Fair warning, this will be one long read.
Part 1: The Core and the Cap
The Panthers will go into the offseason with only 35 core players under contract for 2019 and beyond. Those players currently carry cap hits totaling just over $163.5 Million. We carry just shy of half a million in dead cap from past players, so the Panthers are sitting just over a $164 Million cap number. The projected cap for 2019 hovers around $187 million, which gives us about $23 Million in space to work with right off the bat.
That is promising, but the Panthers have a few roster cuts I feel that they’ll most certainly need to make in order to clear some more room.
First off, I expect Torrey Smith will be gone pretty early on. It’ll give him a chance to land elsewhere, and immediately clear $5 Million in cap space. I appreciate the veteran role he has taken this year, but we’ve needed him off the field, it seems, in order to get our younger guys onto it.
The next round of cuts will come in the form of post-June 1st cuts. Teams can cut two players prior to this date and designate the move as a post-June 1st cut. I predict three players to be handled in this fashion, with two of them being cut before June 1st and getting the post June 1st designation.
The names I expect to see here are: Captain Munnerlyn – A bad signing at that price, in my opinion, in the first place. He’ll cost us $1.5 Million in dead cap the next two years, but this move frees up an additional $3.5 Million for 2019. I expect this to be one of the earlier ones. Matt Kalil – A roll of the dice that didn’t pan out. He’s banged up and not that good. Without his brother here tethering him to the team, I expect that we’ll move on. Like Munnerlyn, I expect Matt to get gone sooner rather than later. It’ll cost us another $4.9 Million in dead cap in 2019 and another $9.8 Million in 2020, but open up $7.25 Million in space this year. We’ll just have to eat that near ten million next season in favor of progress.
Greg Olsen – Hopefully this will end up being some sort of injury settlement rather than an outright post June 1st release, but either way it’ll add $3.4 Million in space while adding $3.7 Million in dead cap for 2019 and 2020. I hate for this to have to happen, but I don’t trust his foot anymore, and I don’t know if he does either.
To close out the pink slip section, the other name I see on the chopping block is Vernon Butler. He’s under performed, had an off field incident, and was recently a healthy scratch. It’ll cost us $2,671,618 against the cap, but I see this as addition by subtraction. If you’re not following all the math at this point, here’s a summation: Core 35 players for 2019 Total Cap Hit: $164 Million
Releases: Torrey Smith: Net Cap Space Gain of $5,000,000
Captain Munnerlyn: Net Cap Space Gain of $2,000,000
Matt Kall: Net Cap Space Gain of $7,250,000
Greg Olsen: Net Cap Space Gain of at least $3,400,000 Vernon Butler: Still carries Cap Hit of $2,671,618 Total Cap Hit after these five moves: Just over $146 Million, leaving 30 Core players on the roster
Total Projected Cap Space after these five moves: just shy of $41 Million
The next wave of current core roster decisions will be the restructuring of several current players’ contracts in order to make even more cap space available. The potential targets here, in my opinion, are another five players. Cam Newton is, and should remain, the franchise QB of the Carolina Panthers for the duration of his career. He is a once in a lifetime player, the face of the organization, and considered elite. As such, he is currently our highest paid player, with a contract not scheduled to expire until after the 2020 season. I believe this offseason, we should show him we are committed to him for a few more years, and sign him to a new deal that extends through 2024. I think this could bring his cap number from $23,200,000 this year to around $18,000,000, giving us a cap savings of $5.2 Million.
The other face of our organization and once in a lifetime player currently on the Panthers’ roster is Luke Kuechly. I propose a similar treatment, extending him through 2024 as well. This could bring his cap number from $17,202,573 to around $12,000,000 for 2019. That adds another $5.2 Million in cap space, and locks up our leaders on both sides of the ball for another six years.
After those two, there are three other players on the defensive side of the ball that we need to look into restructuring.
