Scott Fitterer’s Year 1 review: Salary cap management

Over the next several weeks I’ll look back on Scott Fitterer’s first year as the Carolina Panthers general manager and assess his performance in salary cap management, free agent signings, the 2021 draft, and player trades.

This week we will explore Fitterer’s performance managing the salary cap by creating cap space in 2021 and using it to extend current Panthers players (free agency will be a separate column). In my grading system a “C” means meeting expectations. I’m not one for grade inflation.

Scott Fitterer was hired in January 2021 and immediately inherited a bad salary cap situation. Per ESPN the Panthers only had $8.5 million in available cap space at the end of 2020. Here’s how Fitterer performed in his first year on the job at freeing up cap space and allocating it toward locking down in-house talent.

February 2021 – Player releases (+$19.9 million)

One month after being hired Fitterer freed up an additional $19.9 million in cap space by releasing defensive tackle Kawann Short ($8.7 million), defensive end Stephen Weatherly ($5.9 million), safety Tre Boston ($3.6 million), and punter Michael Palardy ($1.8 million). While these moves were beneficial, they were also pretty obvious. Even the most novice Madden player probably would’ve done the same when managing his or her Panthers franchise. Fitterer basically did his job with these moves.

Grade: C+

February 2021 – Matt Paradis’s restructure (+$4.7 million)

One lever general managers can pull to create cap space in the current year is to restructure contracts of high-salary players by converting most of the current year’s salary into a bonus, then spreading that bonus out over future years. For example, a player with a $10 million base salary this year could have his salary dropped to $1 million with a $9 million bonus (so the player still gets the $10 million this year), then the cap hit of that $9 million bonus is spread over the current year and future contract years. The cap hit doesn’t go away. It just gets pushed into the future.

In February 2021 Scott Fitterer restructured the contract of center Matt Paradis, converting about $7 million of his $8 million salary into a bonus along with a $1 million salary. This move freed up $4.7 million in 2021 cap space while adding dead money in the future.

Now, Paradis’s contract is tricky to begin with. When he signed with the Panthers in 2019 it was a 3-year, $27 million deal (through 2021) that included “voidable years” in 2022 and 2023. This was done to free up additional cap space in 2019 while kicking dead money into 2022 and 2023, after Paradis’s contract expired. (Confusing, I know). Carolina had already incurred a total of $3.6 million in dead money in 2022 and 2023 from Paradis’s original 2019 contract, but that’s not Fitterer’s fault. That’s on Marty Hurney.

But by restructuring Paradis’s contract in 2021 Fitterer tacked on an additional $4.7 million in dead money to Paradis’s voidable years in 2022 and 2023. Matt Paradis is not under contract in 2022 — he’s an unrestricted free agent — but he’ll count $8.3 million against the Panthers 2022 salary cap no matter what ($3.6 million in voidable years from his 2019 contract plus $4.7 million from Fitterer’s 2021 restructure). That’s the double-edged sword of kicking dead money into the future via voidable years and restructurings. At some point the bill comes due. It looks like the bill for Matt Paradis in 2022 will be $8.3 million in dead cap whether he plays or not. (Note: This is why Spotrac shows Paradis with an $8.3 million cap hit in 2022 and a salary of $0 — it’s all dead money and he’s no longer under contract).

In the end, Fitterer’s 2021 restructure of Matt Paradis’s contract didn’t age very well after a lousy 5-12 campaign. If the Panthers were in “win now” mode in 2021 then freeing up $4.7 million for that year by pushing $4.7 million in dead cap into 2022 would be fine, but the reality is the Panthers are still rebuilding and now have a $4.7 million dead cap burden in 2022.

Grade: D+

March 2021 – McCaffrey and Thompson restructures (+$11.7 million)

Both Christian McCaffrey and Shaq Thompson were on expensive deals when Fitterer was hired as general manager. Restructuring McCaffrey’s contract in March 2021 freed up $5.6 million in cap space while Thompson’s restructure created an additional $6.1 million. In all, Fitterer unlocked $11.7 million in 2021 cap space with these two moves.

As previously noted, restructuring contracts is a “buy now, pay later” approach that catches up with teams in the end. Fitterer was quoted by ESPN about restructuring CMC’s and Shaq’s deals as saying, “This was one of those unique years we wanted to do this…It can get you in trouble long term.’’ Fitterer is right that these were necessary moves given the Panthers cap situation at the time, and I think they were smart ones as well given the length of each of their respective contracts. .

Grade: B+

April 2021 – Sam Darnold’s fifth-year option (+$18.9 million in 2022)

Much of the goodwill Fitterer generated in the previously highlighted deals was extinguished when he exercised Sam Darnold’s $18.9 million fifth-year option for 2022. NFL rules dictated that Fitterer had to make this decision in April 2021, before Darnold had even taken a snap in Carolina. Based on Darnold’s 2021 performance it looks like this decision will have a massively negative impact on the team in 2022. The Panthers currently have an estimated $17.8 million in available cap space. Without Darnold’s fifth-year option the Panthers would have $36.7 million.

Granted, a big chunk of that increased cap space without Darnold’s deal would need to be allocated to his replacement (unless they draft a quarterback on a rookie-scale deal) but I’d rather have that $18.9 million to use elsewhere than having it already committed to Sam Darnold.

Grade: D-

July 2021 – Taylor Moton’s extension

In March 2021 Fitterer slapped the franchise tag on right tackle Taylor Moton at $13.8 million for the 2021 season, then in July he made a great move by extending him on a four-year, $72 million contract through 2025 with $43 million guaranteed. Moton’s $17.8 million average annual salary is currently third highest among right tackles and will likely age nicely in coming years as the salary cap rises in the future. This is just the price of doing business for a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber tackle.

Grade: A-

August 2021 – Robby Anderson’s extension

One move that will be interesting to see how it plays out is Fitterer’s decision to extend wide receiver Robby Anderson in August 2021 on a two-year, $29.5 million deal with more than $20 million guaranteed. This looked like a reasonable contract after Anderson’s stellar 2020 season of 95 receptions for 1,096 yards, but then in 2021 Robby tanked in a bad Panthers offense with just 53 receptions for 519 yards and a career-worst 6.4 percent drop percentage. While the Panthers offense was bad in 2021, fellow wide receiver DJ Moore was still able to maintain his elite level of play with 1,157 receiving yards. Moore flourished in 2021 while Anderson floundered.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it probably would’ve been better to keep Anderson on his original deal which ran through 2022 instead of prematurely extending him through 2023. The 2021 version of Robby Anderson isn’t worth a 2023 cap hit of $15.8 million (though he carries just $3.8 million in dead money if he’s released after 2022). This contract may work out just fine in the end but it will depend on whether or not Anderson can once again become a 1,000-plus yard receiver. That’s not a given after his poor 2021 campaign.

Grade: C-

When considering all of these individual grades, Scott Fitterer’s GPA for freeing up cap space and allocating it to current players comes out to a 2.11 on a 4.0 grading scale, which is smack dab in the middle of a “C” grade.

Again, with my grades a “C” means meeting expectations. Now, few students celebrate a “C” grade. Good teams have general managers who get honor roll-level grades. Fitter wasn’t there in Year 1 in managing the salary cap. He wasn’t great. He wasn’t bad. He was just okay.

He’ll need to show us more in this department in Year 2.