Panthers in position to upgrade at QB even though options dwindling

The Panthers may have to ride with Teddy Bridgewater at QB in 2021, but the team is positioned to pivot if a more desirable option presents itself. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NFL teams were forced to be creative in restructuring contracts and signing free agents due to the reduced salary cap in 2021, but few have been more creative than the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina backloaded the contracts of its top seven free-agent signings to count $13,890,500 against the 2021 cap and $35,345,500 against the 2022 cap. General manager Scott Fitterer also restructured the contracts of running back Christian McCaffrey, linebacker Shaq Thompson and center Matt Paradis to count $19,364,116 against the 2021 cap and $31,347,520 in 2022.

This leaves the Panthers with approximately $23.5 million in cap space to rank seventh in the league, raising eyebrows about what they’re planning since some of the backloading wasn’t necessary.

Several league executives who wished not to be identified told ESPN.com it likely was to make a run at Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson before his legal issues surfaced. Maybe even Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson because of new general manager Scott Fitterer’s ties to the Seahawks.

The Panthers made it clear early they were looking to upgrade at quarterback when they offered 2020 starter Teddy Bridgewater, the No. 8 overall pick and a fifth-round pick to Detroit for Matthew Stafford, who was eventually dealt to the Los Angeles Rams.

“It does allow a team to be opportunistic, when things come along, a Watson or a Russell Wilson,’’ said ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, a former executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian agreed.

“They’re wisely positioned for any eventuality," he said. “They want to use the existing space on possible additional moves, rookies and for carryover. The cost going forward is not prohibitive."

So what’s the downside?

“If for whatever reason their plan doesn’t work out and they don’t use the room, they can move the cap space from one year to the next," Tannenbaum said. “It gives them room to be opportunistic, so I don’t see any downside to it."

Minimal risk

Fitterer made it clear before free agency that the 8% reduction in the cap to $182.5 million forced him and others to be creative.

“It’s not something we want to do long term, restructure or kick money down the road,” he said. “But this is one of those unique years where we’re trying to create money."

Just like many teams, Fitterer used voidable years to help that process. He gave edge rusher Haason Reddick a one-year, $6 million deal with $5.01 million in signing bonus. Of that, $1.992 million counts toward the 2021 cap and $4.008 million against 2022, one of four voidable years.

The $4.008 million turns into dead money in 2022.

The Green Bay Packers, for example, used a similar strategy in signing running back Aaron Jones to a four-year, $48 million deal that really is a two-year, $20 million deal.

The risk for Carolina is that’s $4.008 million against next year’s cap for a player not on the roster, although if Reddick plays to expectations there will be an attempt to re-sign him.

Dead money can hurt a team that is low on cap space, another reason Fitterer had to be creative. He inherited about $22.8 million in dead money.

However, that figure currently is about $8.2 million for 2022, when the cap is expected to go up to as much as $220 million.

Fitterer also will have the luxury of clearing $21 million of Bridgewater’s $26 million cap hit off the books in 2022, should the Panthers wait until then to move on from the former University of Louisville star.

So again, Fitterer has minimized the risk.

“It’s just a pragmatic approach given the circumstances," Tannenbaum said. “It gives you a bigger window short term. It’s just like a credit card. The bill’s going to come in next year. It’s more a function of the marketplace than a philosophy."

The plan

Carolina’s options for a quarterback are dwindling on the trade and draft fronts. Watson’s legal issues likely won’t be resolved anytime soon and the Seahawks don’t appear intent on trading Wilson.

In terms of the draft, San Francisco trading with Miami for the third overall pick impacts the Panthers, since the 49ers moved up with the intent of picking a quarterback.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is expected to go No. 1 to Jacksonville. If the New York Jets stay at No. 2, they could grab either BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or Alabama’s Mac Jones in an attempt to upgrade from Sam Darnold.

With the 49ers going QB too, that would mean the top three picks are quarterbacks -- with Atlanta at No. 4 possibly looking to find a future replacement for Matt Ryan. That would eliminate the top four quarterbacks.

If the Falcons aren’t taking a quarterback, another team could trade into that spot. It’s doubtful Carolina and Atlanta would deal since both are in the NFC South.

And trading up to No. 2 would cost the Panthers the No. 8 pick, likely a first-round pick in 2022 and ’23, and perhaps a marquee player.

Carolina is doing its homework on all five quarterbacks projected for the first round, having already coached Jones in the Senior Bowl and had top brass at the pro days of the others.

At worst, the Panthers can ride out another year with Bridgewater, continue to surround him with upgrades on the offensive line and at tight end in the draft as they have during free agency.

“This is smart planning,’’ Tannenbaum said. “It gives them room for the opportunity. There’s no downside to it.’’