Will Luke Kuechly Break Carolina's Salary Cap?

One of the first things I heard Carolina Panthers General Manager David Gettleman say, not long after he was hired, was about his long-term strategy of player management.

He said basically that you hate to draft a kid who turns out great and not be able to keep him over money.

That's music to my ears both now and as it was then, but we've got an interesting situation that has developed: his draft picks!

QB Cam Newton just signed his long-term deal that I'd call fairly neutral. Everybody knew it was coming after seeing him play that first ball game - a huge second contract. While huge, it wasn't Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning "huge."

Next, we saw Luke Kuechly dominate ever since stepping foot on the field and I don't think there's anyone that can dispute the fact that he's the game's premier MLB, bar none.

Before last year, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were "in the conversation," as Al Michaels would probably say, but Willis has since retired and Bowman is hopefully 100% healed from an ugly leg injury he suffered. Kuechly has yet to miss an NFL game and has led the league twice in total tackles. He's entering his fourth season and has an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award to show for it. Bottom line is the bottom line should easily be north of ten million per year.

That's the "ouch" part. Another huge contract out the door and things are getting expen$ive again. 

Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are both apparently growing well as an interior DL duo and could soak up a bit more money, although not in the $10M per year range, but they're still improving and at this point, I see the organization wanting to hold on to them both when the time comes.

Can you see how difficult a GM's job is? Every team "wants to build through the draft," but first, you have to draft well. Gettleman has done that. You also, as he noted, have to have the money to keep you good players. So far, it's a mixed bag there but because of Marty Hurney's handcuffs. I mean not so much Greg Hardy, whose salary is gone for image and behavior reasons and certainly not his production; I would have loved to see us keep Mike Mitchell. He's the one guy that Gettleman got at the Dollar Store that we lost over money but wanted to keep. 

No, Luke Kuechly's looming deal won't break the bank, but he also has leverage galore...thus, the David Mayo draft pick. That wasn't simply an insurance policy against injury but one against catastrophe...both health and wealth-wise. At best, Mayo could play well enough to cap any outrageous $20M per year figures from coming from Luke's agent. His "option" year for 2016 is over $11M. This year he's making four.

With this in mind, Luke gets more expensive all the time. The organization would have a fan revolt on their hands if they let him walk. He's going to have earned whatever he winds up with, and his presence alone gives the entire defense the stability nobody else, other than perhaps J.J. Watt in Houston, ever could at this point. I would even argue he's the team's all-around MVP including Cam. It's not a knock on Cam but Cam can't say he's easily the league's top quarterback. 

The issue with Luke's contract is the ripple effect it'll have on those of Star and Kawann. You'll see Gettleman draft a DT in the top three or four rounds next year, I'll bet. Leverage and/or depth. Take your pick. 

Here is where it may well be an either/or proposition. Star and Kawann actually lever against each other as the organization says "Well, we can keep one of you but not both" at some point. Add a DT in the draft who shows a little something, and perhaps that can keep the price somewhat reasonable.

Otherwise, it's guys like Cam and Luke Gettleman has been budgeting for. In a strange, twisted bit of fate, there could be other rather large contracts looming thanks to good drafting.

What if Benwikere, Tre Boston, and Josh Norman continue to improve? None of them were drafted before the fourth round, and those are the gems that set your franchise ahead of schedule. Carolina is in that position right now and I'd say Josh Norman is probably the top CB in the NFC South today.

...or "How I Learned to Love the Bomb"

After that, you've got the Kelvinator coming up. He said he "ran out of gas" towards the end of the NFL season, and that's not so unusual for a rookie. In fact, it's probably part of the "sophomore jinx." Whatever it is, at least he knows what it takes physically because he just did it last year. He should come in having trained harder, but his hamstring has been giving him trouble and that's never a good sign. If it's temporary and he improves through his first four seasons, he could command north of $10M per season when his time arrives.

Coming full-circle, we haven't even seen what Shaq Thompson or Devin Funchess can do. Nor a David Mayo or Cameron Artis-Payne. 

All in all, it's probably best that "Luke's lucrative" contract come now, back-to-back with Cam's, than in two or three seasons. There's no way the franchise will let him walk, and if push comes to shove, he could get up to twelve million or even push lucky thirteen. The highest current MLB contract is either Bowman or Lawrence Timmons at around $9.5M and neither of those are very recent deals. Luke will certainly be worth a fair amount more than either of them. 

Bet your own bottom dollar that Gettleman has a cadre of guys wearing green visors in the basement calculating all the "what-if?" scenarios that could arise, projecting the range of rising talent the team has drafted, and reporting regularly to Dave about trends in current contract values. 

That's Due Diligence Dave's method to success as well as Carolina's ticket to Luke spending his entire career here in the Carolinas.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye