First up is opening up cap space. This year’s cap will stay close to last year’s increasing only $275,000. Going in they were thought to be $9.6M over the cap, however that is reduced to $6.6M. Restructuring 4 or 5 salaries will open up somewhere between $5 and $10 million. Then there will be current roster players such as Jeff Otah released that would probably open up another $5 million in cap space. Already they’ve restructured Thomas Davis’ deal.
At this point the process to remold the roster begins. Will they sign any of their own free agents, Jeremy Shockey, Geoff Schwartz, Legedu Naanee, Geoff Hangartner, Thomas Williams, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Antwan Applewhite and Dan Conner? Yes, having resigned Geoff Hangartner, however Mackenzy Bernadeau and Dan Conner have signed with Dallas and Geoff Schwartz is close to signing with another club.
Shockey would be costly and Naanee was ok at best and could be replaced through free agency or the draft. Guard is a concern since Schwartz, Hangartner, and Bernadeau were free agents and Travelle Wharton was released in a cap saving effort; however, they did draft Zack Williams last year as a guard that will help if he’s healthy. They are having talks with Jason Brown, free agent center from St. Louis. The thought being either he or Ryan Kalil could be moved to right guard, otherwise they could look to the draft.
There is a rookie cap this year, however some of that should apply towards the cap. Also they have the ability to borrow $2 million from a future cap that is available under the new CBA, but it wouldn’t be used unless they were trying to secure a free agent.
Then we point at needs and possible ways to address them. Those being a shut down corner (expensive as free agents), defensive tackles and ends that would cause giving up 2 to 3 players currently at those positions such as Fua, Mclain etc., an outside linebacker to replace Connor lost though free agency and deciding what to do with Jeremy Shockey (resign him or find a second pass catching tight end that would cost less). In December they extended Gary Barnidge’s contract, but is he the right fit? Adding strength to the secondary at both the corners and safety is already in the works with the signing of Haruki Nakamura, Ed Reed’s backup at safety in Baltimore and how will they replace Jason Baker.
The next question is when is it time to make a move for the future at two key positions currently filled by two of our best players, Steve Smith and Jordan Gross (did I just hear a tremendous groan)? So let me explain. We need another receiver on the other side to take the pressure coverage-wise off Steve. If the Panthers do that, it would make sense to go after a young free agent (Laurent Robinson, Robert Meachem ,Steve Smith PHI, Pierre Garcon, Ted Ginn or Mario Manningham), but Robinson, Meacham and Garcon have already been snapped up. They may try finding that player through the draft, but they would have to use an early pick, probably the 2nd rounder. Players such as Plaxico Burress or Hines Ward don’t fit this need. This receiver needs to be our number one receiver once Steve retires. Neither Lafell or Gettis fits that mold. This would be predicated on restructuring Steve’s current contract since it’s an $8.25 million hit on this year’s cap. Jordan Gross is two thirds of the way through a long term deal that annually has a cap hit of $10 million. Several years down the road the discussion will be whether to restructure, franchise, release or retire such as what happened with Julius Peppers. Some thought will be given to using an early pick to bring in an offensive tackle and tuck him away at right tackle for several years, then move him over once it’s time. This would have probably happened with Jeff Otah, but he can’t be counted on to show up.
This gets us to the draft and what to do with the first two picks. It’s been easy to say “go defense”, however following this train of thought may not be the best way to go forward long term. This would cause the Panthers to consider using one of the picks to solve these needs. Most likely scenario would be acquiring a young free agent receiver or drafting an offensive tackle. Would they consider using either picks 9 or 40 if wide receivers Jason Blackmon, Stephen Hill, Malcom Floyd, Mohamed Sanu or offensive tackles Cordy Glenn, Reily Reiff, Jonathan Martin or Mike Adams were available? All of these will be available in the first 40 picks and if the Panthers want to become a year after year playoff caliber team they must eventually fill these needs. Most likely they will go defense with the 9th pick and use the 2nd round pick on either a receiver or tackle. We should also look for the Panthers to try to pick up extra picks especially in the 3rd round with as many holes to fill.
The pieces are slowly falling into place. Patience will be needed from the fans to allow all this to happen.