Carolina Panthers: The (defensive) end of the (offensive) line

Minicamp is over for the Carolina Panthers and the NFL and now begins the wait for the start of training camp and with it the start of the new NFL season. In past years the wait would seem like forever as NFL teams entered into oblivion until mid-July, hidden behind doubleheaders, warming divisional races and the mid-summer classic. That’s not the case anymore.

The “boys of summer” and their undeniably long baseball season are no longer threats to the year-long coverage of the latest American pastime, the NFL. There is no longer an off season in the $10 billion dollar league of professional American football. With 24-hour coverage and up-to-the-minute updates regarding anything you could imagine occurring on and off the gridiron, any NFL news is worthy news and warrants immediate conveyance.

What could be more news worthy than a veteran looking over his shoulder at the recently drafted or undrafted free agent rookie gunning for his position, or that same veteran losing his job to a former reserve? Such is the topic today.

Much has been made of the Carolina Panthers defensive line of late, both positive and negative, ranging from their dominance to their vulnerability. On one hand the Panthers have two of the best defensive linemen in the NFL in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the latter of which ranking third in the NFL in 2013 with 15 sacks, earning All-Pro recognition and a $13.1 million franchise tag.

On the other hand, however, that same player is embroiled in a domestic assault case, while another defensive end, Frank Alexander, was recently suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Suddenly it’s getting hot in here. My apologies for the bad Nelly pun, unless you appreciated it.

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Greg Hardy faces uncertainty with his legal situation, but not likely with his guaranteed money. (Photo Credit: Jeff Siner)

While the aforementioned bad news seems to trump the positive aspects of the Carolina Panthers defensive line, the team also made headlines by taking a defensive end with their second pick in the 2014 NFL draft, selecting Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy with their 60th overall pick in the second round. In what seems like a case of foreshadowing, the Panthers may have gone from having too many talented defensive ends to just enough to maintain their 2013 dominance.

Drafting Ealy not only added depth to the Panther’s defensive line, but also kept the fire stoked beneath Hardy and Johnson, who collectively will account for nearly $30 million against the salary cap in 2014 after Hardy signed his franchise tender within a week after receiving the franchise tag.

Hardy signing his tender essentially guarantees him the full $13.1 million of his contract, unless he were to come into training camp in bad shape, the only known rule preventing players from receiving the guaranteed money. Hardy is not coming into camp out of shape.

If the NFL or the Carolina Panthers were to suspend Hardy then fines would certainly be imposed or game checks forfeited, but despite the outcome of Hardy’s legal case Carolina is on the hook for $13.1 million. The same cannot be said for Alexander, who became the first player on the Carolina Panthers since Andre Neblett in 2012 to be suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

“I recently learned that I tested positive for a substance that is banned by the NFL. The NFL policy is strict, and I have chosen to take responsibility,” Alexander said in a statement released in early May.

Alexander’s suspension coupled with the fact that only $117, 563 of his $687,563 salary cap number is guaranteed by a signing bonus makes Alexander a potential cut before the start of the regular season. Unfortunately $570,000 is simply not a sexy enough number to turn heads if Alexander were to be cut. So although Alexander should be concerned about his role on the team in the wake of his looming suspension and the addition of Ealy, it might not make much of a difference salary cap-wise.

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Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy’s stock continues to rise in the wake of his teammates troubles. Ealy had 27 sacks in 39 career games at Missouri.

A similar situation presents itself with safety turned cornerback Charles Godfrey, who until recently was making a substantial amount of money and coming off of a season-ending Achilles injury that basically cost him the entire 2013 season. After signing free agent safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud and then drafting safety Tre Boston the writing was on the wall.

Godfrey agreed to switch to cornerback, where the Panthers desperately need help, took a significant pay cut and renegotiated an incentive-laden contract that would allow Carolina to cut Godfrey after only paying him $1 million via signing bonus after signing the same player to a 5-year $27.5 million contract just three years ago. However, cutting Godfrey would really only save $750,000 and any potential earned bonuses awarded to Godfrey throughout the season.

In addition to the $1 million signing bonus Godfrey also carries $5 million in dead money, something that would have to be accounted for regardless, but just looks awful when the player isn’t even on the roster. By comparison, Alexander’s contract only carries $235,126 in dead money.

No, the player on the Carolina Panthers roster that should be most worried about his position isn’t Alexander or Godfrey; it’s tackle Byron Bell. Bell recently resigned with the Panthers last month to the tune of $2.187 million dollars making Bell the Panther’s highest paid offensive linemen by threefold in base salary, and the Panthers aren’t even sure he’ll start at left tackle.

Drafting Trai Turner in the third round of this past NFL draft gave the team some flexibility. Turner’s success in rookie and mini camp has him slated to start right guard, which frees up Garry Williams, a guard-tackle hybrid who started several games at right guard last year. Williams has showed much promise in camp after returning from a knee injury last season, and will compete with Bell for the job a left tackle and the chance to protect franchise quarterback Cam Newton and his surgically repaired ankle.

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Quarterback Cam Newton hopes he won’t be running for his life this season with a new left tackle.

With Nate Chandler already slated to start right tackle, according to team sources, the only real competition on the starting line heading into training camp could be between Bell and Williams, assuming the Carolina Panthers don’t make any more free agency moves.

William’s return, Chandler securing right tackle, the rookie Turner turning heads at guard, and Bell’s significant salary relative to the other competing members of the offensive line spells trouble for Bell. Considering the other three aforementioned linemen will make less in 2014 ($1.75 million) than Bell will alone ($2.187 million), one could see why.

Starting positions are fleeting in the NFL; so is the money. Such is the business of a league rife with parity, but it’s what most of us have asked for.

Click here for more Carolina Panthers news, rumors and opinion.

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  • Anthony Dunn

    Really liked this piece a lot. Crazy how closely we follow the the NFL. I mean we really do hang on every syllable, making every positional battle the story of the day. Despite that, you are spot on about Carolina making moves that not only add depth, but also challenge starters to play better. Heck, we are also preparing for life after guys like Big Money and the Kraken.

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    • Sean Faulkner®

      I appreciate that. I have checked out your site out and now follow it through Twitter. Great stuff, seems like we’ll be in touch in the future.

  • Steven Ray Danner

    Chandler is still competing for the LT position,he’s hired his own coach to help him train this off season.

    • Sean Faulkner®

      Interesting. All health being equal it’s hard to imagine Bell getting $2.187M when EVERY offensive lineman (including reserves) signed so far for 2014 will cost the Panthers $6.710M (of course not all of these OL will make the team, nor will all of these OL receive their full money). If the Panthers starting offensive line was (LT-RT) Bell-Silatolu-Kalil-Turner-Chandler (via last team report) it could cost the team $4.772M, and Bell would account for 46%!! Replacing Turner will Williams only decreases the “starting five” total by $230K, making the total number essentially static. So if Williams is making strides at LT and Turner is securing RG, that “starting five” number could decrease to $3.325M, only about 33% more than Bell would make alone! Baring any health developments, I just can’t see the Panthers paying that much money to one position, especially with questions. That said, releasing Bell would make Chris Scott their only true dependable reserve not coming off an injury, unless I’m missing someone.