CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are not content.
And neither, it appears, are the readers here at Panthers.com.
After challenging you guys a week ago, many of you brought the good questions, more than we can possibly get to in one mailbag. But that’s good; leftovers always heat up well in case we go through another slump.
But as fun as it is to tap into the curious minds of the fanbase, the last week has brought more than its share of excitement for the team.
Exciting isn’t always the same as good. Losing cornerback Jaycee Horn for at least a couple of months with a broken foot is a gut-punch, as was a shorter-term-but-still-significant hamstring strain for Christian McCaffrey. That’s going to test them in ways they haven’t been tested.
On the other hand, they have strung together three straight 1-0 weeks, have the league’s top-ranked defense (at least in yards allowed), and now prepare for this week’s challenge against a Cowboys team that dropped 41 points on the Eagles on Monday Night Football.
They also responded to the loss of Horn by trading for 2020 first-round cornerback C.J. Henderson, giving them another big-bodied young defender. More on that in a moment, but it’s not the kind of move a team makes unless they have intentions.
There’s a lot of stuff going on, so let’s get to it.
Wow, big trade! But what happens next year? Does C.J. Henderson move to safety, or does Donte Jacksonwalk? Or will Donte’s contract demands have a lot to do with it? It seems we should have the cap space, but three really good corners for two positions could be tricky. I know Donte has said before he doesn’t want to be a slot corner. — Richard, High Point, NC
Henderson’s a corner. And good cornerbacks are kind of like pass-rushers. You can’t have too many of them.
Trading for Henderson was a fairly low-risk proposition, for a number of reasons. Sure, they needed help with Horn out for most if not all of the regular season. But they also bought an undervalued property. The Jaguars had been shopping him, for whatever reason, so the Panthers acquired a guy they viewed as a possibility with the seventh overall pick last year for a tight end and a third-round pick (while getting a fifth-rounder back).
That gives them another 25-and-under defensive player, which is a priority around here (in case you missed spending an entire draft on that side of the ball last year).
And yes, Jackson is in the final year of his contract. But there’s a real chance that they could extend him. They want to, and he seems willing. Now they have to figure out the money part. That doesn’t seem impossible.
Having so many young players on first contracts gives you financial flexibility. So you can pay Jackson now, knowing you’re paying Horn and Henderson rookie scale for the next two or three years.
There’s work to be done, but having all three of them for the next several years is definitely a possibility.
I love the front-office’s determination in going out and quickly getting a talented young prospect like C.J. Henderson at a cornerback spot that is now hurting due to Jaycee’s injury. However, it is hard to forget that (despite his lack of stellar play through three weeks) we had to give up yet another offensive weapon to an already wounded offensive lineup. Was this a “pick your poison” kind of situation? Or was C.J. Henderson too attractive a defensive prospect not to give up Dan Arnold and a third-round pick for? Please help me make sense of this. — Juan, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Giving up Dan Arnold was not an easy call. He was their most proven option at tight end in terms of receiving ability. (It also wasn’t ideal from a media standpoint, because Arnold was bright and curious and had a way of explaining things that made him valuable on game day to communicate to fans what’s going on in there.)
But simply put, cornerbacks are more valuable than tight ends. Look at the pay scale for the positions if you weren’t sure.
The hope is that rookie tight end Tommy Tremble emerges, but even if he doesn’t, the Panthers are deep enough at receiver to allow the team to take a chance on Henderson getting back to the form he showed in college.
With Haason Reddick averaging 1.5 sacks per game, do you believe Brian Burns is already out shopping for a golf cart for him? And do you think we will be able to afford an extension with how well he is showing out? — Andrew, Charleston, SC
By being so consistent, Reddick is quietly third in the NFL in sacks at the moment.
He trails Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and former Arizona teammate Chandler Jones. The difference is, 4.5 of Garrett’s 5.5 came last week against the Bears, while all 5.0 of Jones’ came in the opener against the Titans.
But Burns has 3.0, so he’s not out of it by any stretch of the imagination. Because sacks sometimes come in bunches, this competition will be up for grabs for months.
As it continues, the cost of Reddick will certainly go up, but that’s a good problem to have.
The one key part of the Henderson trade that’s not being discussed enough is that he’s so cheap. The Jaguars already paid most of the freight on his deal, with just over $7 million left for the Panthers to pay over the next three years.
Think of it this way. If the cap goes up to $208.2 million next year as has been reported, and you have to account for 53 players on a roster, then long division puts that right at about $4 million per player (it’s not nearly that simple). But for every starter on the roster you have making less than that, you have extra money to pay someone else.
With so many guys such as Henderson, Jeremy Chinn, Horn, and many more working on rookie-scale deals, the Panthers are in good position to keep guys like Reddick and Jackson and Moore around.
Those guys have choices too, but all of them appear to enjoy their experiences here.
I’m not sure the exact number, but there are quite a few on this roster that only signed one-year contracts or are in the last year of their current deals. Is/was that by design going into next year with more cap space? Also, who could possibly be up next for an extension? — Greg, Beckley, WV
The Panthers did offer shorter contracts to free agents this offseason, again, with an eye toward future flexibility. They also weren’t sure what this team was going to look like, and wanted to have the option to adjust as they went. The cap’s going to take a significant jump in 2022, but the big bump is expected in 2023, and having relatively clear books then will allow them to make big deals for budding stars such as Brian Burns and D.J. Moore.
