Bob Donnan/USA TODAY

Carolina Panthers' Free Agency Preview: Defensive End

The last position that appears to be a pressing need for the Carolina Panthers that needs to be addressed this offseason is defensive end. Brandon Croce evaluates the team's current situation at the position and some possible options on the free agent market.

PANTHERS CURRENT SITUATION AT Defensive End

The Carolina Panthers are going to have some decisions to make at defensive end over the next few weeks. One of those decisions was made for them when Jared Allen retired and freed up $8.5 million in cap space.

However, the team has a tough decision to make with veteran Charles Johnson, who will enter next season with a salary over $15 million. He is coming off a down regular season with only one sack but missed seven games due to a hamstring injury. The issue isn't exactly cut and dry, especially with how Johnson finished the year with three sacks and two forced fumbles in the playoff.

If the Panthers do decide to cut Johnson, there is plenty of talent at the position however unproven. Kony Ealy has shown sparks over his two-year career with three straight games with a sack at the end of his rookie season and five straight games this past season with a sack. The best game of his career though was in Super Bowl 50 with three sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

After Ealy, the team has pass rushers like Mario AddisonRyan DelaireWes HortonRakim Cox and Arthur Miley. GM Dave Gettleman specifically mentioned Cox and Miley on Wednesday as two players who he is excited about seeing this offseason and could see expanded roles in 2016.

If the front office wants to add another pass rusher in free agency, these are three players who would make sense.

Free Agent Defensive Ends

Robert Ayers

Scout.com's Rank: #4 Defensive End

The defensive end free agency class is not very deep, which could drive up the price of some of the top pass rushers including Robert Ayers. The NY Giants defensive end is coming off a career year with career highs in tackles (41), sacks (9.5), forced fumbles (2) and passes defended (4).

While Ayers is the defensive end with the second highest sack total among free agents, there would have to be some concern for the Panthers. The first is his age and Ayers will be 31 years of age and he may not be able to produce for the type of contract he will command. The second is his durability and Ayers has been able to play in 16 games only once in his seven-year career.

Wallace Gilberry

Scout.com's Rank: #11 Defensive End

The Panthers most likely won't be looking for a starter in free agency but rather depth or situational pass rushers. A player like Wallace Gilberry would make perfect sense for this defense to play this role.

In 2013 and 2014, he was a situational pass rusher and finished with 6.5 and 7.5 sacks respectively. However, as Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle writes, Gilberry saw his stats actually drop when he became a starter for the Bengals in 2014 and 2015.

An addition of Gilberry would add competition to the position but still allow the Panthers' to promote Ealy to a full-time starter as defensive end.

Chris Long

Scout.com's Rank: NR

The biggest name in free agency for defensive ends is Chris Long, who was the second overall pick by the then St. Louis Rams in the 2008 NFL Draft. He played well for the Rams with 41.5 sacks over a four-year stretch from 2010 to 2013.

However, he has struggled the past two seasons with only four sacks in 18 games and the Rams released him in hopes to clear cap space. The hope would be that if Long is able to play on a playoff team, he has never been on a team that finished with more than seven wins, might rejuvenate his career.

The addition of Long would only make sense if the Panthers' do decide to release Johnson and he could replace him in the starting lineup.

Prediction

This may be a bit of a surprise but I don't expect the Panthers' to add any defensive ends. I also don't believe that they will end up releasing Charles Johnson because the free agent class at the defensive end position is weak this year.

While releasing Johnson would free up a great deal of cap space, it is hard to imagine who would be able to replace him in the lineup. I think the duo of Johnson and Ealy would be more than capable of producing with players like Addison, Cox and Miley serving as situational pass rushers.

For a full list of free agents, click here.

Twitter @BrandonCroce.

Follow us on Twitter @PanthersonScout and like our page on Facebook.


Panther Insider Top Stories