CHARLOTTE – If you want to preview the upcoming NFL free agency season, it's easy enough to grab a list of the players whose contracts have expired and are available to be signed.
But that's going to be an incredibly incomplete list because of the significant change the landscape is about to undergo in the next few weeks.
More and more players are about to be cut and added to the labor pool because of a shrinking salary cap. That will create a buyer's market, with soon-to-be-released guys flooding the market and creating competition for contracts (which, according to the law of supply and demand, makes the price go down).
Some of the cuts have already started around the league this week, with Seattle parting ways with veteran guard Chance Warmack, the Broncos cutting cornerback A.J. Bouye a year after trading for him, and the Raiders reportedly deciding to move on from wide receiver Tyrell Williams. Friday brought the first truly huge name, as the Texans are releasing three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt.
More are on the way, and some will inevitably come from Charlotte. Veteran defensive tackle Kawann Short is a realistic possibility since he just turned 32, has played five games in the last two seasons because of injuries, and carries the second-highest cap number on the Panthers' current roster. He's also smart enough to acknowledge the writing on the wall.
"We're all grown here. So you know what it is," Short said the day after the season. "This is a 'what can you do for me now' business, so for me to have injuries back to back, it definitely put that in your head, whether the team wants you or not."
So far, the Panthers have not declared their intentions about any possible moves, but many teams will be making cuts before the March 15 start of the legal tampering period, in advance of the March 17 opening of the league year.
Mainly, that's because the salary cap is about to do something it never does — go down.
Since the cap is based on league revenues — which were down last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — the number will fall from last year's $198.2 million figure.
While Panthers director of player negotiations and salary cap manager Samir Suleiman has said he's still basing his plans on the number being in the $175 million range (an 11.7 percent drop from last year), it could go up a bit.
Recent reports have suggested it could climb into the $180 million range, but that's effectively one more veteran player from where it stands now. It's a shock to the system for teams, who have gotten used to cap numbers rising annually and precipitously — at least $10 million a year, in every offseason since 2013.
Teams have been told not to expect a final cap number for 2021 until the second week of March, meaning they're planning for a worst-case scenario at the moment. The Panthers are in reasonable cap shape, sitting around the middle of the pack in terms of available room. Some teams (including the Saints, Eagles, and Falcons) are far over the limit already, so deep cuts will be a reality in the coming days.
Making more players available figures to change the market in a few ways.
In addition to prices going down, it could lead to many players settling for one-year contracts, hoping to hit free agency again in 2022 — after a round of league media deals boosts the football economy, passing a designated portion of the gains onto the players.
But in addition to depressing the market, it also provides another avenue for the Panthers as they continue their building process.
Only the signings of unrestricted free agents factor into the calculation for compensatory draft picks, creating the possibility of the Panthers adding some in the future. Players who are released don't count toward the formula, effectively making them free signings (other than the money and cap space they cost). Comp picks go to teams with net losses in unrestricted free agency (based on the sizes of contracts coming and going), and it's reasonable to think the Panthers could be in that position.
Outside a few of their own players, the Panthers don't figure to be particularly active in free agency, at least in terms of big names or big contracts.
Right tackle Taylor Moton is a priority and likely to be franchise-tagged if not signed before the market opens.
That could open the door to the open market for a guy such as wide receiver Curtis Samuel, and he's expected to command the kind of deal that would create the chance for future compensatory picks. Veteran left tackle Russell Okung isn't going to come cheaply either (other than 49ers free agent Trent Williams there's not a lot at the position), and could price himself out of their plans.
But the Panthers and every other team in the league are about to have more names to sift through, as releases add more players to a pool that's getting shallower, and thus harder to make a splash in.