Best & Worst Contracts: The Carolina Panthers

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A few weeks ago Jason LaCanfora published a list of best and worst contracts in the NFL so I thought it might make a good idea for us to do the same here at OTC, with a team by team approach. I’ll try to be a bit more analytical in terms of why money was paid and how it fits in the market, but the general premise is the same. The one key difference is outside of restructured rookie contracts under the old CBA we will only use veteran contracts as there is a big difference between best draft picks and best contracts.  Please note that there is a difference between a bad player and a bad contract when discussing some of the selections. Clicking on a players name will take you to his salary cap page.

dwan edwardsBest Contract: Dwan Edwards

There are a handful of teams where this is a difficult category and the Panthers are clearly one of those teams. From a cap management perspective the Panthers were run into the ground by former GM Marty Hurney, specifically regarding a number of decisions made post lockout in 2011 and 2012. It has left new GM, Dave Gettleman, in a difficult position. Gettleman comes from a system in New York where cap space is created by identifying poor leverage players for paycuts or turning salary into bonus money for more productive players.

In many ways it is similar to the situation in Dallas, where there are talented pieces to the puzzle with loads of stacked up prorated money and player friendly contracts. Perhaps that talent level has been enough to determine a course of action as Gettleman has gone the salary into bonus route, in many cases adding void years for proration purposes that do nothing but hurt the team in the future. This style of contract in part helped destroy the Oakland Raiders and will likely do the same to the Cowboys. I believe the Panthers have at least 5 players with voidable proration years in their contracts.

That really limits the talent pool to select good contracts from. For example Greg Olsen’s contract was not terrible but the void provisions are just unnecessary for such limited cap savings. So all things told I selected Edwards. He plays a lot of snaps and is a decent player. The contract was designed for an older player with a short term future and not incredibly impactful cap charges in 2014 if, indeed the Panthers do move on. The Panthers originally wanted Edwards on a 1 year contract but the structure of the deal is a fair enough compromise and gives them a relatively low cost option if he remains the starter for the team over the duration of the contract.

jonathan stewartWorst Contract: Jonathan Stewart

For me this was a no brainer. In a league where the NFL has devalued the running back so much the fact that the Panthers were willing to sink over $7 million a season into Stewart, just a year after throwing away over $8 million a year on DeAngelo Williams and a few months after signing Mike Tolbert , was mind boggling. Even if you take Williams and Tolbert’s salaries out of the equation there was almost no justification for the deal.

Leading up to the contract Stewarts had only once carried the ball more than 200 times in a year. Only once had he gained more than 1000 yards. He had never been the dual threat many running backs are at the position. But somehow he ended up in the top 10 in compensation at the position. The deal contained $23 million in vesting guarantees. It completely compromised the entire teams salary structure.

The contract was a mine field.   Stewart received a large signing bonus of $9 million dollars and was scheduled to earn a non-guaranteed option of $9 million in 2014. Those types of prorated charges make it impossible to cut a player and for a running back you cant have those dead money charges looming over your head. It was those large bonus structures that helped change the course of the NFL in the mid 2000’s when running back after running back broke down and compromised a teams salary cap. The Panthers never got the message.

The Panthers did have a small window to release Smith this past season, but they had already sunk so much money into him that instead they restructured his bonus money to help ease the back end salary cap considerations. He received $2.5 million as a signing bonus in 2013 with $6.875 waiting for him in 2014. Because they did not move on $4 million in injury only guarantees in 2014 and 2015 vested, meaning any attempts to cut Stewart in the future would cost the Panthers $4 million in cash and cap. Had they just cut him after the dismal 2012 season their cap hit would have been $7.2 million the remaining proration form the $9 million dollar bonus and he would have been off the books by 2014.

With guarantees and bonus money coming Stewart will likely be a fixture in Carolina until the 2016 season at which point the June 1 designation may come into play to help ease the high dead money costs.  This is one of the worst contracts in the NFL from a team perspective. It is a deal that will eat cap room for years and there is no easy path for escape. Barring a major turnaround the team will need to look into every avenue possible to avoid next years bonus payment from happening. That will be a tall task for the Panthers to accomplish given the circumstances.

Check out Our Other Best & Worst Contract Articles

AFC East: Buffalo BillsMiami DolphinsNew England PatriotsNew York Jets

AFC North: Baltimore RavensCincinnati BengalsCleveland BrownsPittsburgh Steelers

AFC South: Houston TexansIndianapolis ColtsJacksonville JaguarsTennessee Titans

AFC West: Denver BroncosKansas City ChiefsOakland RaidersSan Diego Chargers

NFC East: Dallas CowboysNew York GiantsPhiladelphia EaglesWashington Redskins

NFC North: Chicago BearsDetroit LionsGreen Bay PackersMinnesota Vikings

NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints (July 26)

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Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc