Heading into free agency, the Panthers are in a heap of cap trouble and likely won’t be able to pursue big-name free agents like receiver Vincent Jackson, despite reports that they are in talks with Jackson’s agent. They simply don’t have the buying power given their cap situation.
That’s not a problem you’d like to have when you’re coming of another losing season, so it begs the question: How did the Panthers front office get itself into this situation?
It really comes down to overspending for inconsistent and oft-injured talent. The Panthers were dedicated to retaining their top free agents for the past few years, but they lost focus of getting value contracts.
For example, DeAngelo Williams’ five-year, $43 million contract makes him the fifth-highest paid running back in the league. There is absolutely no chance that he would have demanded that type of money on the open market.
Not only does Williams have durability problems, but talent-wise, he isn’t a top-five running back. Add to the equation that he is approaching the dreaded age of 30 for running backs, and you have yourself a vastly overpaid player.
Then, we look at Thomas Davis, who was also signed in 2011’s spending frenzy. According to his current contract, he’ll hurt the Panthers cap more than all but two linebackers in 2012 with a jaw-dropping $11.9 million figure.
Davis’ production when he’s healthy is undeniable, but the Panthers gave a player who had hardly played in the past two seasons one of the top salaries at his position. Davis wouldn’t have received half as much on the open market as he did with the Panthers. He’s an obvious target for release or contract restructuring.
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Travelle Wharton was also overpaid, but he’s disappointed with production rather than health issues. He’s currently being paid as if he’s a starting left tackle, but playing as if he should be a back-up guard. His play has simply not been up to par with his contract, and it’s time that the organization take another look at his $35 million contract.
More inexperienced players, like linebacker James Anderson and safety Charles Godfrey, were also inexplicably given disproportionally large contacts. Godfrey still has a lot of room to improve in coverage and could have used a shorter contract before having $28 million thrown his way last year.
Anderson, on the other hand, is even more unproven, older and less talented, but was given a five-year, $22 million contract last offseason. He had stepped up when Thomas Davis was lost to injury, but the team could have gotten him at a rate much closer to a fair per year value of $2 to $3 million.
Clearly, the Panthers got themselves into this mess during the 2011 offseason, where they went a little too far to retain their veterans instead of throwing some bonuses at players for the cap-less season the year before.
They’ve dug themselves into a hole, but luckily, the NFL rules are set up to allow teams to dig themselves out, and the Panthers will have to do that with smart management throughout this offseason. That means releasing/restructuring overpaid players, drafting well and finding diamonds in the rough during free agency.