Before the Carolina Panthers embark on free agency and the draft later this spring, they must deal with their high salary cap figure. According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the 2013 salary cap is slated to be at or near $121 million dollars. The 2012 salary cap was $120.6 million. John Clayton of ESPN estimates a $300k increase, projecting the 2013 salary cap to be at least $120.9 million.
The Panthers current 2013 cap figure has varied across various sources ranging from $134 million to $136 million. I will use the numbers presented by Pat Yasinskas and John Clayton on ESPN, which is $135,354,000. This figure is $14,454,000 over the project 2013 salary cap. Due to the recent collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed to carryover remaining cap space from the previous season and apply it to the next year. The Panthers have $3.654 million to carryover, so their new cap figure is $131.7 million. This still leaves the Panthers $11.8 million over the projected 2013 cap.
A number of factors come to mind when cutting high price players. How effective are they at this point in their careers? How important are they to team chemistry on and off the field? How important is the position they play in the current NFL landscape? How is a player's contract structured, and how early is that player in that contract?
The problem with the Carolina Panthers situation is that the team is only two years removed from their post-lockout spending spree. This means the big contracts given to Charles Johnson, Jon Beason, DeAngelo Williams, Thomas Davis, James Anderson, and Ryan Kalil are only entering their third year, meaning cutting any of them would trigger an acceleration of prorated bonus money to 2013, minimizing any cap savings or making it worst by taking up more cap space. The same applies to Charles Godfrey and Jonathan Stewart, who signed big contract extensions in the year afterwards. Add the fact that former GM Marty Hurney structured contracts that includes years where portions of a player's base salary is guaranteed on top of their bonus money (e.g. $3.75 million of Beason's 2013 base salary), the cap benefits of cutting any of these players doesn't match the cost of losing talent. Guaranteed money always counts against the cap, and Hurney gave out a lot of guaranteed money.
The only way to circumvent this problem is to designate a player as a June 1st cut, which spreads the acceleration of prorated bonus money over two years rather than all of it going to the current year. Yet, a team is allowed only two designations a year, or they must wait until June 1st to make their cuts.
So who are the candidates to be let go when the new year starts?
Chris Gamble, CB
Two years remaining on a six-year, $53.5 million dollar contract.
2013 Cap Figure: $10.95 million; Cap savings if cut: $7.95 million; Probability of being cut: Certain
There really is no choice other than to cut Gamble. He could agree to a contract extension or take a massive pay cut, but I don't think that will happen. He has been in the league for nine years and at his best he was a solid above-average corner, even with his prototypical size and speed. The playmaking skills he displayed at Ohio State (he was also a receiver and punt returner as well) never translated to the NFL. Yes, he is our interceptions leader, but Eric Davis took half the time to set that record. He is still our best cornerback, but not at that price. Josh Thomas may not have the 1st round pedigree, but he showed last year that he has taken to coaching very well, playing with outstanding technique and a fearless attitude to make up for his shortcomings. Josh Norman lacked the discipline Rivera wanted in his play, which is why he was benched at the end of last year in favor of James Dockery, a limited but more consistent player. You can say what you want about Ron Rivera, but his defenses are very solid technically, allowing them to play well as a unit even if there is a lack of talent. Norman still has a high ceiling though, and his potential combined with more coaching may ease losing Gamble.
Ron Edwards, NT/DT
One year remaining on a three-year, $8.25 million dollar contract
2013 Cap Figure: $3.33 million; Cap savings if cut: $2.5 million; Probability of being cut: Very High
There are a number of things against Ron Edwards. He is the oldest player on the team at 33. He has missed 21 out of a possible 32 games since signing his contract. Age and injuries are a death knell in the NFL. Edwards played very well when healthy though, and he solidified a resurgent defensive line. Yet, I have a feeling, with such a deep draft of quality defensive tackles, the Panthers will finally invest a first round pick at the position this April, making Edwards expendable.
