It starts with money: Cutting Johnson cleared $11 million in cap space, giving the Panthers more than $26 million in cap room heading into free agency next week. Because general manager Dave Gettleman likes to keep around $5 million in reserve entering training camp, this gives him the flexibility needed to improve the roster.
Long-term deal with Kawann Short: Ideally, the Panthers would like to get an extension with their Pro Bowl defensive tackle before he enters the final year of his rookie deal. The cap space created with Johnson's release makes that more likely in that Short will demand $15 million-plus a year. This also could help pave the way for a long-term deal with cornerback Josh Norman, who on Tuesday was guaranteed $13.952 million in 2016 with the franchise tag.
Panthers can shop for a DE: Carolina brought 2012 New York Jets first-round pick Quinton Coples in for a visit this week. Management wants to upgrade a position that got little sack production this past season between Johnson and Jared Allen, who retired. The extra cap space gives Carolina the freedom to go after free agents such as New York Giants end Jason Pierre-Paul. They still could sign Coples, who would be a better fit in Carolina's 4-3 scheme than he was with the Jets at outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. Don't look for a big splash. It's not Gettleman's style. But he at least has the flexibility to go after a mid-range player.
First-round pick on a DE: This is a great year for defensive ends in the draft, so there'll likely be impact players available when the Panthers pick at No. 30. Among those that could be there are Clemson's Kevin Dodd, Oklahoma's Emmanuel Ogbah or Florida's Jonathan Bullard. Pressure on the quarterback is key to Carolina's defensive scheme, and finding a young, every-down end to play opposite Kony Ealy will be key for long-term success.
Johnson could return: A league source didn't rule out the possibility of Johnson returning. The Panthers obviously like and respect Johnson, a team captain. They just couldn't justify spending $15,020,000 in cap space on a player who is about to turn 30 and who had only one sack during an injury-plagued 2015 season. Depending on what the market value for Johnson becomes, it might make sense for both sides for him to return.