CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2023 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 15 at 4 p.m. ET. The first round of the 2023 NFL draft begins April 27 on ESPN.
The Carolina Panthers are focused on finding a long-term solution at quarterback in the draft after trading with the Chicago Bears to acquire the No. 1 pick to get their choice -- likely between Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. -- and adding players around him to help aid in his development.
Here's a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free agent signing by the Panthers, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Adam Thielen, receiver
The long-time Minnesota Vikings receiver joins that Panthers on a three-year deal.
What it means: Thielen, 32, will bring a veteran presence to the wide receiver room lost when the Panthers included DJ Moore in a trade to Chicago for the first pick of the draft. In some ways he could bring more leadership to the room because Moore was more of a leader by example than a vocal one. Thielen also should help bring along whichever quarterback (likely Stroud or Young) the Panthers select with the top pick. Carolina also still has a shot at former Detroit Lions wide receiver DJ Chark, who is only 26, so that would add more veteran leadership.
What's the risk: Thielen will turn 33 in August, so age will be the biggest factor. He's been in the league 10 years, so at some point there will be a drop in production. He had only six touchdown catches last season after having 10 and 14 in the previous two with the Vikings. His catch rate also dropped to 65.4 %, his lowest rate in the past three seasons.
Miles Sanders, running back
Sanders signed a four-year, $25 million deal with the Panthers.
What it means: The Panthers have locked up for four years a young (25), dynamic running back who can help in the running and passing game. And they've added another piece to the puzzle to take the pressure of whichever quarterback they select with the top pick. Sanders was a key piece to the Eagles' high-scoring offense last season, rushing for 1,269 yards. As a rookie in 2019, he caught 50 passes for 509 yards and 3 touchdowns when his position coach was Duce Staley, now with the Panthers. Sanders will make a great double threat with Chuba Hubbard, and Carolina still hasn't ruled out keeping power back D'Onta Foreman, last year's leading rusher, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
What's the risk: Nothing but upside on this one. Whether it's the top pick of the draft or veteran Andy Dalton, Sanders will provide a weapon that will keep the quarterback from feeling pressure to win games on his own. That he's approaching his prime and under contract for four seasons also shows the flexibility GM Scott Fitterer has to build a roster financially around a rookie QB contract.
Justin McCray, guard
Carolina is signing McCray, who spent the past two seasons with the Houston Texans.
What it means: McCray is insurance in case right guard Austin Corbett, recovering from ACL surgery, isn't ready for the start of the season. He also adds depth to a starting lineup that returns intact. He's been used primarily as a right guard most of his career and has experience working with Carolina offensive line coach James Campen in Green Bay, Cleveland and Houston.
What's the risk: Not much, since the 30-year-old primarily was signed for depth and has history with Campen. A solid depth pick for a team trying to build a complete roster around a first-round pick at quarterback who will need time while he grows.
DeShawn Williams, defensive tackle
Williams signed with the Panthers on Wednesday.
What it means: The starting defensive front in Carolina's new 3-4 scheme is now set with Williams likely playing end opposite Derrick Brown. Shy Tuttle, who reached a deal early in free agency, will anchor the nose tackle spot. Williams also can play tackle when Carolina goes to a 4-3. But the 30-year-old -- who grew up a few hours away in Central, South Carolina and attended Clemson -- was brought here because of his much-needed experience at end in the 3-4 system he played last season for Ejiro Evero (now Carolina's defensive coordinator) when they were with the Denver Broncos.
What's the risk: Williams' age, 30, is the only drawback. He's not a long-term solution, but he's like some of the older vets who senior defensive coordinator Dom Capers brought in to play the 3-4 when he was the first head coach of the Panthers in 1995. Having experience in that scheme gives him tremendous upside as Carolina moves from the 4-3, and he'll be able to help bring along young ends in the system.
Hayden Hurst, tight end
Carolina has agreed to terms on a three-year, $21.75 million contract with $13 million guaranteed for Hurst, who was with the Cincinnati Bengals last season.
