Will Panthers’ massive defensive overhaul help their rebuild?

Carolina had the worst record in the NFL last season, so no amount of offseason changes should be surprising. But the first week of free agency brought a major overhaul to the Panthers’ defense, swapping out at least six starters and some of its biggest names.

Four of Carolina’s top six players in defensive snaps last season are gone: Pro Bowl pass-rusher Brian Burns traded to the Giants, cornerback Donte Jackson traded to the Steelers, linebacker Frankie Luvu signing with the Commanders and safety Vonn Bell cut, later signing back with the Bengals. Yetur Gross-Matos, a second-round pick in 2020, also left, signing with the 49ers.

It’s hard to make a case that more than one of the replacements is an upgrade, and Carolina’s new leadership hadn’t signaled such a dramatic change for what was seen as the Panthers’ stronger side of the ball in 2023.

“Of course you want to keep your defense together, not only the coaching staff but the players,” new general manager Dan Morgan said at the combine in Indianapolis. “We’d love to keep everybody together, but with the salary cap it’s not always possible.”

Carolina had three players finish with more than two sacks last season, and all three were gone in the first day of free agency. And while new head coach Dave Canales made it a priority to keep defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, the Panthers have also made it clear that their path to recovery and success includes significant personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball.

And, looking back, perhaps it should. Carolina finished fourth in total defense — yards allowed — but struggled in many other areas. The Panthers ranked 31st in sack percentage, 31st in goal-to-go situations, 27th in the red zone and 29th in points allowed. They ended the season with an NFL-low 11 takeaways — three fewer than any other team — for their third straight season with fewer than 20, a feat matched only by the Commanders.

The Panthers’ biggest checks last week went to the offense to help QB Bryce Young. That includes spending $153 million on a pair of new starting guards in the Dolphins’ Robert Hunt (five years, $100 million) and the Seahawks’ Damien Lewis (four years, $53 million). They also traded for Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson and are courting two other free-agent veterans coming off injuries in the Chargers’ Mike Williams and the Cowboys’ Michael Gallup. 

But six defensive starters are already out, and four other key contributors remain unsigned, suggesting at best a hesitance to bring them back. There could be eight new starters by the end of the draft. Here are the six additions already in place to replace the departed, knowing the draft will also help restock the defense.

Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler, Brian Burns among top movers

Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler, Brian Burns among top movers

S Jordan Fuller

Arguably the only true upgrade of the six, Fuller is reunited with Evero, who coached him with the Rams. Fuller is only 26 and is coming off a solid season, with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and 94 tackles. He’ll combine with Xavier Woods, one of the few returning defensive starters, but the Panthers need improved play in the secondary, both in pass coverage and run support. There’s a lot of turnover at safety, as Jeremy Chinn signed with Washington and Sam Franklin remains unsigned.

LB Josey Jewell

Carolina went hard after Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen, but lost out to the Steelers, so the task of replacing Luvu will go to Jewell, who played for Evero in Denver. Jewell is 29 and has topped 100 tackles in his last three healthy seasons. He has 5.5 sacks in the past two years, which won’t be confused with Luvu’s 12.5, but Jewell has an ability to blitz and get to the quarterback when asked. Veteran Shaq Thompson, who missed almost all of last season with a fractured ankle, took a pay cut to return and will also help.

[READ MORE: 2024 NFL free-agency grades: Evaluating every major signing so far]

OLB D.J. Wonnum

Nobody is just going to step in and replace Burns, but Wonnum matched his eight sacks last season and will become the team’s top pass-rusher. He’s 26, went to college at South Carolina and has eight sacks in each of his two years as a full-time starter. He had a career-best 62 tackles last year and a fumble-recovery touchdown. Plus, he’s signed at the reasonable price of two years and $12.5 million, which is about a fifth of what the Giants will pay Burns.

OLB K’Lavon Chaisson

Chaisson won’t necessarily be a starter, but for now, he’s the replacement for Gross-Matos, who commanded a two-year, $18 million deal from the 49ers, like Luvu a disappointing loss. Chaisson fell well short of expectations in Jacksonville, getting drafted 20th overall in 2020 and mustering only five total sacks in four seasons. To play all 17 games and total 13 tackles as he did last year shows how little he accomplished, but he comes in on a modest contract and could find a spark with a fresh start.

CB Dane Jackson

The Panthers included Donte Jackson in the trade with the Steelers to land WR Johnson, another case of Carolina shifting resources from the defensive side to the offense to help out there. Dane Jackson is 27, has ties to Morgan from his Bills days, and was productive as a full-time starter in 2022, with two interceptions and 12 passes defensed. Getting Jaycee Horn healthy at corner will be an addition in itself, and the Panthers re-signed Troy Hill at the position as well. Carolina has not re-signed corner C.J. Henderson, who could be moving on.

DT A’Shawn Robinson

Robinson is another player with Evero ties, having played for him with the Rams. He turns 29 this week and started 13 games for the Giants last year. At 330 pounds, Robinson is a massive run-stuffer. He’ll line up next to Derrick Brown, who’s easily the best returning piece in the defense, with the hopes of Carolina getting more stout against the run. Robinson likely displaces DeShawn Williams, a free-agent addition last year who has not been re-signed. Shy Tuttle is also back after starting every game last season as part of the defensive front.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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