Could Charles Johnson's restructure be a sign for Panthers QB Cam Newton?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The recent restructuring of defensive end Charles Johnson's contract could put the Carolina Panthers closer to a new deal for quarterback Cam Newton.

The Panthers cleared about $5.2 million from the 2014 salary cap by reducing Johnson's cap figure from a team-high $16.4 million to $11,225,600. According to ESPN's Roster Management, that leaves the team $6,975,208 in cap space.

It was the second time in the past two seasons that Johnson, who in 2011 signed a six-year, $72 million deal that was the biggest in franchise history, has renegotiated.

He still is set to count $20,020,000 million against the 2015 cap and $15,020,000 in 2016, and that probably will have to be dealt with later.

Clearing cap space now, however, allows the Panthers to work toward a long-term deal with Newton sooner rather than later.

The Panthers in May exercised the fifth-year option on Newton, locking him up through the 2015 season. If the team wanted, it could extend that one more year and use the franchise tag in 2016.

But after two Pro Bowls in three seasons and leading Carolina to the NFC South title in 2013, the Panthers are committed to Newton long term. There's been speculation a new deal could be made before the end of this season.

Johnson's restructuring will only fuel that fire.

Newton, who missed his first NFL start in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay because of fractured ribs, counts a little more than $7 million against this year's cap and will count $14,666,666 in 2015.

The first pick of the 2011 draft has been projected to make in the $18 million to $20 million range per year with his next deal.

Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, recently signed a six-year, $115 million deal that included a $12 million signing bonus and $17 million guaranteed. He will average about $16 million a year.

Newton, expected to start in Sunday's home opener at Detroit, has made it clear he's not concerned about his next deal. He made his offseason focus on recovering first from March ankle surgery and now the rib injury.

"For me, that's the last thing that's on my mind,'' Newton said of his contract status in June.