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Looking back on how the Panthers led the NFL in dead cap space in 2020 and what it means for 2021

A handful of veteran contracts led to $54 million in dead cap money.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

One of the major storylines from the Carolina Panthers 2020 season was the massive amount of dead cap space the team was burdened with when trying to construct a competitive roster. According to Spotrac, Carolina’s $54 million dead cap hit was the highest in the NFL. The average dead money across the rest league was $24 million, less than half of what Carolina incurred.

Not all dead money is bad, though. Often it’s in a team’s best interest to cut or trade a player because the transaction will free up more cap space than the dead money the team will incur. The problem isn’t the dead cap space. The problem is the player being cut or traded was usually signed to a bad contract to begin with. As we look back on the 2020 season, let’s review the 10 biggest dead cap holds the Panthers had what it could mean for next year.

Panthers dead cap (per Spotrac)

Player Pos 2020 Dead Cap 2021 Dead Cap
Player Pos 2020 Dead Cap 2021 Dead Cap
Matt Kalil T $9.8M -
Trai Turner G $9.6M -
Eric Reed S $5.0M -
Luke Kuechly LB $4.7M $7.1M
Seth Roberts WR $3.8M -
Greg Olsen TE $3.7M -
Dontari Poe IDL $3.3M -
Eli Apple CB $2.8M -
Cam Newton QB $2.0M -
Graham Gano K $1.6M $1.5M

Matt Kalil ($9.8 million): The Panthers had been grasping at straws trying to find a long-term solution at left tackle and in 2017 they signed the oft-injured former Pro Bowler to an eye-popping 5-year, $55 million contract. He only lasted two seasons in Carolina before being cut as a post-June 1st release meaning his nearly $15 million in dead money could be spread over two seasons. He counted $4.9 million against the 2019 cap and $9.8 million in 2020, and the team is finally free of this contract. He would’ve had a $15.8 million cap hit in 2020 and $16.3 million in 2021 (!!!) had he remained in Charlotte, so it’s a good thing the Panthers released him. Again, the problem isn’t the dead money. The problem was a terrible contract to begin with.

Trai Turner ($9.6 million): Carolina signed Turner to a 4-year, $44 million extension that took effect in 2018 and ran through 2021. Before the 2020 season the Panthers traded him to the Chargers for left tackle Russell Okung whose contract expired after the 2020 season. The Panthers only freed up $3.3 million in cap room in 2020 due to Turner’s $9.6 million dead cap figure, but the team is now free of his $15.3 million cap hit in 2021 had he stayed in Carolina. This is looking like a smart move by the Panthers as Turner only played in nine games in 2020 for the Chargers with an abysmal PFF grade of 34.8.

Eric Reed ($5 million): After signing him to a 3-year, $22-million deal in 2019, Carolina released Reid just one year later. The move saved the Panthers $3 million in net cap space in 2020 as his cap hit was $8 million and the team incurred $5 million in dead money. Releasing Reid was a smart move after a poor 2019 season in which he was repeatedly burned in coverage and recorded the worst individual PFF rating on Carolina’s defense. There’s no way he would’ve been worth an $8 million cap hit in 2020 on a young, rebuilding defensive unit. Reid did not play in 2020 after declining an offer to join the Washington Football Team’s practice squad.

Luke Kuechly ($4.7 million): Oh, Luke. We all know what happened here as the Panthers legend shockingly retired before the 2020 season at age 28. He counted $4.7 million against the 2020 cap and will count another $7.1 million against the 2021 cap. Now I’m sad.

Seth Roberts ($3.8 million): The Panthers signed Roberts to a 1-year, $3.75 million contract in 2020 then released him mid-season after he produced just four receptions for 31 yards in seven games. This wasn’t a bad signing as Roberts had averaged about 40 receptions and roughly 450 yards per season between 2015 and 2018, but he just didn’t click in Carolina. No real harm done here from a salary cap perspective.

Greg Olsen ($3.7 million): Oh, Greg, we’ve missed you, but you weren’t worth a 2020 salary cap hit of $11.8 million on a rebuilding team. Thank you for your service.

Dontari Poe ($3.3 million): Carolina signed the defensive lineman to a 3-year, $28 million deal in 2018 and he had two good-but-not-great seasons heading into 2020. By releasing him before the 2020 season the Panthers saved about $9.8 million in cap space due to his $13 million cap hit and $3.3 million dead money. This was a smart move.

The only other notable item between Eli Apple, Cam Newton, and Graham Gano’s relatively modest dead money is Gano will count $1.5 million against the 2021 cap.

As we look toward 2021’s dead cap figures, the Panthers are releasing Kawaan Short which will free up $8.6 million in net cap space while incurring $11 million in dead money (his cap hit would’ve been $19.6 million). Carolina is also releasing Tre Boston ($2.7 million dead cap in 2021 and $2.7 million in 2022 as a post-June 1 release), Stephen Weatherly ($2.0 million), and Michael Palardy ($500k). Throw in Kuechly ($7.1 million), Gano ($1.5 million), and a few other small dead cap figures and the Panthers are already at $25.3 million with more releases to come.