First up is Mario Addison. His contract was, in my opinion, a little too wealthy for the services he provides. I know I’ll probably get slammed for this but, yes, I think he’s overpaid. The argument could be made that he is statistically our best pass rusher. I can actually agree with that. However, being the best pass rusher on one of the worst pass rushing teams isn’t saying much. We’ve already edited his contract this season in order to gain $2 Million in space, and I think this offseason we should have a long, serious talk with him about his desire to remain with the team. Next year, he carries a cap hit of $9,916,668. In my opinion, he’s worth a little more than half that until we can prove consistently that he is our solid starter on one side of the line. Both he and the Panthers would be smart to extend him until the end of his career (maybe 4 more years?) bringing his 2019 cap hit to around $5 Million. That lets us shop for some solid, consistent help alongside him on the line. If Addison is resistant to the changes, he can join the list of post-June 1st cuts for all I care. We can get a way better player for an almost $10 Million cap hit, and letting him go after June 1st will give us $7.5 Million towards that player.
Next up is Addison’s fellow line-mate Dontari Poe. Yes, he was a recent addition to the Panthers’ roster (just this past offseason.) No, I don’t think he’s been a total disappointment like a lot of fellow fans do. We’re still pretty good against the run, and I think Poe is a solid contributor to that. The problem is that, between him and fellow DT Kawann Short, they’re eating up over $26 Million in cap space in 2019. This is unsustainable, especially considering our lack of pass rush, and I think Poe’s will be the easier contract to rework. If we could tack on an extra year and drop his 2019 number from $9,333,333 to something more along the lines of $7,500,000, we could free up a little more breathing room to get them help inside and out.
Next up is head-scratcher Shaq Thompson. All indications are that Thomas Davis will be retiring after this season, and we find Thompson entering the final year of his rookie contract. It isn’t looking great for our future at OLB. Shaq’s 2019 number currently sits at $9,232,000. While lots of fans think he’s not worth much to keep around, I disagree. I think he’s worth more along the lines of $6,000,000 next year, with a deal that keeps him here for another 4-5 years. He’s an experienced in-the-system starter, with speed and other skills that would be an asset to keep around if it can be done at a team friendly number.
To revisit the math of this section: Core 30 players (post previous cuts) Cap number for 2019: $146 Million
Cap space prior to reworking current contracts: just shy of $41 Million Reworked contracts – Cap Savings for 2019: Cam Newton - $5.2 Million
Luke Kuechly - $5.2 Million
Mario Addison – $4.9 Million
Dontari Poe - $1.6 Million
Shaq Thompson - $3.2 Million Total savings for 2019: $20.1 Million Core 30 players Cap number for 2019 after contract changes: just over $125 Million
Cap space post contract changes: $61 Million
That closes out this initial section of 2019 roster analysis.
Part 2: Bring ‘em Back!
With our core of 30 players secured, and our cap space sitting at around $61 Million, it is time to review our upcoming Panthers Free Agent crop.
Our UFAs, arranged in value according to Spotrac, are currently scheduled to be: Ryan Kalil, Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers, Mike Adams, Marshall Newhouse, Eric Reid, Devin Funchess, Wes Horton, Fozzy Whittaker, Colin Jones, Kyle Love, Chris Clark, Amini Silatolu, Ben Jacobs, Travaris Cadet, Kenjon Barner, Daryl Williams, Lorenzo Doss, Taylor Heinicke, David Mayo, and Cameron Artis-Payne.
