Smith has $3 million that is fully protected this year in the event he is released, but the Panthers have time to decide on his fate which works to their advantage. Smith has an option bonus due of $3 million but the team has until June 30 to make a decision on this option. Normally the option would need to be exercised in the first few days of the League Year to facilitate a quick release for the player. By the time they would decide in this case, though, the bigger money in free agency will have dried up.
If the team fails to pick up the option and release Smith by July 1 they will owe him a $3 million non-exercise fee. If they release him they will need to pay him $3 million in fully guaranteed base salary. So $3 million of this money is indeed protected for Smith. In addition I believe that Smith’s guarantee is of the no-offset variety meaning he can double dip if released. So at a minimum Smith will earn $4 million in the NFL this season and most likely a few dollars more.
The Panthers would gain little by releasing Smith. His cap charge for the year would be $6 million, assuming his is a post June 1, and he is currently only counting for $7 million. The team would then be responsible for $3 million in cap charges in 2015 ($4 million in acceleration and a $1 million credit for not picking up the option). His roster spot would also need to be replaced by someone making at least the minimum of $420,000. What it boils down to is that releasing Smith in 2014 is going to cost the Panthers $9.84 million in cap space and $3.84 million in cash plus a somewhat negative PR situation over the next two seasons.
The best case for both sides is to find a way to make Smith’s contract more reasonable for his age and expected performance level. According to a source with knowledge of Smith’s contract his true cash salary in 2014 would be $5.5 million due to half of his option being deferred until 2015. That should be the first starting point. Eliminate the option and pay him $5.5 million in 2015, with $2 million coming as a roster bonus in June (thus getting him more immediate cash than he would get in the option) and reducing his P5 to fully guaranteed $3.5 million. $5.5 million is likely more than he would make if the situation dragged out and he was released on July 1.