Are the Panthers in cost-cutting mode? No. This is the new NFL.

On the surface, and to everyone covering the Carolina Panthers from afar, it looks as if the team is cutting costs in an effort for owner Jerry Richardson to make his franchise seem like the poster child for the NFL ownership’s case against the NFL Players Association.

In reality, its making the best out of a poor situation.

The Panthers have used this opportunity to clear out dead wood; a move that will make them stronger in the future and more financially nimble.

The window has closed. This team isn’t a top tier team any longer. They know that, but they also know that they aren’t that far away, either.

What they’ve done is sacrificed some experience and salary for youth that is just as capable of what they let go. They’ve lost experience, but they’ll make up for it with competition between more hungry, younger players. New leaders have already begun to emerge in the locker room. New play makers will have to step up on Sundays.

Looking at what the Panthers either cut or allowed to walk away, one can see the method to the madness. Older veterans, some with injury issues, others with diminishing return on investment, were the casualties.

As for Peppers, It wasn’t just a case of letting him go for nothing; it was a case of squeezing the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube on a player that they couldn’t afford to keep and a person that didn’t want to be a member of the team any longer. They’d gone as fas as they could. He wasn’t signing a long term deal, and teams were reluctant to trade for him since his salary was so high and there was no insurance that they’d be able to sign him to a long-term contract. The Panthers could have done the tango with him again this offseason, offering him more than $20 million to play another 16 games, but instead chose to let him walk — per his wishes — and in turn save all that drama and money for someone that is younger and willing to call Carolina home.

It looks as if the Panthers are playing the NFL’s game, banking on receiving a high compensatory pick in the 2011 NFL draft.

In addition to the 32 picks in each round, there are a total of 32 picks awarded at the ends of Rounds 3 through 7. These picks, known as “compensatory picks,” are awarded to teams that have lost more qualifying free agents than they gained the previous year in free agency. Teams that gain and lose the same number of players but lose higher-valued players than they gain also can be awarded a pick, but only in the seventh round, after the other compensatory picks. Compensatory picks cannot be traded, and the placement of the picks is determined by a proprietary formula based on the player’s salary, playing time, and postseason honors with his new team, with salary being the primary factor. So, for example, a team that lost a linebacker who signed for $2.5 million per year in free agency might get a sixth-round compensatory pick, while a team that lost a wide receiver who signed for $5 million per year might receive a fourth-round pick. —

In Carolina’s case, losing Peppers would certainly qualify as a major loss, and there hasn’t been a signing of note thus far through the young 2010 NFL offseason. Based on what has transpired, the team should be granted a late third round pick in 2011.

That coincides with what the Panthers have stated they are doing — building through the draft.

Fans are up in arms about the lack of movement, but truth be told, there hasn’t been many players on the market worth pursuing due to league rules that have made many would-be unrestricted free agents restricted — meaning the signing team would have to give up a draft pick if said player is signed to a contract. Instead, Carolina has stated that their focus is on retaining many of their key young players.

Truth be told, the league is in a strange place right now. Labor issues are unsettled, and key issues like salary cap numbers, veteran exceptions and a rookie wage scale are all up for discussion. That ties the Panthers’ hands when it comes to future contracts. Since they don’t have to negotiate long-term deals with younger players who are slated for free agency after this season, they aren’t doing it right now — even though in years past it would have been the norm to do so. In some cases, doing a deal now would result in a worse situation for the player and the team due to league rules.

Having that said, it’s still only early April. There’s a lot of time between now and the start of training camp in late July. There still are a lot of veterans that will be signed after the draft in order to fill out rosters.