Panthers’ coach Frank Reich ‘really wanted’ wide receiver D.J. Chark in free agency

D.J. Chark had been on Panthers head coach Frank Reich’s radar for a while.

Both arrived in the AFC South in 2018, when Reich was hired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Chark was selected in the second round of that year’s draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. They played against each other every year for four consecutive seasons.

Chark, 26, left Jacksonville for Detroit last offseason, and Reich still kept tabs on the receiver, even as he dealt with own departure from Indianapolis.

When Chark became a free agent for the second time in as many years, Reich — now running the show in Carolina — was excited about the opportunity to add him to the Panthers’ roster.

The Panthers hosted Chark on a visit during the second wave of free agency earlier this month, and after roughly a week of negotiations, finally landed the receiver on a one-year, $5 million deal.

During the NFL’s Annual Meeting at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Reich made it clear that Chark was a key piece of the Panthers’ free agency puzzle.

“Make no mistake about it — I really wanted D.J. — a lot of us did,” Reich said Tuesday. “I’ve had my eye on him for a couple of years now. I think D.J. is a down-the-field threat, I think he’s a very competitive, hard-working player — from all of the intel that we’ve gathered. And if you look at his career, even though there’s been some injuries along the way, he’s consistently producing over 14 yards per catch, and that’s not a mistake. You might do that for one year, but to do that year in and year out — and you need that in your offense, right? . . . You need those chunk plays, and he’s been a proven chunk-play guy.”

The Panthers were interested in signing Chark to a long-term deal, but the wide receiver wanted a “prove it” one-year pact so he could get another opportunity at a bigger pay day next offseason, Panthers GM Scott Fitterer told The Observer on Monday.

The delayed agreement was finalized as the Panthers prepared to watch Kentucky quarterback Will Levis throw at his college pro day last Friday, Fitterer confirmed. Fitterer and vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman negotiated on the phone with Chark’s agent, Todd France, as they spent the morning at the Wildcats’ practice facility in Lexington, Kentucky — nearly 400 miles away from the Panthers’ home base at Bank of America Stadium.

According to Reich, the Panthers — who have sent a large group of decision-makers to the pro days of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft class — recruited Chark with the help of their offensive staff. Running backs/assistant head coach Duce Staley, offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson all spoke with Chark before he signed, the head coach said.

Staley’s past experience with Chark in Detroit was a big factor in the process, according to both Fitterer and Reich.

“I think they all put a full-court press on him to recruit him,” Reich said. “But obviously, Duce being with DJ last year, that was a big deal. And Duce, as you guys are getting to know him, he’s just a very compelling figure and a straight shooter, and that’s what players want. They want someone who is going to be straight with them — just tell me what it is — and Duce is great like that.”

Chark — who produced 502 yards and 3 touchdowns off 30 catches during his lone season with the Lions — is recovering from an ankle surgery procedure that he had performed in January. During the free agency process, Reich and Fitterer spoke with the doctor who performed the procedure, and they came away feeling good about Chark’s ability to return to form.

“He’s going through his process of rehab from the injury that he had and the procedure that he had done,” Reich said. “And we’re very optimistic that the procedure that he had done is going to end up to be a good story — that it’s going to clean up the issue that he’s been fighting for a couple of years and really give him the best chance to stay on the field.”

The Panthers will head to the practice field for organized team activities in May. And Reich, based on feedback from Chark’s doctor, believes the talented but oft-injured wideout will be able to perform at some point during the stretch of 10 workouts.

“I think he’ll be ready for part of OTAs,” Reich said. “The last that I talked with the (doctor), there’s a chance he will get into the action.”

Whenever Chark ultimately joins his teammates on offense, the Panthers will have a new-look group at the skill position spots.

Chark will team with fellow wideout Adam Thielen, tight end Hayden Hurst and either veteran quarterback Andy Dalton or the incoming rookie quarterback — via the first overall pick — as Reich begins his tenure in Charlotte.