Our RFAs are: Chris Manhertz, Damiere Byrd, and Jared Norris ERFAs are: Bryan Cox Jr., Mose Frazier, Efe Obada, Jamaal Jones, Damien Parms, Elijah Hood, and Adam Bisnowaty Kalil, Davis, Peppers, and Adams are all candidates for retirement. Kalil and Davis have already made that claim. Peppers might still want to keep playing, and Adams is probably considering retirement. Regardless of what any of them decide, I don’t know that I would push too hard to bring any of them back. Kalil is banged up from time to time. Davis seems to still be doing okay, but you have to wonder for how long. Pep is a nostalgic want, but I don’t know that he does enough now to be worth it. Adams is okay for an old safety, but probably more valuable as a veteran tutor. I don’t care to bring Funchess back. Let another team overpay him, and let’s move on with our young, fast guys with solid hands. Fozzy, Cadet, and Barner are all pretty much gone. I could see us bring maybe one of them back, but I think we’ll go another route. For our backup RB early on, I think we’ll ink CAP to a deal somewhere along the lines of $925,000 in 2019.
Other UFA guys I have no real desire to bring back are Colin Jones, Amini Silatolu, and Ben Jacobs. I feel all three of these are holdovers from older schools of thought.
The first person I would get a new contract to is Eric Reid. Lock him down for 3-4 years and stick it to the man. I’d give him at least $2 Million next year alone, with escalators loaded into the middle and later parts of the contract. He could be a starter for us for the duration of this new deal and, hopefully, beyond.
Next, I would bring some consistency to our Offensive Line by getting Daryl Williams, Marshall Newhouse, and Chris Clark all inked to new deals. I feel like Clark, despite what some of his resident critics say, has earned at least a chance to continue as a starter at one of the Tackle positions, and that Newhouse has shown he can be a solid backup. Williams, until we know how healthy he can be and if he can return to prime form, should be treated as a backup right now. Between the three of these guys, I am only marking down a combined cap hit of $6 Million, with Williams and Newhouse each getting $1.75 Million and Clark banking $2.5 Million. Yes, I know this will draw some ire, but Clark has been a starter since he's been here. The other UFAs I’m hoping we bring back are: Taylor Heinicke – I like what I’ve seen from him enough to bring him into camp at around $850,000. Kyle Love – Our best backup DT. $1.5 Million Wes Horton – Solid backup, good for our rotation. $1.5 Million David Mayo - He might have to start depending on the draft and free agency. I don’t want to let him get away. $1.25 Million would be a bargain Lorenzo Doss – Camp body at the very least, but a DB that’s been in our system. $450,000
The only RFA I would put a number on is Jared Norris, just due to our potential lack of depth/experience at LB. I think Byrd and Manhertz are done. $750,000 for Norris and I’m good.
The two ERFAs I want to retain are Obada and Cox. Both are young and developing, and are worth $750,000 each. We’ll probably get them for less, but that’s my working number for them.
If you’ve kept up with this section, I have us bringing back thirteen of our own potential free agents at a combined cap hit of around $16.725 Million. The math now reads: The Core stands at 43 players, post contract restructuring and bringing back our own free agents. Core 43 cap number for 2019: Close to $142 Million
Cap space for Free Agent market and Draft picks: around $45 Million
This concludes this section of my 2019 offseason preview.
Part 3: Sign ‘em Up!
With 43 familiar faces on the Panthers roster, we’re at a point where we need to look at who the new faces could be. We’ll need at least ten more people to field an active roster. We’ll need at least twenty more to field an active roster and a practice squad.
I’m of the thought that you should fill your biggest needs and strengthen your weakest areas via known commodities. If I was a GM, this would be my mantra as well. You get better by bringing in players you know can make you better because they’ve done it already for other teams.
Yes, the draft is an important tool in a team’s growth. But it is also a roll of the dice if your scouting department is off, or if a pick just doesn’t pan out. Safer bets are hedged in the Free Agent market.
For the Panthers, I think our current biggest weaknesses (outside of the coaching staff) are in our secondary and pass rush on defense, and in our passing game consistency on offense. The former is where I think we’ll spend the bulk of our Free Agent money, but I’ve also got a couple guys I think we should bring in for the latter. My plan already has us bringing most of our 2018 Defensive Line back for 2019. The only notable exclusion is Julius Peppers. Vernon Butler being gone opens another spot. Hopefully, Marquis Haynes will be a factor in the future, and I hope that he can step up in 2019. If not, we need to have other options ready. “But these guys aren’t getting it done” you’re saying. “Why bring them back expecting different results?” you ask.
