When they get back from their bye-week break, the Carolina Panthers will spend the next five weeks trying to straddle evaluating for the future and winning now in a division that has featured little of it.
That will be a tough task for Panthers coach Ron Rivera. If veteran players believe Riverboat Ron has abandoned ship on the 2014 season, any morale the Panthers still have likely would be lost.
But for an organization still two years from significant salary cap relief, the last month of the season is a chance to look at the team’s young – and cheap – talent in game situations.
In a normal year, the rebuilding process for a 3-7-1 team would have already begun, but the dismal state of the NFC South has prolonged the playoff hopes of several bad football teams.
So Rivera tread carefully this week when asked – after the release of veteran wideout Jason Avant in favor of young receivers Philly Brown and De’Andre Presley – whether the Panthers were in evaluate-for-the-future mode.
“Yes and no,” Rivera said. “Believe me, as I said, there is an opportunity for us to win and get into the playoffs and make some noise. And that’s the way we’re approaching it. The thought also is we’ve got some young guys that have to continue to play when they get opportunities.”
Those opportunities are coming – and not just for Brown and Presley, a former Appalachian State quarterback with game-breaking speed.
The season-ending knee injury to right tackle Nate Chandler, under contract on a club-friendly deal through 2017, will allow general manager Dave Gettleman and the coaching staff to give a longer look to others.
That will include young tackles Mike Remmers and David Foucault, as well third-year guard Amini Silatolu, who also will play some tackle.
Maybe Silatolu will thrive at the position he played in college. Maybe Remmers will take advantage. Or maybe the auditions will further convince Gettleman that he needs to find a tackle in the draft or free agency, for the long-term health of quarterback Cam Newton and that of the entire organization.
Familiar areas of concern
Among the biggest decisions Gettleman will make during the offseason is the future of left tackle Byron Bell.
One of the lowest-rated tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus, Bell has done little to show he deserves the type of monster deal an elite left tackle commands in free agency. But if Gettleman isn’t wild about the offensive tackles available when the Panthers pick – and a playoff berth would hurt their draft position – he could try to bring Bell back at a hometown discount.
Of course, Gettleman also could decide the Panthers need a pass rusher after watching the defense struggle without Greg Hardy.
While Hardy’s $13.1 million contract comes off the books, the Panthers are still saddled with two more years of defensive end Charles Johnson’s six-year, $72 million contract, which has been restructured a couple of times.
Johnson will carry a $20 million cap figure in 2015, although Gettleman could tack on a couple voidable years to the end of the deal to spread out the cap hit. Johnson is tied with Mario Addison for the team lead with five sacks, but he has struggled to generate consistent pressure without Hardy to draw extra blockers.
“With Hardy (gone), they haven’t had anyone fill the void from a pass rush standpoint,” said CBSSports.com’s Joel Corry. “You’re kind of stuck with (Johnson). You need him even though he’s not performing the way he has in the past.”
Stuck with high-paid RBs?
Corry, a salary cap expert and former NFL agent, said the Panthers might be stuck with highly paid running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, as well.
Williams, who has missed six games because of injuries, is averaging 3.5 yards per carry and turns 32 in April. His contract is set to void in 2016 – along with those of tight end Greg Olsen, linebacker Thomas Davis, safety Roman Harper and receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
If the Panthers cut Williams before June 1 it would be a wash, with no salary-cap savings. If he’s designated as a post-June 1 cut, the team can spread out the proration over the next two years, with a cap savings of about $2.3 million in 2015.
“They accounted for him being on the roster in 2015 when he took the pay cut a few years ago,” Corry said. “It’s not really worth their while unless it’s a post-June 1 cut.”
Cutting Stewart would be even more cost-prohibitive.
Stewart, who has run well this season after two injury-plagued years, has a cap figure of $8.3 million in 2015, when more than half of his $4.25 million base salary is guaranteed.
“The one thing you can’t do – and I’m sure a lot of people would want them to – is you can’t touch Jonathan Stewart in 2015,” Corry said. “You can’t really touch his deal until 2016.”
That’s the year Gettleman has said the Panthers should be in better cap shape, as they get out from under the contracts of Johnson, Williams and, possibly, Stewart. All of those extensions were signed under former general manager Marty Hurney.
And then there’s Cam
Corry estimates the Panthers will have about $15 million in cap space next year, a figure that assumes the team does not get a long-term deal done with Newton. The Panthers picked up their club option on Newton, who will make a guaranteed $14.66 million in 2015 unless the two sides reach a long-term agreement.
“Because you’re not in a great cap situation, there’s more pressure on Carolina than Cam to do a deal,” Corry said. “He could (get) his $14.6 (million) and just bide his time.”
Those are all matters for another day for the Panthers, who will be looking for their first win in two months at Minnesota on Nov. 30.
Rivera believes winning and evaluating are not mutually exclusive.
“Without a doubt, I don’t see why not,” he said. “I know things haven’t gone our way. But we really believe we have opportunity – that’s going to start one at a time.”