Carolina Panthers free-agent signing officially puts Ikem Ekwonu on notice

The stakes have been raised...

Ikem Ekwonu
Ikem Ekwonu / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers' signing free-agent Yosh Nijman officially puts starting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu on notice in 2024.

After a disastrous second season for Ikem Ekwonu, the Carolina Panthers gave their starting left tackle a supreme vote of confidence. Dan Morgan revealed that they were going to keep him on quarterback Bryce Young's blindside in the hope of improved fortunes once the interior options are enhanced. With the signings of Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, the former first-round pick has no excuses.

While faith remains in Ekwonu, the Panthers were not going to leave anything to chance. Their signing of Yosh Nijman on a two-year deal provides the depth chart with a swing tackle presence capable of improving depth. It also raises the stakes where the North Carolina State product is concerned.

Ekwonu will be the first to admit that his performances weren't good enough last season. He didn't look suited to the zone-blocking concepts implemented by Frank Reich and Thomas Brown. He was targeted as a weak link often, giving up a whopping 11 sacks and conceding 12 penalties from a campaign that won't live long in the memory.

Carolina Panthers are expecting more from Ikem Ekwonu in 2024

Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around as the Panthers' 2023 season descended into embarrassment once again. Ekwonu is held to a higher standard than most being a No. 6 overall selection. Morgan and head coach Dave Canales still believe he has what it takes, but they've also brought in a contingency plan if things don't go according to plan.

Nijman has been solid when called upon throughout his career. The Panthers also have Brady Christensen to utilize at one of the tackle positions if needed. Competition was scarce across the protection last time around as Carolina's lack of genuine depth became exposed. That's not the case anymore.

If Ekwonu wasn't already aware, this is a make-or-break campaign for the lineman. He needs to rectify some technical flaws and build his confidence back up. Anything less will likely come with grave consequences attached.

Ekwonu looks like the type of character to use this as motivation. Competition is always healthy in any form of life. There's even the prospect of more arriving via the 2024 NFL Draft looking at how deep this class is for offensive linemen. Those who don't relish this sort of challenge are in the wrong profession.

All hope is not lost with Ekwonu - far from it. What Nijman's arrival provides is a security blanket in the event he cannot get back to something like his rookie form. Protecting Young has been the biggest priority above all else so far this offseason, anything less would have been organizational malpractice following his turbulent first season in a professional environment.

While it's unlikely Ekwonu needed any additional motivation heading into a pivotal preparation period, he's got it. Nijman might not push him for the starting gig initially, but a sluggish start in 2024 could see the Panthers go in a different direction if they feel like this is the best thing for Young. Keeping his pocket clean consistently is imperative. They cannot afford to have any passengers.

It's time for Ekwonu to dig in and prove why the Panthers selected him to become their franchise left tackle. And who knows, this could be the spark that ignites him to heights not seen before.