This isn’t the Carolina Panthers you once knew, and if they have their way, they’re about to look even more different very soon.
Over the last year and a half, the Panthers lost some true cornerstones of their franchise. They moved on from long-time head coach Ron Rivera, who was the winningest head coach in franchise history, both in total wins and win percentage. They also moved on from offensive titans Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, two of the best to ever play for Carolina. On top of that, a future Hall of Famer, one who only ever knew the colors of black and teal, linebacker Luke Kuechly, retired somewhat suddenly. That yielded a very new-look Panthers squad in 2020.
In the 2020 season, the Panthers were led by new head coach Matt Rhule. They boasted one of the youngest defenses in the NFL, and their offense was led by running back Christian McCaffrey, who went from a budding young player to the face of the franchise real quick. All things considered, the 5-11 team played fine under Rhule in his first year, but the offense was limited with Teddy Bridgewater as its signal-caller instead of Newton, and with McCaffrey missing most of the year to injury, there weren’t many bright spots for the Panthers from the second half of the season on.
Because of this, we knew more changes were coming in Carolina as they moved forward to build up the new regime, but not many were predicting there to be even more leveling of the foundation first.
On a day that local Panthers beat reporter Joe Person named “Bloody Friday,” the Panthers released linebacker Stephen Weatherly, punter Michael Palardy, and made the decision to cut safety Tre Boston. This all came after the team already released long-time defensive tackle Kawann Short earlier in the week. These moves, in all, freed up about $20 million in cap space, getting the Panthers just north of $30 million in projected cap space at $31—this all adjusted off the report that the NFL salary cap for 2021 will be just above $180 million.
You could look at these moves and justify them by saying it was time. The Panthers are in true rebuild mode, and these players likely weren’t going to contribute to their cause of hitting a winning window hard in a year or two with their outlook on age, availability, and contract situation. So you could say the Panthers were simply moving on now and getting on with the slow-building plan as expected.
But I would tell you that while these moves could be just that, they could also hint at something much bigger.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely know that current Houston Texans superstar could be on the move. After situations on many levels have soured in Houston, Watson has expressed his interest in playing elsewhere. But moving Watson is more complicated than just a regular ol’ trade demand.
For one, Watson’s price tag could justifiably be insane. 25-year-old superstar franchise quarterbacks don’t hit the market very often—and by very often I mean ever. When you consider the fact that multiple first-round picks have been traded for rookie quarterbacks who haven’t even played a down in the NFL yet as trade-ups in the draft, putting a guy like Watson—who has proven to be a top-5 quarterback—on the market means we’re talking about two or three first-round picks with a lot of added compensation around that.
But the complexity here goes even further, as Watson has a no-trade clause attached to the contract that he recently signed this past September. That deal was not only the second-largest contract in pro football history (behind Patrick Mahomes’ mega-deal) but it also protected Watson from being moved to a destination he didn’t want to go to. With Watson demanding a trade, not only has he said he wants out, but he essentially wants to be able to choose where he goes.
One of those destinations could be Carolina.
Panthers owner David Tepper, along with general manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Rhule, have already attempted one aggressive pursuit of a quarterback when they offered multiple picks, including their No. 8 overall pick in 2021, for Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Stafford. They ended up getting out-bid by the Los Angeles Rams, but the notion of what the Panthers were willing to give up did not fall to the wayside.
When you combine their previous attempt at making a big splash in the quarterback market with the Panthers freeing up more than double their previous cap space last week, there is plenty of reason to believe they’re gearing up to not just be in the Watson trade discussions, but put enough on the line to win it and bring him to Carolina.
The Panthers also have some notable free agents hitting the market in March, most notably right tackle Taylor Moton and wide receiver Curtis Samuel. But the Panthers are making sure they can bring those guys back—or at least have the ability to—and in doing so stay in the running for Watson. Though Watson’s deal, in total, was the second-largest deal in NFL history, if traded, his cap hit for 2021 is only $10 million. The following year it makes a big jump up to $35 million, but by then they’ll have some flexibility. If they can find a trade partner for Bridgewater post-Watson trade, they would gain $12 million in cap space. If they just cut him, they’d gain only $2 million due to the rest becoming dead cap. If they waited a year to cut him, they’d gain $21 million in cap space. Either way, the Panthers will have some extra money coming their way for when Watson’s cap number leaps when they get Bridgewater off their books.
When you combine the recent salary dumps with a potential Bridgewater move this year or next, it’s easy to see what the Panthers are doing. They’re making sure they can put themselves in the best possible position to be major players in the Watson sweepstakes.