The Carolina Panthers have quickly become one of the wisest teams in the NFL when it comes to contract negotiations. The bulk of that praise should be pointed towards general manager Dave Gettleman, who has simply done a stellar job in recent seasons.
Even with that said, there are still players who are facing those dreaded "make-or-break" type seasons in 2015. For a few players, if they don't hit the ground running this year, then they could be facing free agency next offseason.
Carolina has locked in the core of their roster for the future, including the likes of Cam Newton, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen. Luke Kuechly is likely to get his deal done soon, but for the five players below? They need to prove they can play at a high level this season.
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Jonathan Stewart, running back
It may seem absolutely crazy to talk about the Panthers parting ways with Stewart one season after making him the featured back. Unfortunately for Stewart, 2016 becomes an offseason where it would actually make sense to let him go.
Put the end of the 2014 season to the side for a minute. While Stewart had a strong run to finish the year, this is still a player who has missed 20 games over the past three seasons due to injury. That's pretty incredible to think about. On top of that, Stewart has only topped 1,000 yards rushing one time in his career.
Now for the actual salary cap breakdown. If the Panthers had chose to part ways with Stewart this offseason, which they obviously wouldn't have, it would have left them with $13.6 million in dead money. That equals out to a cap loss of $5.3 million. It would have just made no sense to let him go.
But now, the Panthers have an intriguing rookie in Cameron Artis-Payne. They also have options galore in the 2016 NFL draft if Stewart doesn't excel this season. What makes the decision even tougher for Carolina is that if they choose to cut Stewart next offseason, they'll actually gain $2.25 million in cap space.
It may seem like crazy talk right now, but there's plenty of reason to believe this season is make-or-break for Stewart.
Roman Harper, safety
Harper has been the definition of a veteran leader for this Panthers defense, but he'll need to produce on the field in 2015. With Tre Boston looking to take the next step and Harper turning 33 this season, there's plenty of reason to believe that Carolina could make the move.
Putting the age factor to the side, Harper is also going to become incredibly costly for the Panthers just in 2016 alone. His cap number goes from $1.8 million in 2015 to a whopping $4.66 million in 2016. If the Panthers chose to part ways with Harper, they would gain $3.76 million in cap space immediately, leaving only $900k in dead money.
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but it seems likely that this season could be Harper's last with the Panthers.
Michael Oher, right tackle
Oher has a prime opportunity in front of him to prove that he can revitalize his NFL career. Unfortunately, it has to happen this season for the former Baltimore Raven/Tennessee Titan. The Panthers are taking very little risk with Oher this season, so if he sticks that's great news, but if not, he likely won't be on the roster in 2016.
Oher's cap number goes to $4.5 million in 2016 from just over $2.4 million in 2015. On top of that, if the Panthers choose to cut Oher before next season, they'll be looking at a cap gain of $3.25 million, which would make the move a pretty obvious one.
When talking "make or break," there may be no player on the roster currently who's facing more pressure than Oher is this season.
Dwan Edwards, defensive tackle
Dwan Edwards is currently 34 and is behind Star Lotulelei on the depth chart, which won't be changing anytime soon. Edwards is costing the Panthers only $1.75 million in 2015, and on top of that, he had a strong 2014 season. Edwards wrapped up last season with 40 total tackles, four sacks, two pass deflections and an interception.
There's no reason for the Panthers to part ways with Edwards currently, but unless he can pull out a repeat performance from 2014, the team may let him go next offseason. If kept, Edwards would count for $2.25 million towards the cap, but most importantly, if released it would only cost Carolina $500k in dead money, while giving the team a cap gain of $1.75 million.
Edwards has played well, but at the end of the day, this one may just be a business decision.
Kurt Coleman, safety
Coleman may have just signed a two-year deal with the Panthers this
Even with that said, Coleman either becomes the answer for Carolina at strong safety, or it'll prove to be one of the biggest positions of need next offseason.
By keeping Coleman next season, the team eats his cap number of $1.55 million. If they choose to cut him? They clear up $1.25 million in cap space, taking just a $300k dead money hit. That's a pretty solid number for a safety who they're taking a one year shot on.
*All salary cap information courtesy of OverTheCap.com.
Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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