The Carolina Panthers are entering a rebuilding phase with first-year head coach Matt Rhule, and while this team isn't expected to compete for a Lombardi Trophy in 2020, they possess several nice pieces on both sides of the ball. Carolina picked up a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, signed star running back Christian McCaffrey to a massive extension and beefed up the defense by becoming the first team in the common draft era to use all seven picks on defensive players. It's clear where Rhule thinks the Panthers need help heading into 2020 -- especially considering the fact that Tom Brady is now in the NFC South.
Bridgewater and McCaffrey picked up some nice money this offseason, but the Panthers still have several important players that are on their rookie deals. You'll find a number of salary cap bargains on every NFL roster. Typically, these players are on their rookie contracts, but sometimes they are signed in free agency to one-year prove-it deals. Below, we will examine the Panthers' roster to pinpoint the five players who present the biggest "value" for the franchise from a salary cap standpoint. We will be referencing Over The Cap for all cap numbers -- using each player's 2020 cap hit.
1. RT Taylor Moton
2020 salary cap hit: $1,323,048
Basically every position on the Panthers' offensive line has been a rotating door as of late -- but not right tackle. Moton has been Carolina's most consistent lineman, and he might be their best with Trai Turner now a member of the Los Angeles Chargers. Moton really has been one of the most underrated pieces on this Panthers team and if he can perform well during the last year of his contract, his asking price could balloon to a number the Panthers can't pay.
Moton was originally a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Western Michigan. He started all 16 games for the second straight season in 2019, and is a player Carolina is excited about in 2020. McCaffrey and Bridgewater can't operate to their full potential if the offensive line can't do their jobs, and Moton is going to be instrumental in that.
2. WR Curtis Samuel
2020 salary cap hit: $2,053,437
Samuel put up career numbers all across the board in 2019. It wasn't the breakout season some fans were hoping for, but he proved he's a legitimate starter who has still yet to reach his full potential. It's pretty impressive considering that he was able to put up career numbers last season with poor quarterback play.
Like Moton, Samuel was selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he had a very successful collegiate career at Ohio State University. PFF believes that average depth of target reigns supreme when evaluating wide receivers -- especially in fantasy football -- and Samuel was one of the best in that category. In 2019, his average depth of target was 14.8 yards, which ranked No. 5 in the league. This 2020 season is going to determine what his future looks like, however, as Samuel is heading into the final year of his rookie deal. The Panthers did go out and sign Robby Anderson in free agency, but with better quarterback play, Samuel could be in line for his best season yet.
3. CB Donte Jackson
2020 salary cap hit: $1,312,507
Jackson totaled seven interceptions over his first two NFL seasons, which is tied for second-most among NFL cornerbacks. Many were afraid Jackson would be unable to keep up with the large star wideouts of the NFC South, but the former second-round pick has recorded 114 combined tackles and 17 passes defensed over his first two seasons. His rookie year was especially impressive, as he led the Panthers with four interceptions.
Jackson has been inconsistent at times, but he is the Panthers' No. 1 cornerback and has shown star potential. With his athleticism, speed and grit, he's absolutely a steal on this contract.
4. LB Tahir Whitehead
2020 salary cap hit: $2,500,000
The Panthers signed the veteran Whitehead to a $1.05 million salary, the league minimum for players with seven-plus years of experience, and a $1.45 million signing bonus according to ESPN. He comes over from the Oakland Raiders, where he started in all 32 games for Jon Gruden's defense over the past two seasons. During his time in Oakland, Whitehead racked up 234 combined tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. With Luke Kuechly now gone, the Panthers needed to go out and acquire someone who is both a leader and has something to offer talent-wise, and Whitehead fits the bill.
Whitehead took over as the defensive playcaller for the Raiders last season after Vontaze Burfict was suspended due to an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit. He's a former fifth-round pick who has recorded over 100 combined tackles in each of the last four seasons and has been fairly consistent over his eight seasons in the NFL. Carolina possesses young talent on defense, and Whitehead is going to be someone that can help them develop into true professionals.
5. TE Ian Thomas
2020 salary cap hit: $936,998
After a rookie campaign in which Thomas recorded 36 receptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns, many pegged the Indiana product as a breakout candidate for 2019. For whatever reason, Ron Rivera didn't look his way often last season. After catching 36 passes in 2018, he was targeted just 30 times in his second season. Now with Greg Olsen gone and what should be better play at quarterback, Thomas' third season should be his best. The Panthers have an improved receiving corps so much of the attention will be on the wideouts in 2020. That means Thomas could end up becoming Bridgewater's best friend -- his security blanket. Thomas is the No. 85 highest-paid tight end according to Over The Cap, so he's definitely a bargain.