A week before free agency opened, the Carolina Panthers were among the teams over the NFL’s salary cap, forcing a few cuts and restructures.
That’s limited much of what they were going to do in the market — though it wasn’t going to be much anyway.
The bigger moves are ones they’ll make with their own players, and two of their key offensive cogs are at pivot points going into this season.
Smith has spent his entire career here, and had a huge comeback season at age 32 thanks to the addition of quarterback Cam Newton. He caught 79 balls for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns last year, his best season since 2008 when the Panthers went 12-4.
He’s also well aware the Panthers have taken care of older stars in the past (quarterback Jake Delhomme), and knows this is his last chance at a pay day.
He’ll make $7.75 million in base salary this year, and the Panthers could easily engineer an extension to knock this year’s cap number down. The bigger question is how long to invest in him, though last year’s form indicates he’s got productive football left.
Stewart’s future was cast in doubt when the Panthers signed fullback Mike Tolbert, but the Panthers appear committed at the moment to keeping all their backs. They just signed soon-to-be 29-year-old DeAngelo Williams to a lucrative extension last year (as part of the insulate the rookie quarterback plan).
The running back market is depressed, but the fact is, once Ray Rice and Matt Forte were franchised, there weren’t many backs worth spending money on. Stewart hasn’t put up the kind of gross numbers Rice or Forte did because of the Panthers’ carry-sharing arrangement, but his talent is undisputed, after averaging 5.4 yards per rush last year, while also catching 47 passes.
Would they hang onto him through this year, and then choose between keeping him long-term at the expense of Williams? Possibly. But the idea that they’ll trade him in the short term doesn’t fit their philosophy.
This is still the management team that franchised defensive end Julius Peppers before letting him eventually walk into free agency, taking the third-round compensatory pick rather than moving him for what they perceived as less than his value. And with few people lining up to give big deals to backs, it might be hard to get more than the compensatory value now.