Item No. 1 on the Panthers’ free-agent list should be simple: Get something done with defensive tackle Kawann Short.
This has already proven not to be the easiest negotiation -- and it undoubtedly will take at least one more twist in the next couple of months -- but it shouldn't be the thorniest, either.
Short vowed Monday that he would not take the same path as former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, a high-profile free agent a year ago who ended up in Washington. He further said that if the Panthers used their franchise tag on him in the offseason that he would "most likely" sign it right away.
“So basically you're asking me if I'm going to follow Josh's footsteps?” Short said at one point during a group interview. “Me and Josh are two totally different people. We walk two totally different sides of the street, at two totally different paces, in two totally different directions. Me and Josh are not the same.”
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As for the franchise tag, Short said he would prefer the Panthers not use it on him and that he and the team instead come to a long-term deal.
“Everybody would like to avoid that,” Short said of the franchise tag most standout NFL players wish to avoid because it doesn't offer as much financial security. “If it happens, it happens. I can't come here and cuss out the organization because it happened. I need to be professional about the whole situation.”
But if the Panthers did use it, Short was asked, would he sign it right away so he and the Panthers were obligated to each other at least through 2017?
“We would discuss it and, most likely, I probably would,” Short said.
That statement by Short could be interpreted as taking away some of his negotiating strength, and I was a little surprised when he said it. Perhaps this quote, which seemed heartfelt, would get walked back before long?
Sure enough, the football website Pro Football Talk had a report about an hour later in which a source with “knowledge of the situation” said that Short wouldn't sign a franchise tag quickly, and maybe not at all.
Short's agent, Joel Segal, did not return my request for comment.
Highest-profile free agent of 2017
A franchise tag would cost Carolina about $13.5 million for a one-year contract for Short. The team used its franchise tag in early March 2016 on Norman, only to rescind it in late April in a nearly unprecedented move.
As a negotiating ploy, Norman never signed the one-year deal while the two sides kept talking about a longer contract. But Norman not signing the franchise tag allowed Carolina to pull it back just before the 2016 draft when the team decided it wasn’t going to be able to sign Norman long term (Norman wanted about $15 million per season, while Carolina was offering closer to $11 million). Norman then quickly got the money he wanted with Washington and left Carolina in a move that hurt the franchise's defensive performance, especially early in the season.
Short, 27, is Carolina's highest-profile free agent of the 2017 offseason. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman hoped to come to terms on a long-term deal with Short before the 2016 season but was unable to do so.
Short left no doubt he wants to stick with the team if possible, and Gettleman has never made a secret of his love for talented, big-bodied offensive and defensive linemen he calls “hog mollies.” But Gettleman also spends owner Jerry Richardson's money carefully and is not about to write a blank check just to keep Short around.
‘Expectations were very high’
Short's sack numbers were down significantly in 2016. He had 11 sacks in his outstanding Pro Bowl season of 2015 but only six this season. He is still considered one of the more valuable members of the defense but did not make nearly as many high-impact plays this season for a Panthers team that fell off the cliff from 15-1 in 2015 to 6-10 in 2016.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera gave a mixed review Monday of Short's 2016 season.
“I think KK started slow,” Rivera said, using Short's nickname. “I think the expectations on him were very high. But I think as the year started to wear on us about halfway through it you saw him start to work back to form. ...People were doubling him up a lot more -- you saw that.”
Rivera said Short's season was a “microcosm” of the Panthers as a whole. “We never really got it going the way we wanted to,” Rivera said. “Same thing for KK.” Lest that sound too negative, however, Rivera also said Short remained “one of the better” defensive tackles in the NFL.
Despite a mediocre year by his standard, Short is likely to want money similar to what Fletcher Cox received with Philadelphia in the 2016 offseason (six years, $103 million).
Short left no doubt Monday as the Panthers cleaned out their lockers where he wanted to be in 2017 and for the rest of his career.
“I want to be a Carolina Panther, man -- and that's it,” Short said.
‘He could have stayed here’
Of course, Norman badly wanted to stay a Panther a year ago, but money ultimately made the difference.
“He could have stayed here if he wanted to,” Short said of Norman.
Gettleman is scheduled to address the media in his annual, season-ending news conference Tuesday morning. If the Panthers are unable to come to a long-term deal with Short and do choose to use their franchise tag on him, the deadline to do so is March 1. That would give Carolina the continued right to negotiate a long-term deal.
If Short and his agent decided it was in his best interest not sign the franchise tag, and the Panthers were also unable to sign him to a long-term deal before July 15, he could sit out the 2017 season. But he would be unpaid and would be giving up one of the prime years of his career .
Bottom line: I think Short should be and will be back in a Carolina uniform in 2017. And, like the rest of the Panthers, he better be better.