This isn't about cutting Steve Smith (primarily) or even the way that Steve Smith was cut. I have stated previously that Gettleman was not obligated to honor the horrible contract that his predecessor gave, which amounted to cap figures of $10 million a year for a 5'9" 185 lb. WR when he was 35, 36 and 37 years old. Renegotiate a deal to give Smith one last year? Honestly, not necessary. The truth is that I had real doubts about Smith after this season when he was unable to get open against a Seattle defense that was missing 4 starters (3 in the secondary plus a pass rusher). The Panthers were able to run the ball in that game but got absolutely nothing through the air. Those doubts were largely confirmed when Smith was held to 750 receiving yards this season. Yes, you can blame the OL, you can blame Shula, you can blame Cam, but the reality is that both Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn had career years. Smitty (and LaFell) didn't. If Smitty's production was going to take a hit for the 3rd year in a row (and remember, his 2012 was decidedly worse than his 2011 so there was no reason to think that it wasn't) it would have meant real problems for the offense.
Instead, Gettleman blew it by failing to sign Greg Hardy to a long term deal well before the start of free agency. That plus the restructures would have left the Panthers with $10-15 million to play with right now. There were several WRs and OTs available, and many of them signed reasonable deals with other teams. The Panthers could have had both OT positions filled for the next 5 years for a grand total of $50 million. Now what is left is basically Michael Oher and guys that other teams were willing to let walk. Not just OT. There are/were several WRs, TEs and DBs available and the Panthers aren't in position to keep any of them. (Not only that, but the Panthers have lost Ted Ginn, Jr. to the Cardinals, who also signed John Carson, a TE that the Panthers could have used.)
Don't give Gettleman the excuse: "I didn't know that the salary cap was going to go up this much." I studied the new NFLPA labor deal on ProFootballTalk.com (and several other sites) when it was signed and also since then, and have studied the new TV contracts also. It was known when the CBA and the new TV contracts were signed three years ago that the labor deal was going to artificially keep the salary cap low for the first 3 years in order to give the lowest of the lowest revenue/cash flow/cheap-poor owner/small-bad market franchises (Buffalo, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Tampa) to either adapt or move, and then - right when it was time to extend the guys taken in the first draft of the rookie pool - the salary cap was going to actually start to reflect the new TV money. This was going to mean substantial increases in the salary cap during the final years of the CBA. And incidentally, this was 3 years ago, before the NFL signed still more TV contracts (with more still on the verge of being signed this year) leading to even more money for the salary cap (though not this year). That was why I spent the last year insisting that the Panthers could keep Greg Hardy when everyone else insisted otherwise. If I, a fan, knew THREE YEARS AGO based on articles on NFL.com and ProFootballTalk.com that there was going to be a dramatic CBA increase this year, there is NO EXCUSE for Gettleman not knowing it.
Make no mistake, Hardy is going to get his long term deal. There is no chance of Hardy playing out this year at the tender amount and then leaving. The reason is because by tagging Hardy (instead of extending him or letting him walk) the Panthers allowed a bunch of guys who could have helped the team for the next five years go elsewhere. Sure, they can sign guys next year, but next year they will have to extend Cam AND Kuechly plus with the salary cap going up still more, it is going to be a lot more expensive to get players from other teams ($25-$35 million contracts will be $35-$45 million). So if Hardy walks, the Panthers will lose Hardy AND the guys that they could have signed at OT/WR/DB this year FOR NOTHING, the WORST POSSIBLE SCENARIO. Hardy and his agent of course KNOW THIS, so they will MAXIMIZE THEIR LEVERAGE IN SEEKING A LONG TERM DEAL (they have all the leverage and the Panthers have NONE) it will make it drag out even further.
Now don't get me wrong. There are still some guys out there: Michael Oher, Jeremy Maclin, Dunta Robinson, Hakeem Nicks, etc. That is the good news. The better news is that many of them are A) better than who the Panthers had at their positions last year and B) will be cheaper than the $25-$35 million per player that guys commanded on the first day of free agency. But the bad news: those guys are worse than players of other teams - including competition in the division and for playoff spots like Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Saint Louis, Arizona, Detroit and Philadelphia (especially Atlanta and Philadelphia) signed. The worse news: because Hardy still hasn't signed his long term deal, the cap room to make moves still isn't available. Earlier I calculated/projected that the Panthers could meet Hardy's last known demand ($12 million a year over 6 years) and still save as much $6 million off this year's cap by exchanging signing bonus money for larger guaranteed base salaries in years 3 and 4 of the deal (when Hardy will be 29-30 and the Panthers will no longer be plagued by the Double Trouble contracts and quite possibly will no longer be paying Charles Johnson, who they can either release outright and clear $12.5 million in 2016 or extend to cut $6 million off that cap figure in return for a signing bonus spread over 3-4 years). That $6 million alone would have paid for most of what it would have taken to get two OTs (say Collins and Oher) under the cap this season.
Now again, the Panthers did not HAVE to keep Hardy. If they had let Hardy go, that plus the increase in the salary cap would have allowed the Panthers to sign 4 starters (and retain Ginn), making them a better team than they were in 2013 already with the draft still to go. (I say ideally 2 OTs, a DE and a WR, and the Panthers could have used the draft to improve the secondary, as CBs and safeties catch on more quickly as rookies than do DEs, OLs and WRs. It would have gone against the best positions available in the draft, granted, but since there is going to be a run on OLs and WRs in the draft, that would have left more DBs available as value picks.) Or if they had kept Hardy and extended him long before now, they could have kept Ginn, added at least another guy or two (say a DB and an LT) and still been a better team than they were at the end of 2013 with the draft to go.
