CHARLOTTE — For weeks, Carolina Panthers fans have been bracing themselves for free agency’s inevitable reality: The loss of free agent All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
On Tuesday morning, a day before the official start to the free agency period, multiple national reports broke that Norwell struck a deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hours later, a five-year deal was struck between the Buffalo Bills and Lotulelei, a source with direct knowledge of the deal told the Observer. The source requested anonymity because the deal can’t be signed until free agency officially starts on Wednesday.
Norwell’s reported five-year, $66.5 million deal (with $30 million guaranteed) makes Norwell the highest-paid guard in the NFL. Norwell began his career as an undrafted free agent in 2014, and worked his way into a starting role in Carolina.
He will join a team that made a deep playoff run last season and a roster that includes running back Leonard Fournette.
Lotulelei joins the Buffalo defense and his former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who is entering his second year as the Bills’ head coach. Brandon Beane, the longtime assistant general manager in Carolina, is Buffalo’s current GM.
Panthers guard Trai Turner’s large contract, plus five years and $55.5 million tied up in Matt Kalil at left tackle made it difficult for the Panthers to keep Norwell. The Panthers also have less than $20 million in 2018 cap space and needs at other areas.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short’s five-year, $80.5 million contract, signed last spring, was a factor in the team’s inability to give Lotulelei a high-dollar deal.
Carolina’s immediate contingency plan at left guard includes second-year player Taylor Moton and versatile center/guard Tyler Larsen.
On the defensive line, the Panthers’ 2016 first-round draft pick, defensive tackle Vernon Butler, might fill at least part of the rotation on the interior. However, part of the line’s success came from Lotulelei’s ability as a space eater at nose tackle who could also get pressure, so Carolina might fill that need with a lower-priced player in free agency. Butler’s skill set more resembles Short’s.
The team likely will add more depth along both lines in free agency and the draft.