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2021 could be a big year for Brian Burns and his future with the Panthers

Another stellar performance from Spider-Burns could lead to a sticky cap situation for the Panthers.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In all the hypothetical talks of a possible trade for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, one name that most Panthers fans agree should be off limits is Brian Burns. As the most recent Super Bowl showed, an elite pass rush can throw off even the best quarterbacks. With that revelation, pass rusher contracts have skyrocketed in recent years, especially for younger players like Burns. The good news for the Panthers is that teams cannot renegotiate a rookie contract until after the player has accrued three full seasons, so they don’t have to worry about this year’s cap. The bad news for the Panthers is that allows Burns another opportunity to drive his price even higher.

The Panthers are projected by Spotrac to have over $100 million in cap space in 2022, the earliest the team could negotiate an extension with Burns. Unfortunately, that number is so high because the team currently only has 21 players under contract through that season. Subtract around $10 million for this year’s rookie class, and another $10 million for the 2022 class. That could potentially leave around $80 million to play with and a minimum of around 30 players to sign (assuming the Panthers have around 15 rookies on the roster from the two draft classes). Those numbers include exercising DJ Moore’s fifth year option, which the Panthers will probably not hesitate to do, though an extension might lower his projected $11 million cap hit for the 2022 season.

To get an idea of where the new Burns contract might fall, we need to find a good comparison. The two top-tier young pass rushers that recently got paid are Joey Bosa of the Chargers and Myles Garrett of the Browns. If we look at their stats after the first two seasons in the league, it becomes clear that Burns will need a major breakout season this fall. After two seasons, Bosa had accumulated 111 tackles (including 28 for loss), 42 quarterback hits, 23 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovered. Pro Football Reference puts a combined “approximate value” (AV) of 19 on those two Bosa seasons. Garrett, despite missing part of his rookie year, managed to notch 75 tackles (21 for loss), 47 quarterback hits, 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovered. Pro Football Reference gave those two seasons a combined AV of 18. Burns, to his credit, has already managed 83 tackles (13 for loss), 37 quarterback hits, 16.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovered (which he returned for a touchdown). Pro Football Reference gave his first two years a combined AV of 11.

In order for Burns to make up ground, he’ll need to perform incredibly well in his third season, in which Bosa and Garrett both struggled compared to their first two seasons. If Brian Burns can put together a double digit sack performance and force several turnovers, then he might be able to put together a resume similar to his two fellow havoc wreakers. If he is able to manage that level of dominance, his contract could be in a similar range to Bosa and Garrett. Both players netted $100 million plus guaranteed with an average yearly salary in the mid to high $20 million range. The Panthers could make that type of contract work, especially if it is back-loaded like most contracts nowadays are. The final potential wrench in that cog would be the quarterback position. If the Panthers decide to make a move for Watson (do it, you cowards), his cap hit jumps to $40 million in 2022 — about half of the projected $80 million-ish we talked about earlier. If Burns is not part of that deal, then signing Burns to an extension may be a tight squeeze.