Remember when everyone thought the Carolina Panthers were cheap?
Two years after a salary purge left many fans wondering whether they were committed to winning, the Panthers are in a different kind of cost-cutting mode following last summer’s post-lockout spending spree on the team’s own players.
According to ESPN’s John Clayton, the Panthers are one of four teams that need to get under the salary cap by March 13 when the new league year starts. The Panthers are a reported $9.6 million over the cap, projected to be close to last year’s $120.4 million ceiling.
That means the Panthers – like Pittsburgh ($11.7 million over), Oakland ($11 million over) and the Super Bowl-champion Giants ($7.3 million over) – will have to restructure some deals or cut players to create cap space over the next three weeks.
Andrew Brandt, ESPN’s NFL business analyst who spent nine years managing the Green Bay Packers’ salary cap, said the situation for cap-strapped teams likely will get more challenging.
“However much they’re over the cap now, it’s only going to increase because (of) exclusive-rights free agents and restricted free agents that they have to tender,” Brandt said. “And who knows how much incentive money carried over from last year that is going to be a debit against the cap?”
A provision in the new collective-bargaining agreement allows teams to increase their cap by rolling over unused space from 2011 into the new league year, which will begin at 4 p.m. March 13. But after extending the contracts of seven of their core players before the 2011 season, Brandt said the Panthers “were pretty much up against (the cap) by the end of the year.”
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney does not talk about contractual matters or salary-cap issues.
But the Panthers have long said they have a plan in place when it comes to salary structure, including the 2010 decision to part ways with quarterback Jake Delhomme and a number of other veterans during an uncapped year.
The Panthers have some obvious candidates for restructuring, beginning with linebacker Thomas Davis. He was among those whom the Panthers extended last season, but he made it only until Week 2 before tearing the ACL in his right knee for the third time in a 22-month span.
The Panthers have until March 14 to exercise an $8 million club option on Davis. They are more likely to cut Davis and potentially re-sign him to avoid the $8 million payment, or re-work the deal.
Davis said last week he is confident the Panthers will work something out with him, as they did last year when they gave him an extension rather than utilize a loophole in the former CBA that would have held him to his existing deal.
The Panthers also would owe No. 3 quarterback Jimmy Clausen a $923,000 roster bonus in March. He started 10 games as a rookie in 2010, going 1-9 and finishing as the league’s lowest-rated passer.
After the Panthers drafted Cam Newton No. 1 overall and signed Derek Anderson as a backup last year, Clausen became an afterthought and was inactive for all 16 games. It is hard to envision the Panthers giving a nearly $1 million bonus to a player who ran the opposing team’s offense in practice in 2011.
Offensive guard Travelle Wharton also could be a target.
Wharton, who will turn 31 in May, has two years left on his contract, with a cap figure of $7.6 million in 2012. A third-round pick out of South Carolina in 2004, he has played his entire career with the Panthers.
But the Panthers have a number of younger, cheaper linemen who can play guard and tackle. The list includes Byron Bell, who started at right tackle as a rookie but could get bumped inside if Jeff Otah is healthy.
The Panthers also could look to their special teams to create cap room.
Punter Jason Baker, last in the NFL in net punting in 2011, is entering the final year of his contract with a cap figure of nearly $2 million.