It is because I think with some coaching and coordination changes (and a little help behind them, more on that later) I think this unit CAN make strides in the pass rushing department. At the very least, they are all familiar with each other’s’ strengths and weaknesses, and I think that has some value.
That said, there are two specific guys here I want to bring in to help in getting to the quarterback. Those guys are Frank Clark (SEA) and Rodney Gunter (AZ.) Clark is a guy that has impressed me whenever I see him on tape. He’s more situational, granted, but that drives his price down a little bit too. He gets a good edge rush, and could be considered an upgrade over anyone we currently have on our roster in that department. Let’s try to talk him into a longer type deal that gives him a hit of $7.5 Million in 2019. Reports seem to indicate he wants a long term deal, so the longer the better, and the cheaper we could potentially get him in the earlier years. Gunter has emerged as one of the better inside guys in the league but just happens to be on a bad team. I’m sure the Cardinals would love to have him back, but I think we could lure him away for a longer, richer contract. $6 Million in 2019 would definitely be worth it.
Lock those two linemen up, and we’ve effectively shored up our DL for at least four years.
The other two defensive Free Agent targets I have in mind are Za’Darius Smith, LB out of Baltimore, and Landon Collins, S out of New York. Collins is a little banged up right now, but he’s one of the better safeties in the league. Pair him with Eric Reid, and we’ve got two young, very good safeties in the back of the secondary. He’ll demand a high price, but I’m hoping we can convince him to sign up for around $7.5 Million in 2019. Smith could come in and start opposite Shaq, and would help immensely in the pass rush department. He’s a good, fast LB who excels at getting to the ball. $5.5 Million in 2019 would be a bargain, and he’d get to play beside a future HOFer on a contender.
To close out the splashes I hope we make in Free Agency, I’ll address the passing game.
As I mentioned, I believe Olsen is done. Ian Thomas has shown some good things, but he’s still learning. I think we need to bring in Jesse James from Pittsburgh, who has kind of been in and out of a starting spot since the emergence of Vance McDonald. If we could lure him to the Panthers at $6 Million in 2019, he could be our starter for a long time, and a nice replacement for #88.
…and my dark horse target for Free Agency 2019 is Adam Humphries. This kid has impressed me when we’ve faced him and at other times I’ve watched the Bucs play. Spartanburg’s own, he spent his college time at Clemson. Let’s bring him back home and add him to our stable of young, quick, sure handed receivers for several years. $3 Million in 2019 and I think everyone (except the Bucs) is happy. And now the Core of the roster sits at 49, with a total of $35.5 Million spent in the Free Agent market.
That leaves us with nearly $10 Million in Cap Space going into the draft. We’ll need to hit on at least four of our draft picks, or bring in a few other free agents to fulfill our 53 man roster requirement. We’ll also need to establish a practice squad, so we need at least 63 players under contract.
Sure, there will be other warm bodies brought in for camp and to try out. Not only in the form of smaller name free agents, but in the form of UDFAs later. Also, not everyone currently in the Core of 49 will make the team. That will free up a little money too. Then there’s the “51 rule” where only the top 51 earners will count towards our cap for a while.
But, as you can see, I’ve laid out a Free Agency plan to get us to the draft with around $10 Million in our pocket. That gives us enough for rookie contracts with a little play room.
