Estimated 2015 Cap Space: $15M ($143M cap limit)
Players Under Contract: 58
Pro Bowlers: 2
Unrestricted Free Agents: 11(2 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 25
Salary Cap Breakdown
Free Agents to Re-sign
I don’t believe there is a compelling case for the Panthers to retain any notable free agents. Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole can be decent rotational players, but both are in their mid 30’s and near the end of their careers. Unless they are willing to sign for the minimum the team should find younger options that can fill the void. They may already have one in Kyle Love….Fernando Velasco can help out on the line and will sign for the minimum, but again this is a player on the wrong side of the age divider.
Free Agents to Let Walk
Nobody will deny how good Greg Hardy can be on the field, but after paying Hardy all that money to sit at home last season because of his off the field issues, I can’t imagine them entertaining the idea of bringing him back. He will cost a fortune as he will likely be the top rated available pass rusher once Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul are franchised or extended. With Charles Johnson sitting with a $20M cap hit there is really no room for him either…Byron Bell did not distinguish himself last season as a starting left tackle and has already stated he won’t be back in 2015. He may be better suited to playing right tackle again…. The team has solid options without Chase Blackburn and can do without him, though I could see them bringing him back on a minimum salary contract…Edwards and Cole were both discussed in the prior section.
Contracts to Modify
The Panthers are finally out of the salary cap positon where they are going to be forced to rework bad contracts for cap relief, but if they want to add to the team in free agency there are certainly deals to be reworked. It seems as if the team is prepared to make Cam Newton the cornerstone piece of the team which makes getting a contract worked out important. It will not be an easy negotiation as players like Newton are taking contracts that are heavy on incentives and contract escalators, but as a former number 1 pick I am sure that Newton views himself in the older style mold of Matt Stafford or Matt Ryan where a team should fork over both big money and guarantees. His contract could become even more complex if the Colts or Seahawks sign their quarterbacks to an extension. Newton’s cap number of $14.67M could be reduced with an extension. The best compromise for all sides might be a 3 or 4 year extension rather than the standard 5 or 6 year one that is signed by most quarterbacks…Thomas Davis’ contract voids at the end of the season, which will accelerate $3M onto the team’s 2016 salary cap. Davis has been extremely good for the defense and has remained healthy. They should be able to simply convert most of his $7.5M cash salary into the new guarantee on a three year extension. This is not a high priced position so a deal should not be difficult and it would greatly reduce his cap charge this year…Greg Olsen’s contract will also void at the end of this season and he is likely a must keep player. Olsen should have many productive years left though I can also understand the argument in waiting in his case since he is coming off a season where his importance the offense was very large. He has a $7.8M cap charge that they can probably knock a million or two off of in an extension….I am certain that there will be some consideration given to again reworking Johnson’s contract but with just one year remaining and $4 million in dead money already potentially sitting in 2016, this should only be a last resort restructure. Johnson’s contract is one of the worst in the NFL in terms of cap management. The team should also steer clear of touching Ryan Kalil’s contract if they can avoid it.
Players to Consider Releasing
There should be little surprise in the announcement that the Panthers will release running back DeAngelo Williams. This was the first of the really bad contracts that the Panthers are able to maneuver their way out of and he was, at this point of his career, rarely used and rarely healthy. They gain little in cap room if released outright so I would expect them to strongly consider the June 1 designation which will create the cap room they need in the summer to sign their rookie class…Outside of Williams there is not much they can really do for cap relief. Carolina can create around $2.4M in cap room with the release of Mike Tolbert, but I believe they will want him back at that price….I tend to think the Panthers expected a little more out of wide receiver Jerricho Cothery, but they are limited at the position and would need to use the June 1 cut to save anything significant with him. A name maybe to consider deep in the summer as a very late cut if younger guys work out.
Carolina has been hampered in free agency for the last two seasons because of the contracts on their roster and that trend will likely continue for at least one more season before they are able to fully dig their way out. Luckily for Carolina they were able to get by due to a surprising season in 2013 and then a terrible division in 2014. That has lessened the blows of being in a position where you can not only barely add to the team but are also being forced to hurt yourself more in the future because of the need to restructure already massive contracts.
This season should be about filling the voids with a long term vision around Newton rather than trying for a few short term hits. The team was not good last season despite advancing to the second round of the playoffs and there are many areas that need to be addressed. This is not really a short term project.
The Panthers only have 19 players under contract in 2016, the fewest in the NFL. You can probably jettison Johnson and Johnathan Stewart off that team as well as kicker Graham Gano. They will pick some players back up- Luke Kuechly will have his option exercised, Newton, Davis, and Olsen should all be extended- but still we are talking about a very limited roster beyond this season compared to a majority of the NFL.
They should have huge amounts of cap space in 2016 as a quick run through of some projected cuts and placeholder cap charges should leave them with over $60 million in cap room if no big free agents are brought in and the cap continues to rise at a $10M a year pace. That is the season where they should be considering spending, not so much this one.
I would expect the offseason free agent period to mainly be about bargain bin hunting and placing some veterans on the roster to add some experience and perspective to what should be a younger roster. At the most I would expect one mid tier free agent signing, likely on the offensive line where the cost/benefit ratios are reasonable compared to positions like receiver. If they want to be more active in free agency then they need to quickly dig in on some of those restructures or they need to structure contracts with low cap hits this year and larger ones in 2016, a strategy that, in part, got them in the trouble they have been in the last few years.
Carolina is one of those teams where if they can move down a few slots in the first round and get more picks in the middle round they might benefit. Even if it’s a high second rounder it could be worth it depending on their opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the draft. They will likely go with the BAP philosophy but with a varied number of needs that likely fills an immediate need or two as well.
The team needs to find a left tackle and wide receiver, both of which are better found in the draft, specifically tackle where few good ones become available in free agency. Defensively they need another pass rusher to eventually replace Johnson and be paired with Kony Ealy who is their other young raw talent. If things work out they should have their defensive line set for years. I would expect the team to also focus on finding another cornerback and safety.
The more the team can evaluate younger players this year the better off they will be when they decide how to allocate their assets to free agency in 2016. If they do that they probably have the best chance of any of the four teams in the division of solidifying their place as a contender for the next 3 or 4 years.
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Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.