Most of the talk surrounding the Carolina Panthers heading into the offseason has centered on the team’s impending cap situation and their 21 free agents, 16 of which were critical to the Panthers’ success in 2013. Among the notable free agents is All-Pro DE Greg Hardy, Pro-Bowl LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton, K Graham Gano, and key defensive players CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Drayton Florence, and safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell.
The Panthers cannot realistically retain all of these key players and the Panthers need to be in the right position to sign external free agents should the opportunity emerge; they’ll also need to sign draft picks. The decisions the Panthers make in the next few weeks to months could affect the team for years to come, especially with Cam Newton’s free agency looming in 2015.
The Panthers needs going into next season depend largely on their ability to retain key free agents from their successful 2013 campaign; assuming they will not be able to retain all of their key free agents, their needs are mostly at WR, the secondary, and the offensive line. There are plenty of excellent available free agents that could fill those needs: According to NFLTradeRumors.com there are 13 wide receivers, seven defensive ends, ten defensive backs (eight CBs; two S), and six offensive tackles/guards among the top-100 free agents, seven of whom played for the Panthers in 2013 (Hardy, Munnerlyn, Florence, Mitchell, Gross, Wharton, and Ginn Jr.).
The NFL will reportedly raised the salary cap $2-4M for the coming season, putting the cap somewhere between $128-130M per team. According to Spotrac.com the Panther’s carry $106.2M in contracts plus another $17.8M in dead money into 2014, and will have ~$6M in cap rollover from 2013, leaving their available cap space at ~$12M.
For hypothetical purposes let’s say the Panthers wanted to sign their ten most important free agents: Hardy, Gross, Munnerlyn, Ginn Jr., Wharton, Mikell, Mitchell, Gano, and backups Florence and QB Derek Anderson. Using their 2013 salaries, the salaries of analogous players, and common sense I calculate that the minimum money needed to sign those players to be nearly $29M, and those calculations are modest; in other words, it’s not happening.
The job of former GM Marty Hurney is not viewed well in Carolina, save for the relatively easy Cam Newton draft pick, namely because of poor drafting and exorbitant contracts. The cap hit from Charles Johnson’s large contract and Jon Beason’s dead money, both Hurney moves, will cost the Panthers $24M in 2014 alone, and the number only gets bigger for Johnson going forward. The guaranteed money given to Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Thomas Davis, and Jon Stewart (coming off multiple injuries in 2013) could handicap the Panthers for years.
The Panthers may have to take drastic measures next season to retain the players they need most while freeing up enough money to sign other free agents, draft picks, and most importantly, Newton. Those drastic measures could include letting Gross retire, but may include an equally drastic move, like releasing fan favorite veteran Steve Smith.
Smith’s cap hit will be $7M in 2014 and $10M in 2015, with an option for 2016 that would equate to another $12M cap hit. I don’t see Steve Smith staying in Charlotte long. As reported by multiple outlets, the Panthers will be looking for a WR in the upcoming draft and this draft class has plenty. As with letting Gross retire, releasing Smith might not be a move fans like in the short run, but would appreciate in the long run, as such decisions are necessary for future success considering modern free agency and the salary cap.
The Panthers will decide whom to designate with the franchise tag in the next few weeks, and although speculation is they’ll tag Hardy, I would suggest tagging Graham Gano. The difference in tagging Gano versus Hardy would be at least $9M, and the Panthers would not have $28M dedicated to their two defensive ends next season, let alone the future cap hits. Another option could be to give Munnerlyn the franchise tag, but even under the new CBA that number is still upwards of $11M, not much different than Hardy’s cap hit would be. A non-exclusive franchise tag could potentially land first round draft picks for either Hardy or Munnerlyn, but those odds aren’t good considering the money involved.
The suggestions of releasing Steve Smith and letting free agents like Hardy and Munnerlyn sign elsewhere might seem crazy, but if the current management is to truly rid themselves of the Marty Hurley era and the poor drafts and contract decisions that came with it, the time is now. Giving Gano the franchise tag, releasing Steve Smith and other high-cap players, and letting Hardy and Munnerlyn sign with other teams might allow the Panthers to resign veteran stalwart Gross, other key free agents like Wharton and Mitchell, backups Florence and Anderson for protection, and their draft picks/undrafted free agents.
These types of decisions may be difficult now, but they would set key veterans in place for years to come and free up enough money to allow the Panthers to sign Newton to a long-term deal. Football is a team sport and every member must be accounted for, something a championship-caliber team always takes into account. These Panthers are trying to become a championship-caliber team; let’s see if they make championship-caliber decisions.
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