Panthers, Bucs may front load contracts

There’s one common question I’m getting from a lot of readers as they look ahead to free agency.

How are the Bucs and Panthers, who are among the league leaders in salary-cap room coming out of the lockout, going to be able to spend to 99 percent of the cap?

First off, I expect both teams to re-sign a fair amount of their own free agents. You can take $10 million off of Carolina’s cap space if center Ryan Kalil plays for the franchise tender. Carolina has some very prominent ones, highlighted by Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson and Thomas Davis. Keeping all or most of them will eat up significant room. Same for Tampa Bay, where guard Davin Joseph leads the team’s class of free agents.

Second, none of the draft picks have signed yet. Even with the proposed rookie wage scale holding down salaries for first-year players, this will take up some of the cap space.

Third, the Panthers and Bucs will sign some free agents from other teams, although I don’t think either will go into the kind of all-out frenzy many fans seem to expect. You also might see both teams try to extend the contracts of some of their other young players. Is it too early for Tampa Bay to extend Josh Freeman's contract? Should Carolina go ahead and lock up linebacker Jon Beason with an extension?

Even with all that, the Panthers and the Bucs still might have to be creative to get themselves to 99 percent. One possible strategy that both teams could use would be to front load contracts for players that they re-sign or players they sign from elsewhere.

Instead of spreading money out over the course of the deal, they can structure contracts so that a big part of the salary-cap hit comes in the first year. That would include things like large roster bonuses and signing bonuses. They could also make the first-year base salary higher than normal, but if the new agreement is similar to the old rules, the drop in base salary from one year to the next can’t be more than 30 percent.