The Carolina Panthers’ offensive identity changed when center Bradley Bozeman entered the starting lineup.
Carolina became a hard-nosed, downhill-running football team after trading running back Christian McCaffrey in October. Bozeman took over for an injured Pat Elflein in Week 7 and the Panthers’ running game exploded. Carolina averaged 152 rushing yards per game during the final 11 games, all of which Bozeman started.
But Bozeman is set to become a free agent. He signed a one-year, $2.8 million with Carolina last season after spending his first four years in Baltimore. It’s unclear what type of market awaits Bozeman. According to Spotrac, Bozeman has a projected market value of $12.1 million per year. A three-year deal would be worth about $36 million, making Bozeman the fourth highest-paid center in the NFL.
Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer has expressed interest in re-signing Bozeman. If the team doesn’t, however, there are options Carolina can explore at center in free agency and the draft.
Pending free agents
Bozeman is the Panthers’ lone free-agent center. He signed in Carolina on a one-year, prove-it deal and had a career season. That should translate into a lucrative offseason deal for Bozeman in Carolina or elsewhere.
He’s not an All-Pro talent but Bozeman proved reliable this season. He’s a mauling downhill run-blocker who occasionally struggles in pass protection. Offensive line coach James Campen maximized his ability, which is why forecasting his free-agent market worth is difficult.
The Panthers may start the 2023 season without guard Austin Corbett after he sustained a torn ACL in Week 18. Campen likely wants as much familiarity up front as possible. Retaining Bozeman would offset any time Corbett may miss.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bozeman allowed two sacks, four hurries, and 12 quarterback hurries.
Elflein was placed on injured reserve in late October and had season-ending hip surgery shortly after. He is expected to be ready for the 2023 season but it would be surprising if he returned to Carolina without taking a significant pay cut.
The Panthers can cut Elflein and save more than $4 million in cap space. Elflein will turn 30 years old in July.
Tecklenburg spent the entire 2022 season on the Panthers’ practice squad.
John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota
Drafting centers is an imperfect science. Teams tend to value multi-position flexibility for interior offensive linemen rather than specifically drafting a center. For example, Panthers rookie Cade Mays practiced playing both guard positions and center this year.
If Carolina drafts a center, it would likely be in the later rounds. Minnesota’s Schmitz is a model of consistency. He became a starter in 2020 and held the job for 31 straight games. He is not an athletic freak and does not possess imposing size, but his lateral quickness flashed in the Gophers’ scheme.
Evaluators mention Schmitz’s active hands and ability to sustain blocks. Often when he makes contact he stays on defenders without penalty. He’s a high-floor prospect who would benefit from Campen’s coaching.
Ricky Stromberg, Arkansas
Stromberg made 44 starts in the SEC and 11 of those came at guard. He’s versatile and reliable. His best blocks occur when moving upfield. He did show some lateral blocking ability but was inconsistent with his gap responsibilities.
He often reaches the second level and punishes smaller linebackers. He would fit the mauling type Campen prefers at center. Stromberg is projected to be a Day 3 selection.
Potential free agent options
Ethan Pocic, Browns
It’s possible Carolina could search for another Bozeman-like contract with an undervalued center via free agency. It’s just as important the Panthers identify a veteran center who fits Campen’s system.
Ethan Pocic spent last season playing for Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Like Campen, Callahan is one of the most respected offensive line coaches in football. He thrived playing next to two Pro Bowl guards.
Pocic played five seasons in Seattle, meaning Fitterer — who spent nearly 20 years with the Seahawks — should be familiar with the 27-year-old center.
Jake Brendel, 49ers
The 49ers’ run game is as multiple and complex as any scheme in football. Brendel would likely fit well with Campen.
Brendel started all 17 games in 2022 and was one of the league’s best pass-blocking centers. He allowed pressure on merely 2.0% of his pass-blocking snaps according to Pro Football Focus, ranking fourth-best at the position. In the 49ers’ wild card win against Seattle, Brendel allowed zero pressures over 34 pass-blocking snaps.
He will turn 31 next season but should come with an affordable free-agent price tag.