When general manager Dave Gettleman came to Carolina, the Panthers were $16 million over the salary cap.
Four years later, the NFLPA lists the Panthers as $13.32 million under, and with another double-digit increase on the way, Gettleman will have plenty of space to maneuver this offseason.
Of course, as he said at last year's combine:
"I’m methodical, I’m intentional and that’s the approach I’m going to take whether we’re $16 million over or we’re $25 (million) under. I’m not going to change."
While the Panthers will likely continue to invest more in their "core" than in free agency, they'll also look for ways to trim some fat over the next few months. That makes these guys potential cap casualties:
Defensive Tackle Paul Soliai
Of the few free agents the Panthers added in 2016, Soliai was the priciest and most disappointing. The former Falcon signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal with $3 million guaranteed.
Because the Panthers were so unimpressed, Soliai rotated on and off the inactive list with Kyle Love during the final two months of the season.
Soliai was never going to put up big stats, but he finished with just eight tackles and no sacks.
- 2017 cap hit: $3.5 million
- Dead money: $1.0 million
- Savings: $2.5 million
Tight End Ed Dickson
When the Panthers chose defensive tackle Vernon Butler over Hunter Henry, their hunt for a true No. 2 pass-catching tight end fizzled to fliers on guys like Beau Sandland and Eric Wallace. They then decreased their two-tight end sets, taking playing time away from Dickson.
Though he played in all 16 games again, Dickson saw 120 fewer snaps than he did in 2015. And after he increased his receptions from 10 to 17 last year, he again caught just 10 passes this season.
- 2017 cap hit: $2.72 million
- Dead money: $666,668
- Savings: $2.05 million
Running Back Jonathan Stewart
For the record, I can't imagine a run-first team will part ways with their only legit runner. But Stewart's had a contract many have been watching for a while and it's not like Gettleman is afraid to make a surprising decision with someone who's spent his entire career in Carolina.
This is the first offseason the Panthers won't face a dead money hit of at least $13 million if they offloaded Stewart, who's going into the final year of a five-year, $36.5 million deal.
There's no need to relive his injury history, but Stewart's missed "only" six games since he became a workhorse back at the start of 2015 and he played as hard as anyone down the stretch of this lost season.
Stewart turns 30 in March, a number that usually signals a decline at his position, but years of rotating with DeAngelo Williams could make Stewart slightly younger than most 30-year-old backs.
- 2017 cap hit: $8.25 million
- Dead money: $3.5 million/$2.0 million (post-June 1)
- Savings: $4.75 million/$6.25 million (post-June 1)