Part 4: Roster Strengths and Weaknesses Heading Into the Draft
So, we find ourselves at 49 players. Let’s take a look at how the depth chart is breaking down at this point. OFFENSE (19) QB – Cam Newton, Taylor Heinicke
RB – Christian McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne
FB – Alex Armah
WR – DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright, Adam Humphries
TE – Jesse James, Ian Thomas
T – Chris Clark, Taylor Moton, Daryl Williams
G – Trai Turner, Greg Van Roten, Marshall Newhouse, Brendon Mahon
C – Tyler Larsen DEFENSE (27) DE – Frank Clark, Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Efe Obada, Bryan Cox Jr., Marquis Haynes
DT – Kawann Short, Rodney Gunter, Dontari Poe, Kyle Love
OLB – Za’Darius Smith, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, Jared Norris
ILB – Luke Kuechly, Andre Smith, Jermaine Carter
CB – Donte Jackson, James Bradberry, Ross Cockrell, Keyvon Seymour, Corn Elder, Lorenzo Doss
S – Landon Collins, Eric Reid, Da’Norris Searcy, Rashaan Gaulden SPECIALISTS (3) Graham Gano, Michael Palardy, JJ Jansen
As you can see, we are definitely deeper on Defense than Offense. If we land the targets I have mentioned in Free Agency, or at least similar positional targets, we’ll have a bit of fat to trim on that side of the ball. The bonus is that guys like Searcy and Cockrell might be expendable due to the emergence of Donte Jackson and the potential of re-signing Reid and/or landing another Safety on the market. Also, I expect Doss and maybe Seymour will be camp bodies. But, for now, almost all these players provide experience in our current systems. I think we’re eyeing the DT crop in the draft, rather than the popular DE opinion. It is also time to throw a drafted, young LB into the mix. I’d prefer ILB to learn from Luke, unless someone knows something about Smith or Carter that we don’t. I’ll get into those options later.
While we don’t have the depth on Offense, I would argue that we have potentially more talent there. Our young receiving corps all fit our current system, but we could stand to add at least one more body for depth. I expect us to address that in the draft. Our QB1 and RB1 are elite, our new FA TE has the potential to be elite, and our entire OL has a year on the books together and have played pretty well for the most part. Ryan Kalil will be missed, but I fully expect us to draft one of the better Centers in the draft to groom alongside Larsen, who has played well. Other than that, I think we’ll also draft/UDFA/FA another Guard and Tackle at some point to throw into the mix. Another TE will need to be added somewhere, too, and I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing back Manhertz as a last resort as camp approaches. The last note on Offense I’ll make is that I think we’ll draft a RB this year to compete with CAP. Part 5: The Draft I won’t get too into my grading system, because it will be highly debatable. What I will say, is that based on projected depth and talent, my projection of our biggest needs in April are going to come down to RB, WR, T, G, C, LB, and DT. If you’re wanting a reason to watch certain bowl games this year, check out some of the guys that will be listed later in this section.
At RB, I’m only counting on CMC and CAP right now. We’ll need someone else to take reps in practice and to develop as a potential CAP replacement. We could bring back someone like Fozzy, Cadet, or Barner, and that will be okay and fill the gap. But my line of thought here is that there are a couple guys that could be in this draft that are potential CMC style backs that could spell him well. My list of prospects here include: Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M
Zack Moss, Utah
Darrell Henderson, Memphis
It is way too early to tell, but all three are currently considered to be mid rounders. As the time approaches, I suspect some of them may creep into the second round, which I feel like would be way to early for us. But, you never know.