As for this year’s purchases, Reddick, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, and cornerback Rashaan Melvin came in on one-year deals. Quarterback Sam Darnold (after his option was picked up), cornerback A.J. Bouye, left tackle Cameron Erving, defensive end Morgan Fox, tight end Dan Arnold, linebacker Denzel Perryman, and wide receiver David Moore signed two-year contracts. Of all the acquisitions, only guard Pat Elflein got a contract longer than two years, and that was a three-year deal.
After giving Robby Anderson an extension during the preseason, the Panthers’ next targets are likely Jackson, Reddick and Moore (since they can’t extend Burns until after his third season). None of them will be cheap. But the way they’ve done business gives them a chance.
What do you see as this team’s ceiling after three weeks? Going into the season, I had us at 9-8 at best, and I know we just try to go 1-0 each week, but I am starting to feel really good about these Panthers. — John, Matthews
I was starting to worry about getting called a homer for suggesting in training camp that it looked like a team that could win nine or 10. My thought then was that the defense looked like it could grow into a top-10 unit, and that would be sufficient to lift a good-enough offense.
Little did I know I was sandbagging.
It’s reasonable to suggest that they’re actually quite good on that side of the ball. They need to prove themselves able to withstand the loss of Horn (who was already turning into the kind of corner other teams avoid), but it’s still a good group.
It’s a long season. The early schedule has been workable (December will be a beast). Many things can happen.
But the idea that the Panthers could push for a playoff spot is no longer outrageous.
Haason Reddick has been a welcomed addition to our defense this season. I’m hoping you can help me understand his contract structure a bit more. According to Spotrac, he signed a one-year, $6 million deal but only counts as $1,992,000 against this year’s cap. The next four years are shown as “automatically voided” – can you help explain the strategy behind this and what it means for both the team and Reddick’s future with the Panthers? — Tim, Harrisburg
The short version is, it’s an accounting trick, some sleight of hand to make this year easier.
Voidable years are seasons added to a contract that neither the team nor the player anticipates being executed. But they allow teams to prorate bonus money into future years, pushing some cap hit down the road for short-term gain.
This year was a unique situation. Because of the lack of revenues in 2020 stemming from COVID-19, the NFL’s salary cap shrank for 2021, going from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million this year. Considering that the cap has grown by at least $10 million each year since 2013, this was a shock to the system, and teams had to account for it. The Panthers were also dragging around a good bit of dead money going into the year (including big hits for Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short) and added to it when they traded Teddy Bridgewater to Denver. Combined, those three represent $35 million worth of cap space for players no longer here. So that leaves around 147.5 million with which to build a roster, so every little bit of savings helps.
Putting voidable years into deals is a fairly common practice around the league, but ideally, the Panthers would prefer not to use them. Paying as you go is better than running up credit card bills. They eventually come due.
As for Reddick, yes, it’s a one-year deal, but it’s fair to suspect they did it with an eye toward the future. He’s playing in a system designed by people who know how to maximize his skills, and so far, it’s working. He wasn’t able to find a long-term deal in last year’s depressed market for free agents, partly because of the economics and partly because he’s not a fit for every defense — 6-1, 235-pound pass-rushers aren’t the template. But if he keeps producing, it makes sense to want to keep him around.
With all the money they’re saving by having so many draft picks on the roster, the goal is to funnel the savings toward their own guys.
For one thing, they’re known commodities. But it’s also important in the building of an organization to pay your own guys first. That sends an unmistakable signal to every player in the building — if you perform, you’ll be rewarded.
The Panthers are off to a nice start and the defense is really playing well. Don’t you think one of the “real tests” for a team that is building is to see how they play when they go down a touchdown in the fourth quarter against a decent/good team? Many times that is when everything that can go wrong will go wrong unless you have good football character. If they pass that test, then we have hope against the upper-level teams.
For the Panthers to beat Tampa Bay (or the other high-powered offensive teams), they need to control the ball with the running game (and play-action passes) so that the Bradys of the world don’t have multiple possessions to beat us. The concept of each team only having three possessions per half because we control the clock with the running game and have 10- or 15-play drives has to be in play. I think that is the look the Panthers are striving for — no shootouts against great offenses. Keep the defense fresh so they can compete at a high level.
Sorry that this got so long. I have been a Panthers fan since ’95, but we moved to Colorado to be near our grandchildren. I’m trying to pull for the Broncos, but having the Panthers be relevant all the way to the playoffs makes football fun for me. — Bob, Aurora, CO
I don’t mind long-winded (#selfawareness). In fact, I like the depth here, and Bob has nailed a salient point about the Panthers so far this season.
They haven’t trailed yet. Not for a second. The offense hasn’t taken a single snap while behind on the scoreboard.
