Panthers’ cap situation eases this offseason

First Posted: 1/13/2015

The Carolina Panthers struggled to make the playoffs again this season, but team officials believe better times are coming.

General manager Dave Gettleman felt handcuffed by the salary cap a year ago, but says there is light at the end of the tunnel.

In his end-of-season press conference, Gettleman said Tuesday, “Last year we were shopping at the dollar store. This year, we might be able to move up in class a little bit. … We’re not going to Tiffany’s, I’ll tell you that.”

From the looks of the Panthers’ payroll, Gettleman won’t be anywhere near Tiffany’s. More like going from Dollar Tree to Target.

While the cap situation is better than last year, Carolina doesn’t have much in the way of cap space headed into the start of free agency.

And half of what is left must be held back to pay this April’s crop of draft picks.

Based on teams’ current payrolls, the Panthers are 20th in available cap space at $9.1 million. That is far less than NFC South rivals Tampa Bay (eight at $28.6 million) and Atlanta (13th with $19.8 million).

Still, that is a far cry from the Saints, dead last at $23 million in the hole. New Orleans will have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring just to pass NFL restrictions.

There is a chance all teams will have a little more money than expected. These salary cap figures are based on the idea of $138.6 million for each team, but recent comments from NFL owners make it sound like there could be as much as $3.2 million extra on top of that.

Figure that $4.5 million to $5 million of the Panthers spare cash will go to its draft class.

The five picks from last year — Kelvin Benjamin, Kony Ealy, Trai Turner, Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere — along with undrafted Philly Brown will earn $5 million this fall, and that is with the sixth-round pick being traded away to Philadelphia.

Right now, the Panthers have all seven picks and could get a few compensatory picks because of all the free agents who signed elsewhere like Mike Mitchell (Pittsburgh), Brandon LaFell (New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona).

One of the reasons that the Panthers are in a tight spot is that the team has several contracts escalating this fall.

Because the Panthers have been low on cap space for a couple of years (thanks to former GM Marty Hurney), the team has designed and restructured contracts to count less in 2013 and 2014. But that has left a hefty price to pay this season.

Look at these three examples.

DE Charles Johnson has been the team’s most consistent pass rusher for years, but comes at a hefty salary. In 2013, he earned $8.74 million. This past season that went up to $11.2 million. Then this fall the number jumps up to $20 million.

Center Ryan Kalil, the team’s best offensive lineman made $6.4 million in 2013, $7.3 million in 2014 and will make $11.8 million this fall.

RB Jonathan Stewart, a big part of the team’s late-season surge, made $3.0 million in 2013, $4.5 million in 2014 and is set to make $8.3 million this fall.

That is an increase of $17.1 million for just those three.

Some would also point out the big jump for QB Cam Newton — going from a rookie contract averaging $5.5 million to the team option of $14.66 million — but that is balanced by the fact that the Panthers don’t have to pay Greg Hardy $13.1 million to sit on his rear.

So are there players who could be cut to save money?

Tops on the list is Johnson and his $20 million salary. If the team cut him, that would save $10 million on the cap. However, without Hardy, the Panthers need a legitimate pass rusher and could hesitate.

Thomas Davis has had back-to-back strong seasons after famously undergoing three ACL tears. He has been a strong point of the defense, but he is set to make $9.9 million this fall, and cutting him would save $7.5 million on the cap.

The most obvious cuts likely will be two starters who lost their spots in safety Thomas DeCoud and RB Deangelo Williams.

DeCoud, who lost his spot to rookie Tre Boston, would save the team $1.925 million if cut after June 1.

At 31 years old, Williams made $6.0 million this season and is set for $6.3 million next season. If he is cut after June 1, the team would save $2 million.

“I need to talk to DeAngelo,” Gettleman said Tuesday. “I really do. He’s a pro’s pro, and he had a tough season. Obviously, the loss of his mom was very, very difficult. He only played six games. It was tough for him.

“Just know, he’s a pro’s pro. The way he finished the season, he finished it like a man, and I’m proud.”

Whatever happens with the current roster, this season made it obvious that the Panthers need help at a few spots.

The team needs youth at running back to groom behind Stewart.

The receiving corps needs more speed to stretch the field the way Brown did at times.

Left tackle Byron Bell is a free agent and graded 83rd out of 84 tackles to start this season, per Pro Football Focus.

The defense could use another linebacker to play alongside Davis and Luke Kuechley or to step into Davis’ spot if the veteran were to get hurt.

A third cornerback to go with Josh Norman and Benwikere would help in this pass-happy NFL of today.

• Oddly enough, making a late-season run and winning a playoff game actually helps the Panthers’ cap situation — even if it does hurt the team’s talent base.

If the Panthers had lost in week 17 to Atlanta, then the Falcons would have gone into the playoffs. The Panthers would have finished 6-9-1 and would be drafting 10th this April. Instead, the playoff appearance in the conference semifinals has dropped Carolina to 25th.

The team will likely get a lower quality of player, but at a vastly reduced price tag.

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