What it means: The Panthers weren't willing to touch the top of the market for a receiving threat at tight end, but they made a nice mid-level pickup in Hurst. The former South Carolina star hasn't flourished like many thought he would when the Ravens selected him in the first round of the 2018 draft. Carolina will be his fourth team in six seasons. But he has been productive, catching 52 passes for the Bengals last season and 56 for the Falcons in 2020. Carolina still will consider a tight end in the draft, but Hurst lessens the urgency and will give their to-be-named first-round pick a big (6-foot-4) target.
What's the risk: The big question is why Hurst hasn't risen to the level of the top tight ends in the NFL, at least enough to keep him in one place. Otherwise, the risk is low on a player who is an upgrade as a receiver over Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas. He is still relatively young (29) and has time to turn things around.
Andy Dalton, quarterback
The Panthers are bringing in Dalton on a two-year, $10 million deal that includes $8 million fully guaranteed.
What it means: The Panthers couldn't have found a much better veteran to help bring along whomever they select with the top pick of the draft between Stroud and Young. Dalton, 35, is toward the end of his career, so he's ready to accept being a mentor as he has been the past few years. He was signed by the New Orleans Saints last year to help bring along Jameis Winston before an injury to Winston forced him to be the starter for 14 games. He's accurate and makes good decisions. If the first pick isn't ready for the opener, Dalton gives Carolina a quarterback capable of winning in Week 1.
What's the risk: Like their earlier moves, not much. If anything, Dalton feels like an upgrade over Sam Darnold and others Carolina was interested in. And unlike the others, Dalton is all right with being a backup. He could be to this year's No. 1 overall pick what Derek Anderson was to Cam Newton after the Panthers made him the top pick of the 2011 draft. That draft, by the way, is where Dalton was selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Bradley Bozeman, center
Carolina is bringing Bozeman back on a three-year, $18 million deal.
What it means: That the starting offensive line that helped the Panthers rank fifth in the NFL in rushing over the final 12 games last season is under contract. That whichever quarterback Carolina selects with the top pick will have a proven, veteran group not only to protect him, but to provide a running game that will take pressure off him. That general manager Scott Fitterer has fulfilled one of his offseason priorities.
What's the risk: None. The Panthers made it clear they wanted Bozeman back and Bozeman made it clear he wanted to return. It's not a break-the-bank type deal that would prevent Carolina from strengthening the rest of the roster. Plus, Bozeman in a short time already has had a big impact on the community through his foundation.
Vonn Bell, safety
The Panthers and Bell, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals, agreed to terms on a free agent contact.
What it means: The Panthers now have the flexibility to move 2020 second-round pick Jeremy Chinn closer to the line of scrimmage, where he was much of his rookie season when he played more linebacker than safety. Chinn didn't have an interception or fumble recovery last season at safety. He had only one sack. With the move to a 3-4 scheme, Chinn could be used more in zone blitz situations like the Steelers used to use Troy Polamalu. Bell gives Carolina a more traditional safety and playmaker. He had four picks in 2022.
What's the risk: Not much. The former Ohio State star is a playmaker in his own right with 15 forced fumbles, 9.5 sacks and 6 interceptions since the Saints made him a second-round pick in 2016.
Shy Tuttle, nose tackle
The Panthers have agreed to terms with Tuttle, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, on a three-year, $19.5 million contract with $13 million guaranteed.
What it means: The Panthers are on their way to solidifying the defensive front for their new 3-4 scheme. Tuttle (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) likely will play nose tackle, as the 3-4 system requires the tackle and two ends to eat up blocks so the outside edge rushers can pressure the quarterback. This also means Tuttle gets to come home. He grew up about 68 miles from Charlotte in Midway, North Carolina.
What's the risk: Not a lot. Tuttle is relatively inexpensive when it comes to defensive linemen, but he fits the style that senior defensive consultant Dom Capers looked for when he shopped for bargains in 1995 as the first head coach of the Panthers while putting together a 3-4 scheme. The big money typically goes to the outside linebackers, and this perhaps gives Carolina flexibility to extend the deal of Brian Burns as he enters the fifth year of his rookie deal.