What are cheetahs doing?! Carolina reset in free agency

CHARLOTTE, NC — Country music star Luke Combs is a huge Carolina Panthers fan. The natives of nearby Huntersville aren't shy about wearing their colors on and off the stage. He even went so far as to jokingly predict the Panthers would be 17-0 before the 2023 season (they finished an NFL-worst 2-15).

Price boy!Combs said of then-rookie quarterback Bryce Young, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.

But on Monday, after the Panthers traded edge rusher Brian Burns to the New York Giants for a second-round pick (No. 39) and a 2025 fifth-round pick (plus 2024 fifth-round picks) in April's NFL draft, the two-time country music entertainer of the year took to social media to express his frustration.

The disappointment is understandable and shared by other Carolina fans.

This stems from the Los Angeles Rams suggesting before the 2022 trade deadline that they consider giving up two first-rounders (2024, 2025) for Burns, the 16th pick in the 2019 draft.

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

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That stems from six straight losing seasons since owner David Tepper bought the team.

When Carolina Burns didn't get a single first-rounder, the reaction was outrage and disbelief — and not just from Combs. NFL analysts gave new general manager Dan Morgan low grades 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 was unhappy when he didn't get a long-term deal before last season. You can hear the disappointment in his voice as he interviews. He admitted that he was thinking of playing injury-free instead of going all-out.

Burns wasn't willing to back down from the $30 million annual contract he earned through 2022 (when he had a career-high 12.5 sacks), which he ultimately received from the Giants.

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

When the Giants went back on Monday last week, Carolina asked. The market for Burns is less now compared to 2022, when he was under contract for a reasonable amount, and no first-round picks would be included in the offer.

Rather than keep Burns for another season, run the risk of him being unhappy, let it filter through the locker room, and then watch him move, Morgan & Co.

Remember, the Panthers were 2-15 with Burns last season. It is often associated with one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

But how much better could Carolina get in 2024 by eating up a lot of cap space with Burns and his $24 million?

So the team hit the reset button and moved on.

On the surface, it's a bad look for Morgan in his first year as general manager, but it's one that needs to be done.

While playing in the NFL as an inside linebacker for the Panthers, Morgan played with a purpose and a plan. Those who have watched him grow as an executive insist he will rebuild Carolina with the same mindset.

Remember, he was part of the 2001 Carolina team that went an NFL-worst 1-15 and reached the Super Bowl two years later.

That growth happened because Carolina built from within. That was the start of free agency for Morgan. He secured contracts with guards Robert Hunt (Miami Dolphins) and Damien Lewis (Seattle Seahawks) to give Young the protection he needed to improve.

The statistics tell the story. According to ESPN Stats and Information, of Young's 62 sacks last season, 23 came from the guard position. That's the second-highest total in the league, ahead of the Giants' (31).

Carolina guards had the worst pass block success rate in the NFL at 86.2%. The Kansas City Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl, took first place with 97.3%.

Morgan plans to release Bradley Bozeman, who is responsible for an NFL-worst 12 sacks in 2023, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

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35 sacks Carolina surrendered from inside pressure ranks 31st in the league. Their combined pass block success rate (86.6%) ranked last.

So the Panthers fixed the problem by giving Hunt a five-year, $100 million deal and Lewis a five-year, $53 million deal. They could fix the center position with Austin Corbett (who has been a guard when healthy) or another free agent or a draft pick.

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

Security is likely to be compromised. Beyond the Burns trade, the Panthers lost linebacker Frankie Luu to the Washington Commanders, despite attempts to re-sign him. They are moving on from cornerback Donte Jackson (traded to Pittsburgh), safety Von Bell and 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos.

This week, Carolina acquired receiver Deonte Johnson from the Pittsburgh Steelers and signed defensive end A'Shaun Robinson, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Troy Hill.

Call it a purge of the Matt Rule and Frank Reich coaching seasons that were short-lived failures.

While Combs and others don't understand any of this, the lyrics for this season aren't finished. Like most country hits, times get worse before they get better, as in Combs' “When It Rains It Poor.”

But as he reminded us in those lyrics, things would get better: “Then I won a hundred bucks on a scratch ticket. Bought two 12-packs and a tank of gas. She swore they were a waste of time. Oh, but she was wrong.”

What do cheetahs do?

Hold on, Luke.

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