I know, Jordan Gross and DeAngelo Williams re-did their contracts to create room. I also have the feeling that the Panthers will release some other guys after June 1 to create still more room for this year but will primarily carry over to next year (remember that James Anderson was designated as a June 1 release but still freed $1.4 million for this year) so after their rookies sign they will have a good bit of room. A good bit of room that they should not use.
The reality is that even though they are doing pretty good right now, the real cap troubles are going to be in the next 1-3 years when several productive players - including Cam Newton and Greg Hardy - will get substantial increases over their rookie deals. Even better: pretty much every Panther contract at WR and DB expires before 2015. (Yes, Steve Smith's deal runs through 2015, but no Smitty won't be getting that $7 million balloon payment hat season.) But wait: there's more. Godfrey's contract is through 2016, but base salary jumps from $1.6 million to $5 million after this season so barring a massive paycut this is his last year as a Panther. And how long are Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil going to stick around? Gross will be an UFA after this season, and the other 3 will be making $5 million a year or more in 2015.
Are there guys who can help the Panthers on the market? This list says yes, but that is not the point. The point is that because the Panthers have so few good players - and so many of those have contracts that are big, expiring or both - the Panthers cannot add more guys on the wrong side of 30 with 3-4 year contracts at $4 million - $5 million a year. If we are talking about adding a 26-28 year old guy just coming off his rookie deal and will still be in his prime at the end of that contract, fine. But adding a guy on the downside of his productivity with a deal like that will simply mean cutting him in 2015, eating his signing bonus that year and still having to fill his roster spot.
So yes, the Panthers could sign Brandon Moore and Eric Winston, have one of the best OLs in the NFL and make the playoffs in 2013. Or they could sign Kerry Rhodes and Daryl Smith, have a tremendous defense (at every position except CB) and make the playoffs in 2013 for the same reason. Good deal. But the price of that would mean not making the playoffs in 2014-2016. The reason is that they are losing far more guys starting next offseason than they can possibly replace in the draft. During that stretch, they are going to need multiple prudent midlevel free agent type deals just to fill holes. Giving Rhodes, Winston, etc. the deals that they want now will prevent them from doing that in the future.
Example: look at the depth chart at WR. Of those 4 guys, Steve Smith is the only one under contract after this season, and he may well retire. You fans of David Gettis and Brandon LaFell? Both guys are UFAs this season right along with 1 year stopgaps Hixon and Ginn, Jr. So if LaFell and Gettis were to break out this year, not being able to retain them because the 4 year, $20 million deals to keep them in Charlotte are being taken up by Daryl Smith and Kerry Rhodes would be very counterproductive.
Bad example? Well here's another scenario. The Rams gave for Jake Long 4 years, $34 million, $16 million guaranteed for a player that Dolphins fans aren't even upset about losing. Don't expect Gettleman to go the same route. He will either retain Jordan Gross for a reasonable amount next year or take his replacement with the #1 pick. Giving Eric Winston - who likely doesn't even fit the blocking scheme that the Panthers will run anyway - the money that he wants will make retaining Gross almost impossible. And as it is easier to find a RT in the 2nd round than an LT in the first so why give that sort of money to Winston anyway? And the same can be said about Kerry Rhodes. Giving him the $4.5 million a year that he wants will only block the Panthers from signing a younger player with similar ability. Or better yet a player that is 75% as good as Rhodes for $2 million a year instead of $4.5 million.
Bottom line: the Panthers should only add players who are willing to come to Charlotte on a 1 year deal. Now I happen to think that the Panthers are going to release 2-4 more players after June 1 and that will free up maybe $1.5 million more this season. But that plus the money that they have minus the money that they will need to sign their draft picks should not be spent on multi-year deals. If they can get a Winston, Rhodes or Moore to Charlotte with a $4 million deal, great. A guy like that with a 2 year, $6-7 million deal? Even better because it makes the team better this year and is one less hole to fill next season. But nothing more. Instead, the Panthers should scour the waiver wire on June 1 and then see who loses out training camp battles for more guys at OL and in the secondary to come in for a season or two. That really is the only way to save cap space to keep this roster competitive for the long term.