Mailbag: How can Panthers gain cap space before free agency?

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich talks with Parris Campbell during a practice at the NFL football team’s training facility, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich talks with Parris Campbell during a practice at the NFL football team’s training facility, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


With the Panthers’ coaching staff nearing completion, and the NFL Combine on the horizon, Carolina fans are understandably curious about the future of their favorite franchise.

That’s why The Observer likes to regularly open up its mailbag to answer reader questions during a very busy offseason.

Here are some of the stand-out questions from our most recent batch of reader inquiries:

Tony K. asks: My biggest concern at this time is where can we get that cap space to get our players and FA signed?

Mike Kaye: The Panthers are currently projected to be roughly $7.74 million over the salary cap, according to Over the Cap. That’s not really a huge hole to dig out of at all.

They could get under the cap by simply cutting linebacker Shaq Thompson for an $11.3 million savings. However, they could also ask Thompson to take a pay cut entering the final year of his deal and trim elsewhere to make up some money.

The Panthers have a great opportunity with wide receiver DJ Moore because of the structure of his contract. He is set to have a $25.04 million cap hit this year, but he has played well enough that kicking cap charges down the road is a very sensible move. Moore will be 26 this season and he still has three years left on his contract.

The Panthers can turn a chunk of Moore’s base salary into a roster bonus and spread that total throughout the remainder of his deal — essentially taking a loan on the salary cap. The Panthers could save as much as $12.7 million in cap space this year with a restructure, according to Over The Cap. However, I don’t expect the franchise to push that much money into future years.

While defensive end Brian Burns is expected to receive a massive contract extension this offseason, that deal will actually help the Panthers’ salary cap wiggle room. Burns has a $16 million cap number entering his fifth-year option, and the Panthers can dramatically manipulate that number by reaching a long-term extension.

The Panthers can turn the majority of Burns’ current salary into a signing bonus and then spread that bonus total throughout the length of the extension. According to Over The Cap, the Panthers can save as much as $11.9 million in cap space by signing Burns to a long-term extension. Given Carolina’s previous trade-deadline posturing with Burns, both sides are going to want to get a big deal done sooner rather than later.

Also, along with Thompson, the Panthers can create more cap space by cutting former starting center Pat Elflein for a savings of $4.26 million. Kicker Zane Gonzalez, who missed all of last season, could be cut for a savings of $1.46 million. Linebacker Damien Wilson is also likely to be dropped for a savings of $3.6 million.

So, while the Panthers’ current situation doesn’t look great, they can save around $20.62 million by cutting four players. They could add around $24.6 million in savings by restructuring Moore and extending Burns this offseason as well.

From there, the Panthers should be able to retain internal free agents and pounce on some notable names on the open market.

Thomas asks: What Colts do you expect the Panthers to pursue in free agency or through a possible trade?

MK: Of all the former Colts set to hit the market, wide receiver Parris Campbell makes the most sense. The Observer recently spoke with Campbell about playing for Frank Reich, and he was effusive in his praise of Reich’s coaching approach and play-calling style.

Campbell would be an excellent fit as a speedy slot receiver complement to Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr. Reich was creative with Campbell over the past two years in Indianapolis, but never really got to use him consistently due to injuries. Campbell will likely be looking for a short-term pact in a comfortable environment, and Reich and the Panthers can provide that landing strip for success.

Another former Colts player who would make sense is defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. While Reich has experience with Ngakoue from last year, new defensive line coach Todd Wash was with Ngakoue throughout his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wash essentially developed Ngakoue, who went from being a third-round pick to a Pro Bowler in a couple of years under Wash’s watch. Ngakoue won’t come cheap, but he makes sense as a pass-rushing partner for Burns.

If the Panthers decided to move from Thompson, Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke would make a lot of sense, too. He spent his first four NFL seasons working with Reich, and worked with new Panthers linebackers coach Peter Hansen at Stanford during his entire collegiate career. Like Ngakoue, Okereke could be pricey.

Joshua C. asks: What are the chances the Panthers can draft CJ Stroud or Bryce Young without giving up their 1st round pick next year?

MK: Joshua, are you sitting down? Well, I have some bad news. The chances are between slim and none.

From the Panthers’ perspective, they shouldn’t be timid if they plan to trade up. And with QB-needy, shark-infested waters within the top eight selections, the Carolina crew is going to need to dip into future years, to pardon the phrase, jump the sharks (shout out to Fonzie).

The Panthers are probably going to have to get within the top four picks to land Young or Stroud. The Houston Texans — at No. 2 — and the Indianapolis Colts — at No. 4 — are both in need of QBs, and getting ahead of one (or both) of those two teams should be the goal.

It’ll be hard to pull off that mission without trading next year’s first-round pick.

The Panthers are also rebuilding their roster — with several holes on the depth chart — so completely wiping out their draft-pick inventory this offseason would be unwise. Ultimately, the first-round pick for next year is a legitimate chip to put in the pot, and it might be the Panthers’ only play, on top of offering up a pick or two in this year’s draft.

Colin M. asks: Rolling with Foreman and Hubbard again or do you expect a significant addition?

MK: As The Observer previously mentioned in our ongoing positional series, D’Onta Foreman’s future is really dependent on his price.

Foreman is a gritty, ground-and-pound back who has value in a downhill-heavy scheme. The issue for Foreman in a new offense is that he might not fit into Reich’s play-calling as well as he did with the previous regime. Reich is likely to use more shotgun snaps, which would hinder Foreman’s skill set.

Again, price and positional fit are the names of the game at running back in the NFL. Reich and GM Scott Fitterer need to determine those elements for Foreman, who has little wear and tear after being scarcely used during his early NFL career.

Chuba Hubbard, on the other hand, fits what Reich likes to do, as he can run in the shotgun and moves well in space. Raheem Blackshear also fits that mold.

If the Panthers don’t re-sign Foreman, look for them to draft a running back with a versatile skill set in the middle of this year’s draft.

Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kaye previously covered the entire NFL for Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.

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