Falcons benefit from Carolina’s half-hearted rebuild

December 8, 2019 Atlanta - Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is brought down by Atlanta Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley (44) during the first half in a NFL football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, December 8, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



The Panthers and Buccaneers have subsidized the Falcons in the NFC South by being bad enough that the Falcons seem OK by comparison. Things might be changing for the Buccaneers, who now have Tom Brady to go along with a good defense. The Panthers don’t seem to know which direction they want to go, which is good news for the Falcons.

The Panthers signed Christian McCaffrey to a four-year extension that will make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. It makes some sense from the perspective that McCaffrey is young (24 in June) and the best at his position. It doesn’t compute because he’s a running back, and the Panthers seem only half-committed to their rebuild.

The Panthers could have accelerated it by trading McCaffrey, whose stock will never be higher. He has two years left on his bargain deal, so they would have found a robust trade market. They could have expected a haul that included draft picks and productive young players. That’s the kind of talent infusion Carolina needs.

At the very least the Panthers could have waited until after the 2021 season to use the franchise tag on McCaffrey. That would mean a one-year deal with a salary well below the $16 million average in his extension. Carolina also could have signed McCaffrey to an extension later, giving them more time to see how he holds up and the ways new coach Matt Rhule can use him.

Instead, the Panthers signed McCaffrey to a long-term extension while he still has two years left on his current deal. That makes McCaffrey much harder to trade. The Panthers need help at every position except for quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater’s deal includes a huge cap hit in 2021, another hindrance to their rebuild). Carolina now is committed to paying big money to its star running back, which hasn’t proved to be a good long-term strategy.

The Falcons know this. Devonta Freeman briefly became the league’s highest-paid running back when the Falcons signed him to a contract extension in 2017. Freeman produced three ineffective, injury-riddled seasons before the Falcons released him in March and added $6 million to the pile of “dead” money on their salary cap (space eaten by players no longer on the roster).

The Falcons had a net loss of talent after the first wave of free agency. That's the result of a salary-cap crunch created by paying big-money players and contract mistakes such as Freeman. But the Falcons still have a chance because they have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett.

The Panthers have McCaffrey and little else. They released quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen. Star linebacker Luke Kuechly retired, and six other defensive starters signed elsewhere as free agents.

Under the circumstances, the Panthers might as well have gone all-in on rebuilding by trading McCaffrey, using the draft picks coming back in a McCaffrey trade to load up on top prospects. That’s the only path for the Panthers to improve their roster because their salary cap is in terrible shape.

The Panthers have an astonishing $48 million in dead money counting against their 2020 cap. Kuechly’s retirement caught Carolina by surprise, but the other $36 million in dead money is a result of mismanagement. The Falcons have about $17.5 million in dead money. That’s bad, but this is another case of the Panthers making the Falcons look good in comparison.

At least McCaffrey won’t count big against Carolina’s cap until 2022. The Panthers can reasonably expect him to be a star for the foreseeable future. McCaffrey isn’t likely to have another season like 2019, when he totaled 2,392 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’ll still likely rank among the league’s best running backs.

But that gets back to the question of whether it's smart to pay big money to any running back. The case for doing so with McCaffrey is that he's a big part of Carolina's passing game. Over the past two seasons McCaffrey caught 223 passes for 1,872 yards and 10 touchdowns.

However, that same case was made for Freeman and other running backs who added value in the passing game. They still faded after getting the big money. After Freeman came Todd Gurley (Rams) and David Johnson (Cardinals, who got bailed out by suckering the Texans into trading DeAndre Hopkins for Johnson last month).

Quarterback, left tackle and pass-rusher are the most valuable positions. The best among them are worth a big chunk of the salary cap. Running backs aren’t exactly interchangeable, but a good offensive line matters more to the running game (Carolina’s line is not good) and wide receivers provide more value as pass catchers.

Maybe it works out better for the Panthers with McCaffrey. He’s yet to miss a game in three seasons. The Panthers can lessen McCaffrey’s load after he had 403 touches (!) in 2019. But that would mean giving the ball less often to their best offensive player, which only highlights the limitations when that player is a running back.

Even as the Falcons posted consecutive losing seasons the Panthers were their punching bags. The Falcons have won the past five meetings by an aggregate score of 146-67. Two of the six second-half victories that saved coach Dan Quinn’s job in 2019 came against the Panthers.

It looks that tradition will continue in 2020 and beyond as the Panthers undergo a slow and painful rebuild with their superstar running back.

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