CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers have until Feb. 19 to make their all-important franchise tag decisions.
But they can begin the remaking of the roster Monday, when they can start cutting players. The possible cuts include cornerback Ken Lucas, linebacker Landon Johnson and wide receiver D.J. Hackett.
But in two of those cases, the cuts won't save as much salary cap room as they would have in years past.
Barring an extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the players union, the NFL will operate without a salary cap in 2010. And a set of rules put in place for that occasion are making all deals this offseason more complex than they already were. In past years, teams were able to push money into future years when they cut players by designating them a "Post June 1" release. In the old days, they actually had to wait until the middle of the summer to realize the salary cap savings. But that rule no longer applies, as the league wanted to protect against teams using the uncapped year as a salary dump.
Now, when a team cuts a player, any prorated signing bonus that exists in future years counts immediately against the cap.
What that means for the Panthers is that the cap savings on some players cut this year won't be as great as it had been in the past, though general manager Marty Hurney said that wouldn't change their decision-making process.
"This time of year, every move you make's described as a salary cap move," Hurney said. "But the reality is, these things aren't cap moves as much as they are football decisions."
Johnson is a perfect and simple example of a player who would have created more cap room in previous years. Signed to a three-year, $10 million contract with a $3 million signing bonus last year, he vastly underperformed. He barely got on the field on defense, registering just seven tackles, and didn't compensate by being an outstanding special teamer.
As it stands, he counts $3.6 million against this year's cap, with $1 million worth of prorated bonus, a $2 million base salary and a $600,000 roster bonus. If the Panthers cut him under the old rules, they could have counted his $1 million proration this year and the other $1 million in 2010, creating a $2.6 million savings immediately. But since both prorations hit now, they would save just $1.6 million because of the new rules.
Likewise, Lucas is currently on the books for a $5.6 million base salary this year, with a cap number that has swollen to more than $9 million for the coming season by virtue of numerous restructurings. He has two more years left on his original six-year, $37 million deal. If the Panthers cut him now, they would still save around $2 million against the cap. But in past years, they could have chopped the prorated bonus into two years, and added more than $3 million worth of room this year.
If, as Hurney said, they don't consider the economic element, they would have decent cases for cutting both.
Lucas just turned 30, and is moving toward the wrong side of the age-value-cost matrix. Johnson was barely present in 2008, so getting rid of him for 2009 won't sting that much.
Since Hackett is entering the second year of his two-year deal, the new rules won't affect him, though cutting him will save the team $1.6 million.
Of course, the looming uncapped year will make signing deals more difficult as well.
Contracts signed this offseason are forced to comply with a "30 percent" rule, which prevents teams from putting the bulk of the value of contracts into years without a salary cap.
The "Paragraph 5" amount (which amounts to the player's base salary) can't increase by more than 30 percent each year. So the Panthers can't write a contract for Jordan Gross which pays him a signing bonus and a $1 million base for 2009, then follow up with a $8 million base salary the following year.
Essentially, it means contracts have to be more evenly spread, which benefits teams with huge piles of cap room this year.
The Panthers had around $10 million worth of room for next year before last year's bonuses were justified, but they're expected to have significantly more room through some accounting tricks before the start of free agency.