That’s a huge deal, and it’s not going to last all 17 games. If it does, I’m pretty sure that would be a record. And Bob’s right, in that long drives are part of the formula. The Panthers hadn’t been particularly good in second halves, and went out last week against the Texans and had possessions of nine, 10, and 12 plays in the second half, all without McCaffrey.
So for being wise, Bob is this week’s Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag, and as soon as we have merch, he’s getting the ninth piece of it behind me, Hal from Canada, Westray from Kershaw, Joseph formerly of Concord who’s moving away for some big fancy job with a desk, Sunny from Houston, Adam from Germany, Long-Winded Donovan, and Juan from Argentina.
When was the last time the Panthers went 3-0 to start a season? — Tom, Charlotte
That would be 2015. And that worked out OK.
But if you people keep looking too far ahead, Rhule’s going to send somebody up here to set fire to my desk.
Will Chuba Hubbard dominate the snap count vs. other running backs, or will the Panthers replacement plan for CMC be more of a committee approach? Also, thank you for all of your newsletters. I read all of them. They are fantastic! — Martin, Weddington
I think for the most part, Hubbard’s going to be the lead dog in the running game.
He settled into something resembling a groove in the second half in Houston, and they ran the ball well enough to close out the game.
He needs to get better at pass protection, but all rookies do, so this will be a chance to grow. This is why they drafted him, after all.
Who can beat us? Because I think nobody. — Joseph, Cincinnati, OH
Absolutely nobody. Or, just about anybody, to be honest. That’s the way the NFL’s built. But I love the passion.
So when the Panthers finally play a couple of real NFL teams the next couple weeks, instead of the NFL version of Duke, UNC, and Vanderbilt football, how messy will it be for Matt Rhule and company when the bubble of this three-game honeymoon bursts? No CMC, no offense. Defense will keep us in the game — but only long enough for the “ghost” of quarterbacks past to remind us all that Sam Darnold can get confused back in the pocket. Three games does not a season make my friends. Such early merriment, gaiety, and jocular optimism are the reactions of those destined to heartbreak. One day a peacock, next day, a feather duster. — Ervin, Columbia, SC
You must be a real hoot at parties.
The national media seems to like to bring up that the Panthers schedule is on the easier side. Is this team actually good or are they just taking advantage of some favorable matchups? — Jared, Charlotte
Both things can be true at once.
The Panthers have certainly benefited from playing two rookie quarterbacks making their first NFL starts, and a Saints team that had been displaced for a month by a hurricane, and was missing a number of key starters and half a coaching staff.
But the Panthers have something to do with those teams struggling in those particular games.
Meanwhile, the Broncos are 3-0, and have beaten three teams which remain winless on the season (the Jets, Jaguars, and Giants).
The wins still count the same. We’ll find out over the course of the season what it all means.
I try not to put much stock in strength of schedule numbers, for a few reasons. One, they’re based on last year’s records and you’re now playing this year’s team, which is different.
But also because every team in the NFC South plays 14 of the same 17 opponents, with just three games based on divisional counterpart records from the previous year. As I’ve mentioned before, luck is a factor that never gets discussed as much as it should, and the division was fortunate to catch a down AFC East and NFC East this year. The Bucs and Saints and Falcons benefit from that too.
I would like to see the hometown star Todd Gurley in a Carolina uniform. With the absence of CMC, do you think this will happen? — Mark, Rocky Mount.
This would have been a great idea. In 2017.
Gurley was one of the league’s brightest stars, a do-it-all back who found a home in an offense that suited him. But the knee problems that ended his tenure with the Rams appear to be keeping him from getting much of a chance elsewhere.
He was only moderately productive last year for the Falcons (3.5 yards per carry), and they signed former Panthers backup Mike Davis as an upgrade.
The fact the Ravens didn’t add him to the roster when all their backs got hurt in the preseason is likely an indication of how teams around the league view him. Gurley worked out for Baltimore this offseason, but after the Ravens lost J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to season-ending injuries, they signed Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman, and they have Le’Veon Bell on the practice squad.
Are you Darin Gantt, the Old Guy? Just looked at your picture at the top of the page, . . . you don’t look like an old guy. Sorry, nothing against old guys, but you are not one, sir. Please keep up the good work. — Mouli, Charlotte
Oh, that picture way up there? That was just a promotional shot for the night I opened for Nantucket at PB Scott’s in Blowing Rock in 1979. Trust me, I am very, very old.
Sometimes age is a thing that creeps up on you and tickles you gently on your toes. But some days it hits you in the face with a shovel.
Just last week, I was in a car with some co-workers whom I won’t name (although they rhyme with Alex, Kyle, Chanelle, and Angela). We were discussing some certain photo or meme which gained traction on the Internet, and one of them referenced “Rex Chapman, the guy on Twitter.”
After asking if they realized Rex Chapman was also a former first-round draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets in addition to being the guy on Twitter, there were some blank stares and an awkward silence. Granted, Chapman was drafted here in 1988, and it’s possible that they weren’t all born yet to absorb local basketball history from the cradle. But the point stands.
Now, please pass me that glass of gin and fiber, and get off my lawn.
That, blessedly, will do it for this week. Keep the good stuff coming, regardless the record. This mailbag aims to go 1-0 every week, and that depends on all of us.