Monday, the Carolina Panthers announced a three-year extension for safety Eric Reid that Reid later confirmed to be worth a little over $22 million.
The move stabilizes a secondary that in 2018 contained a mix of veterans and youth, and needed more consistency.
Big pass plays allowed were a thorn in the Panthers’ side during a seven-game losing streak, a key problem head coach Ron Rivera wants to get fixed in 2019.
“It’s interesting because it was never really one specific individual in coverage,” Rivera said of his secondary in a conversation in Atlanta during Super Bowl week. “They all were guilty of something. Every guy that got on the field allowed something to happen, probably with the exception of Eric Reid.”
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Reid’s three-year extension means that the Panthers have a versatile cornerstone in the secondary. The staff is comfortable using him as either a strong or free safety, in blitz packages, close to the line of scrimmage as a physical run defender and deep in center field.
That widens the field of players who could ultimately line up next to Reid in 2019.
Incoming second-year safety Rashaan Gaulden will compete this spring and summer for the starting spot opposite Reid. Gaulden was a versatile defensive back in college at Tennessee, playing everything from cornerback to safety to nickelback. He spent much of his first year in Carolina essentially “re-learning” the traditional safety position, but that does not mean he’ll stay in that role. Rivera has said he likes Gaulden’s potential in the team’s “big nickel” package.
And veteran safety Mike Adams, who is set to become a free agent this spring, said on Radio Row during Super Bowl Week that he told general manager Marty Hurney he’d like to return to Carolina — and would even accept a more limited role after starting for the past two seasons.
Veteran safety Da’Norris Searcy also has one year left on his contract, though spent most of the 2018 season in the concussion protocol and on injured reserve.
So where does that leave Carolina’s safety needs, as they evaluate their roster ahead of free agency and the NFL Draft?
By the end of the Panthers’ 2018 season, it was clear that the top two needs for the Panthers are pass rushers and offensive linemen.
Reid’s signing doesn’t change that. Carolina’s top moves in free agency and the draft will likely be to shore up their offensive and defensive lines.
With Reid in place, Carolina can focus on those more pressing needs.
But the Panthers could get creative with middle-round draft picks, particularly the extra third-round compensatory pick they are slated to receive because of the loss of guard Andrew Norwell in free agency in 2017.
Following their trend of defensive back selections in the past couple of drafts, the Panthers will look to stay fast and versatile.
They’ve also only used high draft picks on defensive backs in recent years when absolutely necessary — like for a cornerback-starved roster in 2016, when they drafted James Bradberry in the second round, or last spring when they desperately needed a complement to Bradberry and did so by selecting lightning-fast Donte Jackson in the second round.
Some mid-to-late-round draft options for the Panthers at safety could include Darnell Savage Jr., a speedy safety from Maryland, Juan Thornhill of Virginia, who has played just about every back-seven position as a three-year starter, and Malik Gant, a fast, sure tackler out of Marshall.