Yes, rebuilding. Get to that in a second but first here’s what we learned from the Carolina Panthers’ loss to the San Fransisco 49ers: Absolutely nothing we didn’t already know.
The Panthers have a strong defense, especially on the defensive line and at linebacker. Their secondary is adequate as long as the D-line is putting pressure on the quarterback. That didn’t happen against the 49ers. The Panthers’ offense is OK at best. The idea is for the Panthers to have a strong focus on the running gaming along with some passing. Cam Newton remains a work in progress – great mobility, great size but gets sacked too much and can be wildly inaccurate.
Panthers GM Dave Gettleman has said that the Panthers are “salary-cap challenged.” That’s correct. Fully a third of the team — 18 of the 53 players on the Panthers’ playoff roster — are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) well, now. Plus three guys that ended the season on injuried reserve. And while some of those guys are near the end of their careers or readily available league-minimum signings for depth, many are significant pieces and will likely command more than the league minimum.
For those that don’t follow NFL cap space limits closely, the longer a player is in the league, the more he makes. The flip side of that is that marginal veterans could effectively priced out of the league by younger players. To avoid that, there’s a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that allows veterans to count against the cap as if they were fourth-year players if they sign a league minimum deal. From that, the question quickly becomes how many unrestricted free-agent Panthers who have now demonstrated that they’re now worth more league minimum. So the team’s issues, by position group:
Quarterback: The issue with Cam Newton isn’t 2014 but rather 2015, when one way or another if he’s a Panther, he’ll get a very large raise (think on the order of an additional $10,000,000 a year), which limits the team’s cap flexibility. Backup Derek Anderson is a free agent but took a league-minimum deal last year. Jimmy Clausen is also a free agent.
Offense line: Yuck. Ryan Kalil is an All-Pro but besides that there are a ton of questions. Jordan Gross is a free agent and will be 34 before next season starts. He might retire, he might come back for another season. Gross isn’t the player he once was but he plays left tackle, and even the 34-year-old-version is probably worth a couple of million a year. If he retires, the Panthers may not be able to afford an adequate replacement in free agency. At right tackle, Byron Bell is a restricted free agent. That means that the Panthers can tender him a contract at one of three levels and get a draft pick if Bell signs with another team. The problem: Because Bell was undrafted coming out of college, the lowest level tender — $1.3 million for a one-year deal — won’t actually get the Panthers a pick if Bell signed elsewhere. The higher tenders that would guarantee a pick are $2.9 million (gets a first round pick if Bell signs elsewhere) and $2.0 million (guarantees a second round pick if Bell leaves). Bell is far from the best right tackle in the NFL, so the question to the Panthers is exactly how much he is worth. Hoping that you can find a decent replacement on the open market cheap is a risky move. And even if it works for a year, the Panthers would likely be right back in the same spot again in 2015, as anyone that did well would want a raise, which the Panthers may not be able to afford. One possible solution is to take an offensive tackle in the draft.
Starting left guard Travelle Wharton is a free agent while the starting right guard position was a bit of revolving door. Getting Amini Silatolu back from injury could help at one guard spot. Other UFAs: Geoff Hangartner, Garry Williams and Bruce Campbell. Hangartner may well have played is last NFL game while Williams and Campbell ended the season on injured reserved.
Wide-receiver: Another position with a lot of question marks. Steve Smith is getting older and really no longer a true #1 wide receiver, even in the Panthers’ pass not-so-often scheme, but is signed through 2016. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, and Domenik Hixon — the team’s #2, #3, and #4 wide outs — are all unrestricted free agents. They all made more than league minimum in 2013 and Ginn has significantly increased his value with his 2013 performance. LaFell is also worth more than league minimum. There are no young receivers that look likely to fill even the #3 slot immediately. Taking a receiver high in the draft is a possibility.
Tight end: Ben Hartsock was on a league minimum deal in 2013 and is now a UFA. Richie Brockel is a restricted free agent but it’s hard to imagine the Panthers giving him a tender, so he’s effectively in the unrestricted category as well. Could imagine the team bringing one or both back for league minimum money.
Running back: Bad contracts here are a source of a lot of the Panthers’ cap space issues.