With the 2022 NFL regular season officially in the books, some teams are already thinking about the future. That is the case for the Carolina Panthers, who failed to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth straight year. In addition to the No. 9 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the team can address many needs in free agency.
The Panthers were alive in the playoff race until Week 17. However, their poor 1-5 start seriously hurt their chances down the line. With a 7-10 record, the team finished second in the NFC South and No. 11 in the conference.
Because of that, the front office should be very active in the market so Carolina can have a comeback season in 2023. The Panthers are widely projected to select a quarterback in the first round of the draft, whether it is staying at No. 9 or trading up. Either way, they will address one of their biggest needs. Still, there are other areas that the organization should keep an eye on.
With that being said, here are three early offseason targets in the 2023 NFL Free Agency for the Carolina Panthers.
Leighton Vander Esch – Dallas Cowboys, LB
One of the main positions that the Panthers need to think about in free agency is linebacker. Shaq Thompson agreed to a contract restructure this past season and might need to negotiate again in 2023. If he does not, there is a chance he leaves the team. Even if he stays, the front office should consider signing another player.
An interesting name is Leighton Vander Esch. The veteran made an impact in his 2018 rookie season, earning a Pro Bowl selection and Second-team All-Pro honor. Following that, he has dealt with multiple injuries that limited his impact on the field for the Dallas Cowboys.
In 14 games this season, Vander Esch had his best year since his rookie campaign. He had 90 total tackles with 54 being solo, including four tackles for loss. He also had a forced fumble, a pass deflection, a quarterback hit and a sack.
His big nine-tackle performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card Round is an indication he still has something left in the tank. He helped the team hold Rachaad White and Leonard Fournette to 52 combined rushing yards in the win, potentially ending Tom Brady’s career.
Dalton Risner – Denver Broncos, OL
Despite the disappointing season of the Denver Broncos in 2022, the team still had its bright spots. Dalton Risner was likely one of the most impressive guards in the NFL this year and should earn a bigger paycheck in the offseason.
In 2022, he allowed only three sacks and drew just two penalties in nearly 1,000 offensive snaps for the Broncos. For his career, Risner has a total of only seven penalties.
Since entering the league in 19, Risner has started in all 62 games he appeared. He earned four straight pass-blocking grades between 69.6 and 72.6, according to Pro Football Focus. He has also missed just four total games in his career due to injuries. Playing in both guard spots and right tackles in Denver, Risner is a versatile option for rebuilding franchises such as the Panthers.
With potentially a new quarterback in 2023, Risner could offer protection at a higher level. At the age of 27, the former Kansas State Wildcat could be a long-term solution for the offensive line in Carolina. Still, he should be one of the most coveted offensive linemen in the 2023 offseason.
Marcus Peters – Baltimore Ravens, CB
Another area that the Panthers should think about during free agency is the secondary. The team allowed 6.7 yards per pass attempt, ranking in the bottom half of the league. With some cornerbacks hitting free agency and Donte Jackson recovering from an Achilles season-ending injury, Carolina could add a veteran to lead the youngsters in the position.
Marcus Peters is still trying to bounce back from his injury-prone years. However, at age 30, he showed he still has some of his Pro Bowl and All-Pro years in him and can provide value to some organizations.
In 13 games this season, he totaled 47 tackles with 35 being solo. He also had two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and two forced and recovered fumbles. He recorded an interception against the New England Patriots in Week 2.
With the Baltimore Ravens full of cornerbacks under contract in 2023, Peters might not have much space in the salary books. Additionally, since Marlon Humphrey just earned his third Pro Bowl selection, the team might opt to pair him with a younger player so they can develop together.
That leaves Peters as an option for the Panthers. He would significantly improve the position for Carolina while also potentially becoming a reference in the locker room. As the Panthers still rebuild, veterans like Peters who are trying to revive their careers could be very useful among youngsters.