The Panthers surprised everyone when GM Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman, making the top player in the Carolina secondary an unrestricted free agent.
Teams quickly lined up to woo Norman. He was in Washington on Friday, and a half dozen other teams were trying to bring him to town for wining and dining.
Here’s a quick rundown of the “why’s” and “what next’s” for the Panthers:
Rent-a-player: The franchise tag would have kept Norman a Panther for 2016 at a salary of about $14 million. The tag gives a team time to negotiate a long-term contract with a player. If negotiations don’t work out, it basically postpones unrestricted free agency by a year.
“After a number of conversations with Josh’s agent, we realized that a long-term deal was not attainable,” Gettleman said in a statement from the team on Wednesday.
Gettleman also appeared to be worried about the impact of a lame-duck Normanfiery and outspoken on a good dayin the locker room. Team chemistry was a strength this season, and a loud and unhappy Norman was a bad apple the GM didn’t want.
“We want people who are all in,” Gettleman said in a Thursday press conference. “When we decided to place the franchise tag on Josh, we were fine with him signing it and then working out a long-term deal. As we got deeper in conversations, we realized there was a significant difference in our thoughts and theirs. The intervening weeks gave us additional time to evaluate where we are going as a franchise. With the realization that a deal was not going to get done, our internal conversations kept leading us to the fact that the one-year deal was becoming less and less attractive.”
Pay the hog mollies: Un-tagging Norman gave the Panthers an additional $14 million in salary cap space for this season. Most salary-cap tracking websites had the Panthers between $17 and 18 million below the cap already.
What does Gettleman plan to do with all that money? “A lot,” he said.
It’s unlikely that there’s a player or players still available on the free agent market worth $30 million in salary. The Panthers may use some of the money on Norman’s replacement and other role player pick-ups. Most of the money, however, will likely go to current Panthers players.
The members of the draft class of 2013 are eligible to sign extensions to their rookie contracts this season, and teams are able to spend any unused cap money from this season to fund them. For the Panthers, that would be defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Carolina can use any additional cap money from this year to lock up the middle of its defensive line for the long term.
“I struggle with our coaches developing players and letting them walk,” Gettleman said. “You have to understand you can’t keep everybody. It’s impossible.” Basically, he prioritized the two tackles over the cornerback when deciding which player to let walk.
Cornerbacks available: While fans and some media observers declared that the sky was falling, the Panther braintrust were less concerned.
“We’ve made some tough decisions before, and, quite honestly, I’m going to trust [Gettleman] on this too,” coach Ron Rivera said. “You might say Dave’s cavalier about this and yada, yada, yada. But bottom line we don’t play until Sept. 8.”
While there isn’t one free agent out there that will fill Norman’s shoes, Gettleman may find two or three who can help make up for the loss.
So who’s out there that could get a piece of Carolina’s cap bonanza?
The Bengals’ Leon Hall had nine passes defended, two interceptions and a pick-six last year. However, he’s 31 and will be coming back from offseason back surgery.
Alan Ball played 15 games for the Bears last year. He’s also 31 and started just three games.
The Chiefs’ Marcus Cooper is 26, but he only played in 10 games last season and has never started a majority of the games in a season.
Tarell Brown was limited to three games with the Patriots last year, after going on I.R. with a foot injury. His last interception was in 2012, which was also the last time he played in all 16 games.
Antonio Cromartie is a free agent after being released, but the veteran can still contribute to a team.
There are also two cornerbacks available that are very familiar to Gettleman. As GM of the Giants Gettleman drafted Jayron Hosley in 2012. The 25-year-old had six pass defenses and an interception last year.
One of the last players Gettleman signed for the Giants before taking the Panthers job was Trumaine McBride. The 30-year-old had three interceptions, four pass defenses, a pick six and a forced fumble last year.