On Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers announced that Marty Hurney has been upgraded from interim general manager to full-time GM.
After struggling at times in his first term (1998-2012), Hurney vowed not to let his heart rule his head as much in handing out contracts. That’s going to be necessary given the tight budget he’ll have for this offseason and going forward.
When Dave Gettleman arrived in Charlotte, the Panthers’ roster was a mess. Too much money was tied up in a few players, some of whom were getting up in years. Gettleman had to make some very unpopular decisions to get the team back on solid footing financially.
That meant moves that ruffled the feathers of fans such as cutting ties with Steve Smith and Deangelo Williams and backing away from negotiations with Josh Norman when the price tag got up around $14 million a season. Look at Norman now: he has played two years in Washington, the Redskins owe him almost $47 million for the next three seasons, and the team might be considering cutting him loose, according to some published reports.
I wasn’t sure about Gettleman at first, but he won me over with smart business sense. I think it was a mistake to fire Gettleman for doing exactly what he needed to do.
Hurney came back to the team with orders to make the boss happy and immediately did what Gettleman wouldn’t do: spend big money on two guys in their 30s.
Hey, Greg Olsen is one of my favorite players ever. He has made a ton of plays for the team and appears to be a great person off the field. Thomas Davis has been the emotional leader of the defense for more than a decade.
However, in 2015-16 Olsen had a cap hit of $11.4 million for both years combined. After signing a huge contract extension, Olsen counted $12.1 million this past season only to see his yardage drop from 1,000+ each of the previous three years to 191 yards.
Yes, Olsen was injured after having not missed a game for the prior five seasons, so the injury surprised the team. Still, he was 32 ½ years old at the time he signed the contract, so injuries are something to be expected of an older player. And now the team is on the hook for $9.75 million this fall not knowing if Olsen’s foot will ever be the same.
Just ask Bill Walton and Yao Ming how lingering foot problems can derail a career.
The other big contract given out was to Thomas Davis, who is a year older than Olsen. Davis made $10 million this year and counts $7.7 million against the cap this fall.
Davis had five straight 100-tackle seasons, but that dropped to 76 this past season. And the guy with 13 career interceptions, including seven in the previous two years, didn’t have a single INT or forced fumble in 2017.
The team could save $3.5 million toward its salary cap by cutting Davis and letting Shaq Thompson take over his role full time, but that cut is not even up for discussion, according to reports coming out of the Panthers’ HQ.
So much for Hurney not letting his heart overrule his brain.
Then there is the matter of RB Jonathan Stewart, who counts $5.2 million against the cap this fall.
The offensive line was terrible to start the season. Ryan Kalil went down with an injury, and his brother Matt didn’t play all that well early on. Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffrey had zero running holes in the first half of the season.
In a 16-game season, Stewart had eight games where he averaged 3.1 yards per carry or less. Against Philly, he rushed eight times for negative 4 yards. That’s right, -4.
The Panthers have about $20.3 million in cap space, so Stewart’s $3.7 million savings or Davis’ $3.5 million gain isn’t necessary, is it? Well that money goes fast.
Spotrac.com estimates the team will need about $6.9 million to sign its draft picks, so that cuts the number to $13.4 million.
And, the team has two key linemen who are free agents. Signing either of them eats up most of that money, and keeping both would require cutting some people loose.
Andrew Norwell has been a bargain, an All-Pro left guard playing the past four years for just $4.28 million total. Keeping him could cost $8 million to $11 million, depending on the market, Spotrac.com estimates.
Not worth it, you say? Pro Football Focus says that Norwell (just coming into his prime at 26 for a lineman) is the only offensive lineman in football not to give up a QB hit all season. That’s right, he not only didn’t give up a sack, his man didn’t even lay a lick on Newton in 16 games.
With high-priced center Ryan Kalil announcing his retirement at the end of 2018, maybe keeping Norwell and RG Trai Turner together for the future makes sense.
The other spot is Star Lotuleilei, a forgotten man since Kawann Short became a household name. Still, Star has been a rock on the interior, taking up blocks in the run game so Luke Kuechley can make tackles.
He played for a $6.75 million extension this past year, and it will likely take more than that to keep him.
Say Norwell comes back for $9 millioin and Lotuleilei for $8, that is $17 million when the team only has $13.4 million. The team would have to cut $3.6 million (such as Stewart) to make this work. And then Davis or other cuts would be needed to sign a few free agents in the $800,000-$1 million range.
Despite some issues, the Panthers are still in enviable shape. Remember, of the four teams in NFL championship round, the Panthers played three of them during the regular season. They beat the Patriots (13-3) and the Vikings (13-3) and had a close loss to the Eagles (13-3) despite Cam Newton throwing a season-high three INTs, Stewart rushing for -4 yards and Luke Kuechley leaving with a concussion.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.