But now? They are clearly worse. The Panthers have no one on the roster to play OT but Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, two undrafted players, one of whom didn't even play OL in college and has no NFL game experience at OT. At WR? Nothing. Steve Smith is released, Ginn and Hixon have signed with other teams, and either the Broncos or the Patriots will sign Brandon LaFell before this week is out. At defensive back? The Panthers have lost Mike Mitchell (making it more difficult to cut Charles Godfrey to save $2 million under the cap) to the Steelers, and Captain Munnerlyn is now a Viking (3 year deal when the Panthers only wanted him on another 1 year minimum type contract).
Now make this clear: not all of this is Gettleman's fault. Hurney created this mess with the terrible contracts and worse drafting. He is the reason why the Panthers had nothing at OT beyond Gross (retired), nothing (let's be honest) at WR beyond Smith (34 and in steep decline) and nothing at DB beyond guys who were able to play "let's not get beat over the top" because of all the protection they were getting from the front 7 (QBs had to get rid of the ball, plus the Panthers rarely blitzed).
But because the Panthers are going to be drafting in the high 20s, meaning no more Cams, Lukes, Stars, Aminis and Kawanns gotten by just taking highly rated players at need positions from among many in the 1st 3 rounds, that makes free agency more important to improving this team than the draft. Getting a capable DT at #13? Relatively easy. Getting a guy actually able to play LT as a rookie at #28? Next to impossible, unless you have above average players on the other 4 positions on the line. So even if Cyrus Kouandjio drops to 28, loses weight and his knee passes the Panthers' physical, in order for him to play LT for the Panthers even with a mobile QB like Cam as a rookie, solidifying the RT position in free agency AND getting a WR who can separate so Cam wouldn't have to hold onto the ball as long as he did would have been necessary. You want Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, Marqise Lee or Odell Beckham (who the Panthers REALLY have to strongly consider, either Lee or Beckham, since Ginn is no longer returning kickoffs and punts, even if Matthews, Benjamin or Robinson is available)? Well sorry, but if the Panthers don't land Hakeem Nicks or whoever else is available (look at this list ... there really isn't much ... basically Nicks, Emmanuel Sanders and James Jones ... all but Nicks basically #2 guys and Jones' west coast offense background doesn't fit Cam's skills or Shula's offense), forget about that guy being effective when NFL DBs double him on every down.
So, while knowing - or should have known - that the salary cap was going to be at least $130 million and as much as $135 million, Gettleman's #1 job this offseason should have been getting the Panthers in position to add 3-4 players in free agency. Instead, with all the guys who can actually help the Panthers pretty much gone and even the ability to stand pat is gone also with Ginn, Jr. and Mitchell out the door (the rest were, well, replaceable), the Panthers are still pretty much stuck. Over The Cap has the Panthers with $116,338,647 in cap space and $17,840,241 in dead money (they have not yet updated Steve Smith, but releasing him frees up only $1 million). Spotrac has a better picture, with Steve Smith's release and the tenders for Hardy, Bell etc. and the various restructures accounted for, but the Panthers still according to them have only about $4 million to play with right now. Enough to run out and sign a Michael Oher or Hakeem Nicks (maybe, more likely only a James Jones) but that is all. If they want anything more than that, they are going to have to create room, and there is no evidence that they are even trying to restructure more deals or extend Hardy right now.
The News and Observer claims that the Panthers have moves in the works that will make everyone forget about who the Panthers lost 2 weeks from now. I am still open to the possibility of that happening, because it still looks like quality guys will be available in the 2nd week of free agency. But for that to happen, the Panthers still need to create about $6-$8 million more under the cap at least, because as the News and Observer states, it took $4 million to sign a 5 player draft class last year. (This year the Panthers will have more players taken, but they will be drafting a lot lower in the 1st two rounds, so the money that they need to sign their picks will remain the same, or even be a bit less.) If Gettleman hasn't made more tough decisions or bold moves by then (i.e. restructures, releasing Godfrey with the intention to replace him with a 2nd rounder, going ahead and giving Hardy what he wants) then expect Gettleman's bad offseason to get even worse.
So again, no bashing Gettleman over the Smith thing. Instead, teleasing Steve Smith as a June 1 cut so that his dead money figure next year will only be $4 million and it frees up $1 million for this year was the only good thing that Gettleman did this offseason. And note: it was good. Not great. Great would have been having no dead money on the books for Smith next year at all. The Panthers could have done so and still been in about the same mess that they are right now. Really, add deciding not to go ahead and bite the entire bullet on Smith (which will cost the Panthers enough cap room to afford a mid-level free agent in 2015!) AND adding still more years onto the contract mess that is Stewart (in return for a little room this year the Panthers added 2 more years of cap obligations down the line, making it more likely that the Panthers will keep him than cut him in 2015 ... now it looks like both Stewart and Williams will be Panthers through 2016, though Stewart technically could be designated a June 1 cut after the 2015 season if he limps through that one as he has the last 2, it is just that the new contract makes even that more expensive than it would have been) ... wow it is even more difficult to say that Gettleman has done much good at all to counterweight a whole lot of bad.
So, the offseason thus far has been a total mess. Hopefully Gettleman can rebound, but short of a major move very soon, there really isn't much of an opportunity to. Especially with the NFC South apparently looking a lot tougher in 2014 than it was in 2013 (unless you are counting on the Saints falling off the map and the Bucs still not being ready for prime time due to QB issues ... which may happen but their defense will be A LOT BETTER).