle Love, who was a final cut last year, resigned with the team when Butler when down and didn’t miss a beat. He would be a steady veteran to bring back on a cheap deal. Don’t expect much flash here.

The Panthers have already resigned two of their own defensive ends before they could hit the open market. Mario Addison received a 3yrs/$22.5m deal. That’s good money for a guy who was undrafted and bounced around the league before finding a real home in Charlotte. That deal places Addison as one of the top 15 paid defensive ends in the league. Once free agency starts and other pass rushers start signing deals, this will look even better. $7.5m a year seems very fair for a 29-year-old rotational player, coming off a career year.

The second signing was Wes Horton, on a two-year deal. I can’t fathom this deal being worth much more than the league minimum. But after being cut twice and suspended over the last two years, he’s happy to be back in the fold. Horton is a rotation player and is best against the run. He did have his best year as a pro this season and the Panthers seem to think the best is yet to come. Did we mention his dad was an American Gladiator? I’m still lobbying on Twitter for the Panthers to bring in Gemini to pound the drum.

Do any of those signings say that the Panthers are finished working at defensive end? Not by a long shot. I still expect them to add another DE or two in free agency. This year could be another “DE by committee” type of season.

Is it time for our hometown hero to return? I’m mixed when it comes to Julius Peppers. He was my favorite player in college, was drafted by the Panthers and then burned the forest on his way to Chicago. I’m not sure that he is as concerned with coming back to finish his career where it began. Money comes first with Peppers, always has. It’s easy to forget that he almost came back three years ago, until the Packers swooped in and signed him, Peppers was going to be a Panther again. At the end of the day, I’m fine with Peppers coming back. But it means Charles Johnson isn’t, which is fine. In my eyes, Peppers has more to offer than Johnson. If the money is right, and the expectations are in check. Peppers could be a solid addition.

Speaking of Charles Johnson. It’s time for Johnson and the Panthers to move on. Johnson only has five sacks over the last two seasons. To be fair, Johnson was injured for most of that time. If a player can’t stay on the field, you move on. Just 12 months ago, he was released, then resigned on the cheap. At the time, it seemed like a good deal, but was it? Not in my eyes. He isn’t done in the NFL, however, he is done with the Panthers.

Back to the free agents. Mario Williams is another name being floated around by Panthers fans. Like Peppers, he has North Carolina ties and this could be another home coming. A product of that university in Raleigh, I’m sure many believe he is still the 26-year-old, force of nature. As with most things, those folks are delusional. Per our Miami guy, Tom Plourde, “Williams was looking to collect a check and new HC, Adam Gase, was looking to win games and didn’t care what contract players had.”. Like Peppers, Williams, still has something left to offer a team. Although, you shouldn’t expect much from him. If the Panthers can sign him to a team friendly deal and he is only in on passing down, it’s worth a gamble.

Andre Branch is a player to keep an eye on. Once a second round draft pick of the Jaguars, most recently of the Dolphins. He had a solid 2016, totaling 5.5 sacks and 13 QB hits. He’s quick off the ball and has the power to bull rush a tackle. He spends a lot of time around the QB and has a big-time motor. Like Addison, he took a few years to develop his pass rush skills. Don’t expect Branch to break the bank, expect a contract in the $8m per year range. Did I mention he can dance?

Next up, we look at the offensive line.

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