Watson would work wonders for Panthers, salary cap and 25 free agents a concern

The old chestnut “Money is no object” might be legitimate concerning Panthers owner David Tepper’s personal stack of about $11 billion, but fitting Deshaun Watson’s contract into a smaller salary cap space would be a legitimate question. The Panthers have 25 players whose contracts are ending – including most of the offensive line – and that can’t be ignored.

The Panthers needing a better solution to their current top signal-caller, Teddy Bridgewater, is no secret. Bridgewater was a three year, $63 million dollar interim addition to replace the departed Cam Newton last year, but his 15/11 TD to INT production won’t satisfy many as the building block necessary for 2021 and beyond. (FYI – In 2019, Kyle Allen’s 17/16 production line in 13 games didn’t earn another look for 2020.)

Bringing in Watson, who led the NFL with 4,823 yards passing (382/544, 33 TD/7 INTs), and his massive contract extension, signed just last year (4 yrs/$177.5MM, $111MM guaranteed) is a fascinating possibility, but its probably more about cap space and the personnel the Texans will want for their prime time QB.

Time is a real factor

While Watson is obviously looking to relocate, and he just might want to come home to the Carolinas, where he won a national championship with Clemson, the recent swap of LA Rams QB Jared Goff for Lions QB Matt Stafford has radically reset the value of a franchise-level #1 quarterback.

Panthers GM Scott Fitterer won’t have long to consider coughing up picks and players, especially when the NY Jets have the goods and more than a little attention on Watson’s part. There’s no doubt about the impact he could make in Charlotte, but the Jets have been without a great QB in almost as long as Detroit – even if Stafford holds all the franchise records – or the Bears.

There are some stud QBs coming out in 2021 draft, but the Panthers #8 being high enough to get any of the top four is iffy. Houston might be able to use Bridgewater in the same stop-gap role the Panthers did, rebuild in 2021 or repackage the picks for someone like Aaron Rodgers, who some think may be available (I wouldn’t be one of those).

Whether the Jets could scrape together anything beyond the #1s and #2s the Texans want is questionable, and they certainly don’t have any defensive players to spare, which the Texans obviously desire. The Panthers would need to include Bridgewater in any trade – there aren’t any $21MM backups in the NFL – and they have enough #1 picks to be a factor.

Stripping players from a defense that showed progress – up to 18th from bottom three, right on league average in the secondary, four points better than 2019 scoring against – after two season of being shoved around mercilessly won’t be progress. They used all seven picks on ‘D’ last year, but speaking in blitz-like terms about pursuing Watson, no risk, no reward might be the bottom line.

Getting a quarterback just entering his prime is such a risk. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow earned his paycheck in 2020, freshly minted General Manager Scott Fittere will need to pull some magic with the cap and 2021 draft to be considered same ‘successful.’

Samuel or Chinn? (NOOO! but…)

The Panthers might have to choose their need for a primo QB over a couple of performers that were worth watching in 2020, safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn or the finally emerging Curtis Samuel.

Chinn was their second-second round pick (after Yeter Gross-Matos), had 68 solo tackles/49 assists, and scored touchdowns on two consecutive fumble returns for touchdowns, while absolutely living up to all expectations. While Washington’s Chase Young is considered the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chinn was always one of the jerseys that fans saw walking away after tackles.

Samuel is mentioned in the same breath with DJ Moore as someone both difficult to catch and get on the ground, but he’s eligible for free agency. After a 77 catch/851 yards/3 TD receiving, 41 rushes/200 yds/2 TD season, there are going to be plenty of teams willing to show him the money, probably in the $11 million a year range. That would help satisfy at least a couple of those O-lineman, so packaging him in a trade vs. losing him in free agency is worth considering.

Whether Gross-Matos or Donte Jackson would be sufficient – plus #1s this year and next, a #2 next year, or possibly Tony Price, Jr. and his elite speed on the corner might be enough, is in the hopper.

Alternatives

Again, there are a slew of free agents to consider by Panthers management. While Coach Rhule turned in a competitive 5-11 record, losing several games (Minnesota!) late, and minus the estimable Christian McCaffrey most of the year, it will almost certainly be Mr. Tepper’s decision on who and how things settle out. He was pretty much hands off regarding on-field changes his first two seasons as owner, but the magnitude of Watson’s financial commitment and salary cap considerations that changed as result of the league playing before almost empty stadiums, is significant.

Brian Burns has shown great upside as a pass rusher at LB and might be a possibility instead of Gross-Matos, and Kawann Short, who was ‘dinged’ enough to miss chunks of the last two seasons, might be worth dangling.

For anyone who thinks McCaffrey is going anywhere, there will be another riot in Washington before he and that $21.3 million in front money from last years extension moves elsewhere is a non-starter proposition. Mike Davis proved an effective surprise in CMC’s absence and would be a loss, but almost nobody else is beyond considering.

Okay, forget about asking for DJ Moore after another great year (66 catches, 1193 yards/4 TDs), and free agent Robbie Anderson’s 95 catches/1095 yards/3 TD season and Temple connection with Coach Rhule means he is safe. Bridgewater did a decent enough job of distributing to make the Panthers top three as good as almost anyones.

Watson is also a terrific citizen, as turning over his first NFL check (about $27,000) to three cafeteria workers after Hurricane Harvey laid waste to Houston proves. Its part of his already significant legend, along with winning a national championship in 2017 (35-31 over Alabama) after a brilliant 2016 championship loss (45-40, also against Alabama) where he went 36/56 for 405 yards/3 TDs passing, plus 73 yards and one TD rushing).

The fact of his family getting a home from former Tampa Bay Buc Warrick Dunn when he was eleven proves he’s a man who knows how to show his gratitude. If getting him out of Houston and onto a team where he would complete a quick(?) rebuilding of the Panthers franchise became as big a deal as Carolina fans believe it would be, that gratitude would work both ways.