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Scott Fitterer’s Year 2 review: Salary cap management and contract extensions

The Panthers GM got it mostly right when freeing up cap space and re-signing his guys.

NFL: New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next several weeks I’ll look back on Scott Fitterer’s second year as the Carolina Panthers general manager and assess his performance in salary cap management, free agent signings, the 2022 draft, and player trades. Last year he earned a “C” grade in his first season as GM. We’ll see if he fared better in Year 2.

This week we will explore Fitterer’s performance managing the salary cap by creating cap space in 2022 and using it to extend current Panthers players (free agency will be a separate column). In my grading system a “C” means meeting expectations. I’m not one for grade inflation.

Notable player releases - $6.4 million

Carolina’s 2022 offseason featured very few player releases. Most teams have a handful of salary cap casualties every year, but the Panthers were mostly quiet.

Morgan Fox, DE - $3 million. The most notable release was defensive end Morgan Fox which freed up $3 million in cap space with a $2.5 million dead cap hit. In retrospect, this was a shortsighted move by Fitterer. After his release from Carolina, Fox signed with the Rams and played in all 17 games (12 starts) and racked up 38 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 16 pressures. That production far exceeds the $3 million in cap space the Panthers gained by waiving him.

AJ Bouye, CB - $3.4 million. Fitterer also waived veteran cornerback AJ Bouye to save $3.4 million in cap space. This was ultimately a good move after Bouye played a reserve role in 10 games in 2021 with the Panthers, his age 30 season, and didn’t play in the NFL in 2022.

Player release grade: C-

Contract restructuring - $30 million

One lever general managers can pull to create cap space in the current year is to restructure contracts of high-salary players by converting most of the current year’s salary into a bonus, then spreading that bonus out over future years. For example, a player with a $10 million base salary this year could have his salary dropped to $1 million with a $9 million bonus (so the player still gets the $10 million this year), then the cap hit of that $9 million bonus is spread over the current year and future contract years. The cap hit doesn’t go away. It just gets pushed into the future.

In 2022 Taylor Moton’s deal was restructured to convert $15 million of his 2022 salary into a signing bonus to create $11.2 million in cap space. Shaq Thompson’s deal was restructured to clear up $5 million by converting $10.1 million of his 2022 base salary into a signing bonus.

Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson were both traded during the 2022 season but also restructured their deals early in the year. McCaffrey’s restructure freed up $5.5 million while Anderson’s created $5.9 million in cap space.

Fitterer also found $2.4 million by restructuring Pat Elflein’s deal. Elflein will now have a $7.1 million cap hit in 2023, but just $2.8 million in dead money if he’s released, so no harm done with this restructure.

These were all smart transactions. While each move pushes more cap obligations into future seasons, the impact of those dollars are softened as the salary cap increases every year. Creating $30 million in cap space with wise contract restructures is a big deal.

Contract restructuring grade: A-

Notable players re-signed

DJ Moore, WR - 3-years, $61.9M. The Panthers No. 1 receiver is perhaps the most underrated wide receiver in the NFL. He was rewarded with a smart three-year, $61.9 million contract extension. His $20.6 average annual salary currently ranks 10th among wide receivers, which is fair, and that rank will come down over time as DJ plays through 2025 on his current deal. All Moore needs to make the Pro Bowl is a competent quarterback. It was a win to extend him.

Donte Jackson, CB - 3-years, $35.1M. One year into Donte Jackson’s three-year, $35.1 million extension with $16.8 million guaranteed, and it looks like a bit of an overpay. Donte battled injuries - again - and played in just nine games with an underwhelming PFF grade of 55.0, which ranked 101st of 118 corners. If Jackson can’t put it together in 2023, he’s not going to play through the end of this contract.

Frankie Luvu, LB - 2-years, $9M. In one of the most team-friendly contracts in recent Panthers history, Fitterer re-signed Frankie Luvu to a two-year, $9 million contract. Luvu played like a Pro Bowler in 2022 with 111 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and seven sacks in 15 games. Well done, Scott Fitterer!

Ian Thomas, TE - 3-years, $17M. Ian Thomas’s three-year, $17 million contract extension with $8 million guaranteed is bewildering. Thomas made little impact over his first four seasons before his extension, and he once again did very little in 2022. Thomas has a problematic $6.7 million cap figure in 2023 with a $5.3 million dead cap hit if released. His play doesn’t justify a $6.7 million cap hit, but is it worth cutting him to free up $1.4 million in cap space next season? Either proposition isn’t ideal for the Panthers.

Marquis Haynes, DE - 2-years, $5.5M. Like Ian Thomas, Marquis Haynes was drafted by the Panthers in 2018 and completed his rookie deal after the 2021 season. But unlike Thomas, Haynes had shown flashes of potential which is why Fitterer re-signed him to a very team-friendly two-year, $5.5 million extension. Haynes performance far exceeded his cap hit in 2022 with 29 tackles, five sacks, and 16 pressures. This was a solid re-signing by Fitterer.

Players re-signed grade: B

2022 salary cap management summary

GM Scott Fitterer did a nice job freeing up nearly $37 million in cap space with reasonable contract restructurings and releasing players, though he should have retained Morgan Fox instead of cutting him to gain $3 million in cap space.

When allocating those funds to contract extensions, Fitterer did a mostly good job. Locking down DJ Moore was a long-term win. Frankie Luvu’s deal is a home run while Marquis Haynes’ contract is team friendly. Donte Jackson’s extension was an understandable risk that might not pay off in the end while Ian Thomas’s contract is a head scratcher.

Overall it was a solid effort in Year 2 by Scott Fitterer in freeing up salary cap dollars and using them to provide mostly prudent contract extensions to the right players.

Final salary cap and contract extensions grade: B