Let’s get the general question out of the way first. Will the Carolina Panthers sign Tyrann Mathieu now that he is a free agent? Doubtful. Could they? Absolutely.
There are a ton of myths floating about the current predicament of the Panthers salary cap. According to Over The Cap, the Panthers currently have about $17.7 million in cap room. Graham Gano’s extension and Bashaud Breeland’s contract are included. Julius Peppers’ new contract was not listed.
It's a one-year $5 million deal ($2.5M guaranteed) for Peppers, per source.— Joe Person (@josephperson) March 14, 2018
According to Joe Person, it’s a $5 million deal for one year. It’s reasonable to assume that Carolina’s current cap charges drop to $12.2 million after adding in Peppers’ deal.
Carolina has to withhold around $6.3 million for their 2018 rookie pool. After all of that is said and done, the Panthers would be left with about $6 million.
On the surface it looks like they don’t have much room to add any other players, but as seen recently by the Philadelphia and Denver front offices there are ways to restructure contracts.
Source: the Eagles created $5.407M in cap space in 2018 by converting $7.21M of TE Zach Ertz's $8M base salary into a fully guaranteed roster bonus. Philly stays busy.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 15, 2018
Source: the Broncos converted $16M of LB Von Miller's $18.5M base salary into a signing bonus, creating $12.375M in 2018 cap space.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 15, 2018
So what exactly does this mean and how did those front offices accomplish the restructures? Each player carries a cap charge for every league year. The cap charge includes the base salary, signing bonus, roster bonus, and workout bonus. In this case, the base salaries were converted into bonuses. This essentially means that Ertz and Miller receive the money immediately as opposed to during the year. From a team perspective, it prorates the guarantees of the base salary into future years, but the cap number decreases in the current year.
Do the Panthers have any core players who could have their contracts restructured in this model? Yes. Two of them actually. Kawaan Short and Luke Kuechly. Both are elite talents at their position and they should continue to play at a high level.
Carolina could convert $11.71 million of Short’s base salary into a bonus. He would get the money immediately and the Panthers would create about $9.1 million in cap space. For Kuechly, the Panthers could open up about $5.1 million in space by transferring his base salary into a bonus. Matt Kalil and Captain Munnerlyn could have their deals restructured, but both have been disappointing. It doesn’t make fiscal sense to redo the deal of players who could be gone soon. That’s exactly how Hurney found himself in cap hell during his first stint.
Back to Mathieu, ESPN’s Josina Anderson spoke with him and said that he wants to go somewhere where football is important.
Spoke to free agent DB Tyrann Mathieu yesterday evening. Mathieu told me a "bunch of teams have reached out" but added that "I just want to go somewhere where football is important and it matters. That's where I want to go."— Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 15, 2018
The Panthers have a strong locker room especially on defense. If they want to sign him, the Panthers could open about $14 million by restructing the deals of Short and Kuechly as detailed above. Carolina only has 27 players under contract for 2019 and their current cap space for that year is around $55 million. They could absorb Mathieu’s cap hit in year one by giving him a decent signing bonus that prorates to future years. I have no idea what type of deal he’s seeking, but they definitely have the resources to make it work.