Panthers free agency: Is Bradley Bozeman out? J.J. Jansen’s future and Brian Burns talk


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Luke Kuechly can vouch for the importance of interior offensive line play — and did earlier this week without prompting.

Speaking at an event promoting the Carolina Panthers’ partnership with FanDuel, Kuechly discussed the difficulties of facing New Orleans Saints guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, who helped protect Drew Brees when the vertically challenged quarterback was lighting up opposing defenses and rewriting the NFL record books.

“The guards were gigantic humans,” Kuechly said. “Both of those guys are 350 pounds, all of it. And you can’t push the pocket vertically.”

As The Athletic reported, the Panthers are expected to target at least one guard this offseason to help their own short-statured quarterback, Bryce Young, who was sacked 62 times in 2023 after being drafted No. 1 overall. Season-ending injuries to Austin Corbett and Brady Christensen created a revolving door at guard, and the Panthers lacked quality depth at the position.

“We lost that (interior protection) last year with Corbett and Brady being down. Not as big bodies as those (Saints) guys. But they can sit down. They can anchor. The bull rush doesn’t kill ‘em and Bryce can do his thing,” Kuechly added. “Last year we just had so many injuries, so many offensive line combinations. It just made life very difficult.”

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With Taylor Moton entrenched at right tackle and Dave Canales and Dan Morgan committed to Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle, the Panthers are focused on bolstering their inside line spots. In addition to guard, the Panthers also want to bring in a center to compete with or replace Bradley Bozeman, according to sources familiar with the team’s thinking.

Bozeman has started 28 consecutive games since taking over for Pat Elflein early in the 2022 season. But Bozeman is due a $1.5 million bonus if he’s still on the roster March 16, three days after the start of the league year. The Panthers already plan to move on from cornerback Donte Jackson and tight end Hayden Hurst rather than pay their roster bonuses. They could take the same approach with Bozeman, whose downhill blocking acumen might be a poor fit for Canales’ wide-zone run scheme.

The Panthers re-signed the 29-year-old Bozeman to a three-year, $18 million contract last March. Bozeman received $10 million in guaranteed money, including $4 million of his $4.15 million salary for 2024. Releasing him with a post-June 1 designation would create $2 million in salary-cap space and spread $7.28 million in dead money over the next two years, according to Over the Cap.

The Athletic’s Randy Mueller, a longtime NFL general manager, believes center might be the deepest free-agent class of any offensive position, with as many as 10 starting-caliber players available. That list doesn’t include Mitch Morse, a skilled pass-blocker released by the Buffalo Bills this week.

Morse, who turns 32 next month, was a surprise cut in Buffalo after ranking in the top 25 in the league last season in pressure rate allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Morgan was the Bills’ player personnel director when they signed Morse to a four-year, $44.5 million contract in 2019, making him the NFL’s highest-paid center at the time.

It’s also a deep center group in the draft. Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic, called it an “awesome year to draft a center,” with at least five players he expects to become NFL starters.

Thoughts and tidbits on a few other Panthers-related topics as we get closer to Monday’s start of the legal tampering window:

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J.J. Jansen has been Carolina’s long snapper since 2009. (Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

• Long snapper J.J. Jansen has played on one-year deals each of the past three seasons. Jansen had his deal finalized in February each of the past two offseasons, and it’s a bit surprising the Panthers’ all-time leader in games played is still without a contract just days away from free agency. The team’s previous regime was interested in re-signing the 38-year-old Jansen, who has played in 243 consecutive games since arriving in 2009 in a trade from Green Bay, according to a source briefed on the situation. The sense here is Jansen will be back for a 16th season.

• It’s been a tough week or so for safeties, with Justin Simmons the latest safety to get released. Simmons is the former Denver Broncos’ ballhawk who tied for the league lead with six interceptions in 2022 … when Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero had the same position in Denver. Simmons’ strong resume (he’s been second-team All-Pro four of the past five years) and connections to the Panthers’ staff (safeties coach Bert Watts also was in Denver) would make him an intriguing target — if Carolina didn’t have so many other positions of need.

Plus, Canales pointed to returning safeties Xavier Woods and Vonn Bell when praising Evero and the defense last week at the NFL combine. “Talk about taking two safeties who don’t come from this scheme,” Canales said, “(and) really getting Xavier and Vonn to be able to play well together and tie the whole thing together.”

After getting no interceptions from a safety in 2022, Panthers’ safeties combined for four picks last season. Woods led the team with two, while Bell and Sam Franklin each had one, with Franklin scoring on a franchise-record, 99-yard interception return against Minnesota.

• Two days after the Panthers used the franchise tag on edge rusher Brian Burns, CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson reported that “some league sources say third-round compensation is fair” in a trade for Burns, provided the acquiring team signs him to a long-term deal. The Panthers turned down two firsts and a second from the Los Angeles Rams for Burns in 2022, when the return was higher because he was still on his rookie deal. Even so, there’s no way Morgan should take less than a first plus a sweetener — or the equivalent — for a young player at a premium position. If that’s too steep for interested teams, let Burns play under the tag for $24 million if the Panthers can’t get a long-term deal done with him.

(Top photo of Bradley Bozeman: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)





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