It was a bittersweet day for Carolina Panthers fans Tuesday, with ESPN.com’s David Newton reporting the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross after 12 seasons with the team. Gross, selected in the first round of the 2003 draft, started 167 games for Carolina and bookended his career with major accomplishments, playing in the team’s only Super Bowl his rookie season while earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in his final season, his 3rd career Pro Bowl selection.
The news about Gross’ retirement is bittersweet for Panthers fans, because the unexpected retirement comes with unexpected cap availability, something the Panthers desperately need going forward considering the impending free agency of several key players. Gross would have likely consumed $3-5M of the salary cap next season, and as exceptional a tackle as Gross was, the move could not have come at a better time with the team’s most important players, defensive end Greg Hardy and quarterback Cam Newton, set for free agency over the next two seasons. The offensive line should be fine as the Panthers could move starting right guard Nate Chandler (Gross’ backup) to starting left tackle, allowing backup Chris Scott to move to starting right guard; Carolina could then resign restricted free agent right tackle Byron Bell to a contract that would barely affect the cap going forward.
Seeing the writing on the wall the Panthers had already restructured the contract of linebacker Thomas Davis, saving $2.25M against the cap in 2014, and just managed the same with center Ryan Kalil and running back Jonathan Stewart, whose contracts alone carried $36.3M in dead money into next season. With reports of the salary cap increasing between $2-4M next year, the Panthers could end up with nearly twice the anticipated $12M in cap space.
There has also been recent talk of cutting the costly contracts of wide receiver Steve Smith, whose cap hits could total more than $20M over the next three seasons, and safety Charles Godfrey, coming off a season-ending Achilles’ injury. Cutting Godfrey would save $2.1M against the cap, and free agent safety Mike Mitchell, whom the Panthers are also interested in resigning, took over after Godfrey’s injury and became one of the better defensive backs in the league. The Panther’s cap wizard, GM Dave Gettlemen, has even suggested restructuring Charles Johnson’s contract again to free cap space, as Johnson’s contract comes with a $16.2M cap hit in 2014.
With Gross’ retirement and the recent restructuring of several exorbitant contracts, the Panthers are in a much better position to sign key free agents. If Carolina was so inclined they could concentrate solely on drafting a wide receiver in the first round, resign restricted free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell, and release Steve Smith, potentially leaving Carolina with almost $30M in salary cap space heading into next season.
Cam Newton has made it clear he wants to sign long term in Carolina, and the Panthers are making clear they’re trying. Within one week people have gone from debating whether the team could even retain Hardy to watching the team position themselves to sign Hardy and Newton, before either of them even hits the market. The Panthers are on a mission.
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