At WR my number one guy so far is Marquise Brown from Oklahoma. I feel like he’s really the type of guy we can add to our stable to make plays. He’s likely a second rounder at this point, but he might climb to the first round. Other options at WR include: Terry Godwin, Georgia
Hunter Renfrow, Clemson
Nyqwan Murray, Florida State
Kelvin Harmon, NC State
Riley Ridley, Georgia
Antoine Wesley, Texas Tech
Anthony Johnson, Buffalo
Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Texas
On the Offensive Line, I think the Panthers could look hard at drafting one from each position. My current favorites of the crop include: T:
Greg Little, Ole Miss
Trey Adams, Washington
David Edwards, Wisconsin
Isaiah Prince, Ohio State
Beau Benzshawel, Wisconsin
Connor McGovern, Penn State
Bobby Evans, Oklahoma
Ben Powers, Oklahoma
Jesse Burkett, Stanford
Connor McGovern (again), Penn State
Alec Eberle, Florida State
On the defensive side of the ball, I think we’re going to be in the market for another young linebacker to bring in and learn from Luke, or to even spell him in some fronts. We may also look for someone who can play on the outside as well, to help Shaq and any potential FA addition in TD’s absence. My favorite right now is Devin White, who will likely be a top 10 pick and out of our reach. But if he slides, I hope we pull the trigger. He’s a monster.
Again, I think, at this point, we’ll also be looking to add another DT to the mix. There are a few guys out there I have my eye on.
My list of defensive prospects right now focuses on the guys below. LB:
Devin White, LSU
Cameron Smith, USC
Ben Banogu, TCU
Charles Wright, Vanderbilt
Anfernee Jennings, Alabama
Derrick Brown, Auburn
Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame
Raequan Williams, Michigan State
Tyler Clark, Georgia
Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina The Panthers currently have six picks in the 2019 NFL draft, in rounds 1-6. Our seventh round pick went to Buffalo alongside Kaelin Clay for Keyvon Seymour.
It does, however, appear that the Panthers will get an additional third rounder as compensation for Andrew Norwell.
Depending on how the rest of the season plays out, it is looking like the Panthers can pick anywhere from pick 11-32. Right now, I don’t think there will be a reason for us to make a lot of movement during the draft. It’ll likely be a somewhat boring draft for us to the casual observer. We could very well draft three offensive lineman, and spend the other four picks on the other needs I have mentioned in RB, DT, LB, and WR. We could also be in BPA mode, leaning more towards the offensive side of the ball for depth.
Either way, I expect us to come out of the draft with at least 4 solid players that will make the roster, and hopefully three more that can do the same. That will push us to 56 players, only leaving room for seven more additions for our season requirement of 63.
I won’t get too much into analyzing each prospect until the draft gets closer, so that will close out my thoughts on our mentality going into the 2019 draft. Part 6: Things Left Unsaid, and a Conclusion
Up to this point in this preview, I haven’t mentioned much about the potential coaching staff changes. Of course, if there is a lot of that, you can expect some of the thought processes described above to change a bit too. Ron Rivera has been a roller coaster of a head coach. He’s probably the best coach we’ve ever had, but one could argue that he’s easily the most stubborn. Loyalty towards veterans, and refusal to adapt have been his biggest downfalls.
If Rivera’s days are numbered, as many suspect, I am 100% on board with the sentiment that it is time to bring in an Offense minded replacement.
The league has evolved into an offensive league. Long gone are the days of winning most games by holding opponents to under ten points. Today’s league is a shootout league, in which you can only hope to slow down opposing offenses.
I don’t know who it will be, and haven’t had time to look into any candidates, but I feel like it is time to let our offense be our identity. We have two elite players in power positions on that side of the ball, and a stable of young weapons behind them. Let’s spread it out and make other teams play catch up. David Tepper strikes me as a guy that wants to be competitive and someone who doesn’t care what the critics say about getting us to that point. Right now, I trust him to make the right decisions when the time comes. He alone has given me a little bit of hope for our future, despite the way the past few weeks have played out for us. When discussing the future of the Panthers, Mr. Tepper is front and center the key player in it. Let’s hope the next few decades of Panthers football are better than their first 23 years as a team, and that we become synonymous with the term “great franchise.” In conclusion, I appreciate any of you that have made it this far. We’re all fans, armchair HCs and GMs, and general critics of our franchise. The good thing is that it is still our franchise, and we have a team to rally around. So, Keep Pounding. Keep your heads up, because there’s always a future. It can’t rain all the time.