The 27 year old defensive tackle comes into 2017 on the final year of his contract after the Panthers used his 5th year option to retain him for another season. Since being drafted in 2013 Lotulelei has been a quiet factor on the defensive line. Doing a lot of the dirty work that allows the ends, linebackers, and Kawann to feast during games.
Lotulelei will undoubtedly be one of the top 2018 defensive tackle free agents available if the team does not get him re-signed, and demand a pretty sizable paycheck with his first opportunity to get a big payday since being drafted.
After re-signing Kawann Short to a massive deal, and drafting first round pick Vernon Butler in 2016 it does seem like Lotulelei may end up as the odd man out once the 2018 off-season rolls around. With the Panthers needing to re-sign players like Thomas Davis, Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner, and extend Greg Olsen.
It would appear much like I stated in the Offensive Guard section of this series. That the decision to keep Lotulelei may boil down to keeping Lotulelei vs keeping Norwell or keeping neither mattering on contract demands.
The Panthers don’t have enough cap room in 2018 to account for paydays for all three young players due new deals. The slight chance that they could manage to retain all three would come at the expense of two to three other pieces more than likely.
The Panthers could easily free up more cap room for 2018 on top of the already roughly estimated $24 million they may have at that time off my current estimates from the first part of this series. With cuts, and extensions like I have mentioned in several other pieces of this series.
By cutting/trading players like Benjamin, and Oher, the Panthers could add a combined $13,759,000 million to the cap in 2018. Plus the $4.5 million, and $3.25 million that Oher, and Gano would add back to the 2017 cap, which they could try to roll over with what they already have in 2017.
Looking to extend Olsen could also lessen the blow of his 2018 cap number of $9.75 million. Also looking to extend Ryan Kalil could lessen the blow of his 10.27 million cap number in 2018, or they could cut him to free up $7.5 million.
For a couple of examples, just by cuts alone the Panthers could realistically raise their 2018 cap to roughly somewhere around $53+ million. This figure includes Benjamin, Gano (2017), Oher (2017 + Oher’s 2018 number), R. Kalil, a $10 million jump in the cap again, and if they only spend about $5 million in reserves in 2017.
As a second example, the Panthers could move on from Gano (2017), Oher (2017 + Oher’s 2018 number), Johnson, Adams, Stewart, and Benjamin. This number would round out to roughly $54+ million before any new contracts were done.
Take Benjamin out of this second example, and it ends up roughly around $46+ million or around $45 million if you take him out of the first example.
This would be the potential cap space available, and options they could use to create space to re-sign Davis, Turner, Norwell or Star, and extend Olsen in 2018.
Regardless signing all three young players (Lotulelei, Norwell, and Turner) seems like a stretch, and could hinder how active the Panthers are in Free Agency in 2018, and contracts past 2018 as well. So moving on from at least one seems inevitable unless they’re willing to come to terms with one of them on a more team friendly deal.
If the Panthers decide to move on from Lotulelei then that would mean moving on to finding replacements for him either through the draft in 2018, the current roster, or through free agency.