Geoff Hangartner, G/C
Two years remaining on a three-year, $4.85 million dollar contract
2013 Cap Figure: $1.575 million; Cap savings if cut: $1.575 million; Probability of being cut: High
Piggy is as reliable as you get. He is smart, experienced, and versatile. He also replaceable. There are bigger, stronger, and cheaper options. I would not be surprised if the Panthers pick up a offensive lineman, probably a tackle, with their 1st round or 2nd round pick this April, with the other pick being a defensive tackle. The team has been trying to slide Byron Bell to the guard spot ever since he came to the team, but due to a lack of viable and healthy options(*cough* Jeff Otah *cough*), they have had to use him at right tackle. Bell's size and strength may be a better option for a power running game.
Jordan Gross, T
Two years remaining on a six-year, $60 million dollar contract
2013 Cap Figure: $11.7 million; Cap savings if cut: $6.7 million; Probability of being cut: Low
Cutting Gross would save a lot of money. He is at the tail end of his career. Yet, his release would also shake the dynamic of the whole locker room. He was been one of the leaders on the team for years, has stayed relatively healthy, and is a lynchpin of the offensive line. Ryan Kalil may have eclipsed him as the Panther's best offensive lineman, but Gross plays one of the most important positions in football. Gross still plays at a high level, and there is a dearth of better options out there. As I said before, I think the Panthers will take an offensive tackle early in this year's draft, develop him at RT, and the two may flip sides in a few years. I don't see Gross getting cut. Look for an extension or a restructuring of his contract to lower his cap figure.
Now we get to the sticky situation that involves the running backs and linebackers. I am sure that new Panthers GM David Gettleman will look at this very carefully. It depends on what type of team he sees that Panthers being in 2013 and the years to come. There are tough choices to make, and none of them are good.
DeAngelo Williams, RB
Three years remaining on a five-year, $43 million dollar contract, $21 million guaranteed money
2013 Cap Figure: $8.2 million; Cap savings if cut or traded: None, cap figure will increase by $1.4 million to $9.6 million; Cap savings if cut with a June 1 designation or traded after June 1: $3.4 million, will be $4.8 million of dead space in 2014 cap figure
Jonathan Stewart, RB
Five years remaining on a six-year, $37.811 million dollar contract, $23 million guaranteed money
2013 Cap Figure: $2.8 million; Cap savings if cut or traded: None, cap figure will increase by $18.3 million to $21.1 million; Cap savings if cut with June 1 designation: None, cap figure will increase by $7.75 million to $10.55 million, will be $10.55 million of dead space in 2014 cap figure
In other words, he's staying.
Mike Tolbert, FB
Three years remaining on a four-year, $8.4 million dollar contract
2013 Cap Figure: $1.925 million; Cap savings if cut: $425k: Cap savings if cut with a June 1 designation: $1.175 million, will be $750k of dead space in 2014 cap figure
Jon Beason, LB
Four years remaining on a six-year, $51.388 million dollar contract, $25 million guaranteed money
2013 Cap Figure: $9.5 million; Cap savings if cut: None, cap figure will increase by $6.25 million to $15.75 million; Cap savings if cut with June 1 designation: $1.625 million, will be $7.875 million of dead space in 2014 cap figure
Thomas Davis, LB
Three years remaining on a five-year, $36.5 million dollar contract
2013 Cap Figure: $4,066,667 million; Cap savings if cut: None, cap figure increase by $133K to $4.2 million; Cap savings if cut with June 1 designation: $1.97 million, will be $2.1 million of dead space in 2014 cap figure
James Anderson, LB
Three years remaining on a five-year, $22 million dollar contract
2013 Cap Figure: $4.4 million; Cap savings if cut: $200k; Cap savings if cut with June 1 designation: $2.3 million, with $2.1 million of dead space in 2014 cap figure
As you see, cutting our high price running backs and linebackers would not put a huge dent into our salary cap problems. The players are still too early in their contracts and have too much guaranteed money left to squeeze much savings out of their release or trade. The players with the greatest chance of leaving are DeAngelo Williams and James Anderson, and it's only with a June 1 designation or a trade after June 1, 2013.
I only listed the players with the higher contracts or at positions with a large amount of depth. Many lesser names (e.g. Nakamura, Onatolu, Garry Williams) could be cut as well. Johnson, Godfrey and Kalil I consider safe but they may be asked to restructure.
I don't see much free agent activity, and I believe Captain Munnerlyn, Dwan Edwards, and Louis Murphy will not be resigned due to lack of funds. It's draft or bust for the Panthers when it comes to addressing the DT, DB, and OL.