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Planning for future salary caps a multi-year process

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CHARLOTTE — When you're 1-5, on your second head coach of the season, and don't have what you'd call any stability at quarterback, you're kind of an easy mark for criticism. But as the Panthers front office looks into the future, they see the makings of what they consider a stable plan and the kind of flexibility they want to add to it next year and beyond.

While they've taken some flak since letting coach Matt Rhule go for having no clear blueprint for 2023 at coach and quarterback — and those are two really big factors — there are also many of the other pieces in place once they fill in those two blanks next offseason.

While sometimes described as "a mess" on Twitter for the lack of cap space in 2023 — and 280 characters allows little in the way of context — they also have fewer needs (beyond quarterback) than some other teams, and enough starters under contract through next year or beyond to make it a shorter shopping list anyway. And without any kind of broader view, the information that's out there often paints a misleading picture of what's going on at the moment.

Samir Suleiman

"There actually is a plan in place," Panthers vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman said, the understatement evident. "Cap space is always a fluid thing, but we've got a multi-year plan in place that accounts for a lot of scenarios. And a lot of the things you'd want to spend it on is already in place here."

And what's on hand includes the big-ticket items, the kinds of things that are expensive to obtain if you don't have them.

Of their current 22 starters on offense and defense, 20 are under contract for next year (everything but the quarterback and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis).

That includes a pass-rusher (Brian Burns), a left tackle (Ikem Ekwonu), a top cornerback (Jaycee Horn ), and a top-shelf wide receiver (DJ Moore, who was signed to his deal at a time when receiver contracts were exploding league-wide), all home-grown players who were chosen in the first round. Reasonable minds can differ on the order you'd put them in, but if you ranked positions in order of importance and expense, that represents four of the top five. Throw in defensive tackle Derrick Brown (playing his best football now and under contractual control through at least 2024) and a playmaking safety in Jeremy Chinn, and it's a solid young group of players — but most importantly, most of the premium positions are boxes checked off.

"The point is, having those core guys already here is something we've planned for," Suleiman said.

Brian Burns

So while they might not have the kind of cap room next offseason to make major purchases (like last offseason when they signed eight starters before or during the free agency period (Ioannidis, Xavier Woods, Damien Wilson, Austin Corbett, and returning starters Moore, Donte Jackson, Frankie Luvu, and Ian Thomas), they also don't have as many holes to fill. Of that group, only Ioannidis was signed to a one-year deal.

The entire offensive line, as it stands now, is under contract for next year, as is the entire secondary. Those two position groups have been strengths so far this year, things you want to build on.

There are also easy buttons to push to create cap space through cuts, trades, or restructures.

For instance, Burns is on the books now for $16 million in 2023 for his fifth-year option. An extension for a player they want to extend would bring his cap number down, immediately adding more room. They created $12 million worth of 2023 cap room by trading Robbie Anderson Monday. There are also $85 million in non-guaranteed deals on the books in 2023, meaning there's flexibility to create space in chunks with releases or restructures if they need to, but they aren't in a spot other teams have been in, which require major purges to get into compliance with the cap.

And even if they added a high-drafted quarterback to the mix, his first-year cap number would be around $7 million next year (a fraction of what they have tied up in Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold this season).

That quarterback could walk into a ready-made offensive line with Moore on the outside, and that's not the worst place to be. As general manager Scott Fitterer witnessed in Seattle, having pieces in place before the quarterback gets there creates an environment for a rookie quarterback to succeed.

It's also worth noting that cap numbers can be worked with, and there are few teams who fiddle with numbers to stay in compliance annually; the Panthers aren't in that spot next year. They've worked through years with more dead money on the books (which is the kind of thing that happens during regime changes, especially during the COVID years), and aren't in that spot now, even figuring in a hit for the Anderson deal.

They also have built in future ability to do things by planning ahead. Beyond the guys on their rookie deals, they're getting solid value out of players on multi-years like Woods, Corbett, and Luvu, along with punter Johnny Hekker, an All-Decade player on a three-year contract.

And looking ahead, they're projected to have more than $80 million in cap space in 2024 and more than $145 million in 2025 (and those are conservative projections, which don't include the possibility of the cap rising with new television deals).

There are significant expenditures that will cut into those sums, of course, as players such as Burns and Brown (and Horn if he continues on his current trajectory) won't be cheap. And unless a drafted quarterback provides value on the field, a low cap number won't be that much of an advantage.

Again, the Panthers are 1-5 and have no idea who their coach or quarterback will be next year. That's not nothing. But they also have enough things in place that cap space or a plan for the future aren't nearly the factors some people think they are.

View the best photos from pregame and in-game, after Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams.

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