What do cheetahs do?! Carolina resets in free agency

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Country music star Luke Combs is a die-hard Carolina Panthers fan. The nearby Huntersville native isn't shy about wearing his colors on and off stage. He went so far as to jokingly predict before the 2023 season that the Panthers would go 17-0 (they finished an NFL-worst 2-15).

Bryce is the man!“It’s a big deal,” Combs said of then-rookie quarterback Bryce Young, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.

But on Monday, when the Panthers traded edge rusher Brian Burns to the New York Giants for a second-round pick (No. 39) in April's NFL Draft and a 2025 fifth-round pick (plus a swap of 2024 fifth-round picks), Country Music Artist of the Year moved on. Twice he took to social media to express his frustration.

The frustration is understandable and shared by other Carolina fans.

This stems from the Los Angeles Rams suggesting before the 2022 trade deadline that they would consider giving up two first-round picks (2024, 2025) for Burns, the No. 16 pick in the 2019 draft.

It stems from Carolina trading running back Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft, to the San Francisco 49ers before the 2022 trade deadline for second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023, and a fifth-rounder in 2024.

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This stems from six straight losing seasons since owner David Tepper purchased the team.

So, when Carolina didn't get even a first down for Burns, the reaction was anger and disbelief — and not just from Combs. NFL analysts gave new general manager Dan Morgan low marks for the move. ESPN's Matt Miller gave the Panthers an “F.”

But let's get some perspective. As with Combs' songs, there's a story behind the lyrics.

Burns wasn't happy when he didn't get a long-term deal before last season. You could hear the disappointment in his voice when he gave the interviews. He admitted that he had thoughts about playing so he wouldn't get hurt instead of doing his best.

Burns also wasn't willing to walk away from the $30 million annual contract he felt he earned in 2022 (when he had 12.5 career sacks), and which he ultimately received from the Giants.

The Panthers, who are more than a player away from becoming a contender, will never pay that much. They were willing to let Burns play under the franchise tag for $24 million this year, but there was no long-term solution in sight.

When the Giants reached out last week and again on Monday, Carolina listened. Burns' market is now slim compared to 2022, when he was still under contract for a reasonable amount, meaning the offer won't include any first-round picks.

Instead of keeping Burns for another season, risking making him unhappy, letting that seep into the locker room, and then seeing him move on after that, Morgan & Co. took what they could get.

Remember, the Panthers were 2-15 with Burns last season. That had a lot to do with the offense being one of the worst in the NFL.

But how much better can Carolina get in 2024 with Burns and his $24 million worth of money taking up a significant portion of its cap space?

So the team hit the reset button and moved on.

On the surface, this seems like a bad look for Morgan in his first year as GM, but it's a look that has to be made.

During his NFL career as an inside linebacker for the Panthers, Morgan played with purpose and a plan. Those who have watched him grow as an executive insist he will rebuild Carolina with the same mentality.

Remember, he was part of the 2001 Carolina team that finished worst in the NFL at 1-15 and two years later made it to the Super Bowl.

This growth occurred because Carolina built from the inside out. This is the beginning of free agency for Morgan. He made deals with guards Robert Hunt (Miami Dolphins) and Damien Lewis (Seattle Seahawks) to provide Young with the protection needed to improve.

The statistics tell the story. Of the 62 sacks Young made last season, 23 came from the guard position, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This was the second-highest total in the league, ahead of the Giants (31).

The Carolina Guards have the worst football win rate in the NFL at 86.2%. The Kansas City Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl, ranked first with a 97.3% percentage.

Morgan plans to release Bradley Bozeman, who was responsible for an NFL-worst 12 sacks in 2023, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

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Carolina's 35 sacks surrendered on interior pressure, which ranks 31st in the league. Their combined win rate (86.6%) ranked last.

So the Panthers gave Hunt a five-year, $100 million deal and Lewis a five-year, $53 million deal to fix the problem. They'll fix the center position with Austin Corbett (who has been a starter at guard when healthy), another free agent, or maybe even a draft pick.

There is a plan, and it starts with fixing the offense and helping Young play up to the potential he showed at Alabama.

The defense will likely struggle. Besides trading Burns, the Panthers lost inside linebacker Frankie Lufo to the Washington Chiefs despite efforts to re-sign him. They are moving on from cornerback Donte Jackson (traded to Pittsburgh), safety Vonn Bell and 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos.

Carolina this week acquired receiver Diontae Johnson from the Pittsburgh Steelers and agreed to terms with defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Troy Hill.

Let's call this a purge of the Matt Rhule and Frank Reich coaching eras that were short-term failures.

Although all of this doesn't seem to make sense to Combs and others, the lyrics for this season aren't over yet. As with most country hits, times can get worse before they get better, as in Combs' song “When It Rains It Pours.”

But as he reminded us in those words, things could get better: “Then I won a hundred dollars on a scratch-off ticket. And I bought two 12-packs and a tank of gas with it. And I swore they were a waste of time. Oh, but she was wrong.”

What do cheetahs do?

Stay tuned, Luke.

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