The Panthers were about $16 million over the salary cap when general manager Dave Gettleman was hired last January.
A little more than a year later, the Panthers sit nearly $16 million below the projected $126.3 million cap for 2014. The $16 million figure includes the $11.6 million the Panthers will carry over in unused cap space from 2013.
On the surface, the Panthers appear to be much in better shape – until you factor in the Kraken Situation.
The Kraken is the make-believe sea creature Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has adopted as his alter ego. But Hardy’s pending free agency presents a very real issue for the Panthers.
Hardy is coming off a 15-sack season that tied the franchise’s single-season record set by Kevin Greene in 1998. Hardy wants to be paid like one of the game’s best pass-rushers. To this point, the Panthers have given little indication they plan on doing that.
Nearly half of Hardy’s sack total in 2013 came during a seven-sack barrage in the final two regular-season games against New Orleans and Atlanta. Hardy was shut out in the playoff loss to San Francisco when the 49ers turned their protections to him.
The Panthers could slap the franchise tag on Hardy at a cost of about $12 million, but that would eat up most of their available cap space. In a tag-and-trade scenario, the Panthers could net more draft picks – or at least a higher pick – than the third-round compensatory selection they’d likely receive if Hardy leaves as a free agent.
With huge deals on the horizon for quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, and potentially defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the Panthers can’t afford to have a ton of money tied up in two pass rushers.
A year after losing Julius Peppers to free agency before the 2010 season, the Panthers gave defensive end Charles Johnson the most lucrative deal in franchise history – six years and $78 million.
Hardy will be looking for more than that, and could get it from a team in need of an elite pass rusher, including two from the NFC South in Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
New Bucs coach Lovie Smith was in Chicago when the Bears made Peppers a $91 million man. Smith and new Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have made it clear improving the pass rush is a priority.
“He’s asking for Charles Johnson money,” Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes for cbssports.com, said of Hardy. “Pass rushers are always paid a premium. If you get a young one like him on the open market with a team with an abundance of cap room like Oakland ...”
Losing Hardy – especially to a division rival – would be tough for the league’s second-ranked defense. But keeping him at an exorbitant cost could hamstring the efforts by Gettleman to get the Panthers’ salary cap in order in the next two years.
Gettleman navigated the cap mess last year by cutting several defensive starters (Chris Gamble, James Anderson and Ron Edwards) and restructuring the contracts of a number of veterans. This time, Gettleman may not have many restructuring cards to play.
One potential salary-cap casualty could be safety Charles Godfrey, who is recovering from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for all but two games last season. Godfrey is due to make $5 million this year, with a cap figure of $7.1 million.
Cutting Godfrey would save the Panthers $2.1 million against the cap, or $5.1 million if he’s designated as a post-June 1 cut.
Releasing Godfrey obviously would create some urgency for the Panthers to re-sign Mike Mitchell, who stepped in for Godfrey and outperformed his 1-year, $1 million contract. Mitchell, whose four interceptions tied Kuechly for the team lead, will be looking for a multiyear deal.
The Panthers have 21 unrestricted free agents. In addition to Mitchell, here are three more who should be priorities:
• Captain Munnerlyn: The diminutive cornerback had his best season in 2013 and is well respected and liked in the locker room. Like Mitchell, Munnerlyn will be looking for a longer contract after taking a 1-year deal to stay in Charlotte last year.
• Ted Ginn Jr.: The former first-round pick resurrected his career with the Panthers after a couple of forgettable seasons in San Francisco. Ginn posted career highs with five receiving touchdowns and a 15.4 yards-per-catch average, and brought stability and a big-play threat to the return teams.
• Graham Gano: Gano was a bargain in 2013 at $715,000. Gano posted the league’s best touchback percentage since 1992, and was 24-of-27 on field goals -- including 6-for-6 from 50 yards or longer. The 10 highest-paid kickers are all slated to make a minimum of $1.9 million this year.
Gross still mulling future
Veteran left tackle Jordan Gross became a free agent Friday when his contract, which he agreed to restructure last offseason, automatically voided. Nothing much has changed with Gross’ situation since the end of the season.
Gross, 33, plans to sit down at some point with Gettleman, who’s focused on preparing for this month’s scouting combine. In talking with Gross at the Pro Bowl, I got the sense he was tired, ready for a break and satisfied with what he’s accomplished over his 11 seasons.
“I’ve had almost everything happen to me that can happen, short of winning the Super Bowl,” Gross said in Hawaii. “I feel like I’m a very content person.”
When I told him that sounded like someone ready to hang up the cleats, Gross said: “Yeah, but I love the Panthers. ... I want to do what’s best for me and for everybody.”
Gross genuinely means that. So while he might be leaning toward retirement now, my hunch is he could be convinced to play another season.
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson