Top-Ten Free Agents for Carolina for 2016

2016 will see the Carolina Panthers with some astonishing salary cap space for the first time in the last half-decade at least, and there is no such thing as an NFL team that cannot be improved, so the ingredients are present in Charlotte for a free agency "splash" next year and without having to limit David Gettleman to shopping at the Dollar Store.

Doing some admittedly very round-number math and basic calculations, Carolina will have about $40 million in salary cap space, should certain assumptions happen, and then have somewhere around $25 million to actually WORK with - subtracting Josh Norman's upcoming hefty hit.

Right now, the precise cap number isn't a consideration, but rather in this article I'll look at some top free agents and give a fairly brief comment on each as to how such a player would help the team, along with a ballpark projected yearly salary:

1) Von Miller, OLB, Denver: $12 million

Miller is quite the pass rusher, but isn't a schematic fit since he's a 3-4 OLB and the Panthers' LB corps is tops in the NFL. At 250 pounds, he's too small to transition to a 4-3 DE. The team needs help pass rushing, but from the line, not the back seven. Besides, Gettleman probably wouldn't spend this much money on one guy unless the stars (and needs) aligned just right. Not the case here.

Chance of signing: < 1%

2) Greg Hardy, DE, Cowboys: $9 million

I think everyone will agree with a resounding "HELL no!" to this acquisition as Gettleman smartly Franchise-tagged him his final year in Charlotte instead of inking him to a long-term deal following his domestic violence situation after the Ray Rice video focused rapt attention on the issue. He hasn't produced in Dallas and has been acting bizarrely even for him and is a bad locker-room influence.

Chance of signing: < 1%

3) Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, NY Jets: $12 million

Wilkerson is a guy who comes from a 3-4 Jets defense, but is so versatile he could play any position on a four-man line, although it would be a bit of a waste to spend that kind of money for a 1-technique DT. We need edge-rushers and Wilkerson is probably as good a defender as there is for 2016 in free agency. The Jets want to keep him but if they don't, he'll set off a bidding war. The only way he'd wind up in Charlotte is by giving a contending team (or by then, hopefully, reigning NFL champions) a rather steep discount for the privilege. He'd be the monster we need and better than Hardy....both on AND off the field. If there's a high-priced FA that Gettleman truly covets, it's likely this guy, but Dave's never been a big spender. Wilkerson is the guy who would justify it, but I seriously doubt the Jets let him fly.

Chance of signing: 15% 

Chance of signing if the Jets don't bid: 30%

4) Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers: $18 million

Unless Josh's asking price is completely ballistic, he's going to stay in Charlotte. The smart kid turned down a $7 million per year deal before the season and he'll more than double that after showing us he's now the NFL's premier cover corner. Step aside, Revis Island, there's a new skipper in town. Josh wants to stay, so it's just a matter of coming to terms financially.

Chance of signing: 90% +

5) Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: $8 million

Jeffery has some of the biggest and strongest hands of any receiver I've ever seen. If he gets his mitts on a pass, few DBs have the strength to separate him from the catch, but his career has been muted somewhat with different injuries. When he's healthy, he's a guy defenses have to plan for, but the Panthers already have two hulking young possession-style receivers in rookie Devin Funchess and injured second-year player Kelvin Benjamin. Adding an expensive third guy is not high on the list of ways for Gettleman to spend money despite a likely "hometown discount" from the ex-Gamecock. It's just not a need.

Chance of signing: 5%

6) Kelechi Osemele, OG, Baltimore Ravens: $7 million

Probably the first non-NFL-household name on the list, but Osemele is a top-ten NFL guard and an instant plug-and-play starter for a needy team. However, the offensive line turned out to be a strength for the Panthers this season and with Trai Turner and Andy Norwell being a top-ten starting guard tandem and with good depth at the position, the need isn't there to sign him. If he leaves Baltimore, look for him to be playing home games possibly on the redundant "frozen tundra" in 2016.

Chance of signing: < 1%

7) Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NY Giants: $6 million

JPP is a unique case. He missed the first half of the season due to the infamous fireworks accident and lost the index finger of his hand. The result was a single sack in 8 games and a loss of multiple millions of future earnings because of it. However, David Gettleman was still in New York when they drafted this kid, so he has more insider info on him than any other non-NY GM would. With the Jets wanting to keep Wilkerson, this gives Carolina the advantage and it just so happens to be a "need" position. The circumstances are quite muddy right now, and more info on JPP's current condition is warranted (thus the low projected minimum salary above), but if Gettleman makes motions in the direction of signing a FA DE, JPP will likely get a long workout, physical, and due consideration. IF the right pieces fall into place, money included, Carolina will be on the short list for his services.

Chance of signing: 25%

8) Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis: $12 million

Jenkins could actually help the Panthers without even signing with them. In fact, I would be very surprised if he is NOT brought in for "due diligence" by DG and if for no other endgame reason than to demonstrate to Josh Norman of DG's willingness to part ways with even Norman if his asking price is too high. Jenkins has a lot of Norman's traits and although he's not as consistently a "shut-down" type of corner, he could replace Norman and the team wouldn't be much worse off. He'll draw attention, but Gettleman would rather sign Norman to a long-term deal using Jenkins as leverage to keep the upper-end lid on Norman's salary demands. Chess, not checkers, is DG's game. The team still needs another corner, but won't pay top-dollar for two when Josh is in the mix.

Chance of signing: 15%

Chance of signing if Norman walks: 80%

9) Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City Chiefs: $10 million

Berry is an intriguing free agent to think about. Pairing Berry's ball-hawking ways with those of Kurt Coleman would really put the fangs into Carolina's deep pass defense and make their zone scheme, where the defense has eyes-on the QB and tends to force more turnovers as a result, even more dangerous for opposing offenses. Adding him to the defense would almost be unfair, which is exactly why he's a guy that Gettleman might consider opening the purse to obtain, especially if he can get an edge-rusher to help force more early passes. Berry won't be tops on his list, but I wouldn't be shocked at all if he's second on it. It's not a coincidence that KC's winning streak began about the time Berry began playing his game again. He's THAT good.

Chance of signing: 15%

Chance of signing if KC doesn't bid: 40%

10) Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins: $8 million

Believe it or not, this is probably a guy VERY high on Gettleman's wish list and you might wonder why. Well, he's got 7.5 sacks this season and considering the Chinese fire drill that has been the Miami Dolphins all season, that's really not a bad number. It's not high enough to warrant double-digit millions per season. He's only 25 years old. He's durable, never having missed a ball game in his four seasons, and he has 29 sacks over that period. I think with a better team around him and in a more stable organization, he'll flourish, and the price will be right. "Donkey Kong" Suh (h/t Cam Newton) drew double-teams beside him, but we have Kawann Short, who invokes similar attention. The icing on the cake is Miami's so turbulent that I don't know that ANY of their FAs would necessarily be keen on staying, despite the lovely weather, knowing a contender wants him. Keep your eyes and ears out for news about this guy: he well could be wearing Carolina colors come 2016.

Chance of signing: 75%

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