Carolina has $124 million in contracts and bonuses that will count against the salary cap, currently in the top 5 of contracts signed.
Upside? Carolina has most of the guys they want signed, signed. Downside? They have major issues if they want to make many moves.
So who goes?
First, consider the cap still works as it did prior to the new CBA. 2012 signing bonuses, as of now, have already counted. They aren't changeable. 2013 and further bonuses, if that contract is severed, will escalate.
Example - random backup WR for the Panthers signed a 5 year $10 million deal, two years ago (so three remaining). The signing bonus was $5 million, and each year's salary is $1 million. To cut that player this year, the $1 million in current salary is saved (and future salary ceases to exist), and the future years' worth of bonus proration ($5 million total leaves $1 million per year) counts against the cap instead (2 remaining years, since 2012 has counted, means $2 million, minus the $1 million of saved salary means it still costs you $1 million to cut this player).
Second, let's look at special teams.
Punter Jason Baker is due $1.5 million in salary, and it's his final contract year in 2012 so his bonus amount ($337,000) is irrelevant - it counts no matter what. So, cutting Baker saves you $1.5 million. Baker was an erratic punter, whose lack of control helped cause numerous special teams issues, so it's safe to see that Baker should be worried.
Kicker Olindo Mare just signed his deal last year, signing for $4 million. 2011 is passed, and 2012 has counted, so $2 million of that still counts if cut, versus a $2.1 million salary and $100k workout bonus. So, Mare saves you $200,000 to cut, not as much as you might hope. But, it's still better than costing you cap space to cut him and sign another kicker as well.
Steve Smith enters 2012 in prime position - he's minded his manners for a few years, even gritting his teeth through 2010 somewhat well. He's had a Pro Bowl year, and comes into his final season with a $7.75 million salary. Bonus is irrelevant, as it's already counted. So, Carolina will inevitably come to Smith looking for an extension, even at his age (32), to extend him for guaranteed money and future years in exchange for a lowered 2012 cap hit. There's room to save around $5 million, depending on the length of the deal, but if Carolina and Smith are smart, they won't build in too many bonuses and work on salary. The future cap rules seem to favor players without past earnings counting against the cap.
Travelle Wharton had an up and down year at guard, but was a solid relief tackle. Wharton is two years out of finishing his contract, costing $7.7 and $7.9 million this year and next. That's a lot for a guard who just hit 30, and had a lot of struggles early in this season (he finished well, and is still a mobile player, as evidenced by his solid play at LT against Atlanta and good work as a lead blocker and in the screen game). So will his contract be his undoing?
Wharton's due a $5.7 million salary, against the 2013 portion of his signing bonus ($2 mil), for a $3.7 million savings.
Jordan Gross is almost entirely salary - he makes $8.5 million next year, versus a salary cap proration of $1.6 million. If Gross ever falls off on his play, it'll be easy to cut him - conversely, he could very easily guarantee most of that $8.5 million, which makes it a bonus - 1/3 would count this year, of course, and count $2.66 million, the rest of which would prorate to next year and leave a $5.33 million savings.
Currently, cutting or renegotiating Gross stands as the cleanest way to save money, but he won't be let go and he probably won't renegotiate. His low, $5 million bonus when signing creates a greater longevity for Gross compared to others on this list, and his play can be occasionally be maddening (facing Jared Allen, for instance), but he grades out as Carolina's best OL this year (and fourth best rated player overall) by profootballfocus.com.
Jeff Otah is in the final year of his deal, a rookie deal that even for a mid first rounder is a bargain compared to Wharton's $35 million or Jordan Gross' $60 million - if only he could stay healthy. He likely doesn't go anywhere, but since he's in the final year, the whole 2012 savings would be his salary ($1,067,250).
Jimmy Clausen, who Carolina would privately like to recoup value on, might or might not have trade value this year, but comes with a $1.25 million signing bonus escalation if traded (versus a $490,000 salary savings). So, value at a cost - whereas a trade after 2012 would have the team break even, roughly.
Thomas Davis, based on what Ron Rivera and Jerry Richardson have both said, seems to be a guy the team wants to have return. But it gets tricky, and probably goes outside of the scope of the restructure or release type cap situation we've discussed.
Davis has a $7 million bonus (1.4 mil per year, and two years have counted, leaving
$4.2 million to account for), versus a $2.2 million salary. Already in the hole, the option bonus due Davis would be another $8.25 million to keep (2.05 million more against the cap). Carolina could choose not to pay the bonus, but that would eliminate Davis' contract, save the salary, and cost the bonus - $2 million debt against the cap compared to where you are right now, for a player you no longer have. The only way to ensure both sides come out fair, is to guarantee most of the salary ($1.5 million of it), erase all or at least most of the option bonus, and reset so that it helps both sides. It'll take a complete renegotiation of the existing contract, not just moving money around.
Jon Beason doesn't have that issue, having gotten all of his money up front. $3.33 million counts every year against the cap for his $20 million bonus, but his 2012 salary is $1.25 million (so there's no room to work).
Ron Edwards never made the field, but brought home $4 million. Of that, $2.5 million was bonus, over three years (two years have counted, so 1/3, $833,333, hasn't). So Edwards' $1.5 mil salary minus bonus proration is $666,666. At that value, it's somewhat worth seeing if he can return to his positive form as a roleplayer at DT.
Charles Godfrey is due a $5 million option bonus, which versus the remaining proration ($3.3 million) and $700k salary savings, guarantees Godfrey will be back and the option bonus will be added on as a signing bonus. It's amazing that Godfrey will have pocketed $10 million in guarantees, for a very average player.