Samir and Erin Suleiman loaded up the car following their wedding in Sonoma Coast, Calif., this summer.
First, there was a stop in Sedona, Arizona. Then, the newlyweds drove 36 hours straight to be in Charlotte the day before the franchise tag deadline.
The need to drive came from bringing an additional member of the family to the wedding, the pair’s flat-coat retriever, Jessamine, who was also the flower girl and too big to go on a plane.
Why the rush? After the Carolina Panthers placed the franchise tag on offensive tackle Taylor Moton in March, Suleiman went home and told Erin that he had a feeling the deal would not get done until the day of the deadline to sign tagged players to long-term deals, July 15.
Because of that, Erin agreed to push the honeymoon back a week. It could wait until the day after the deadline.
Samir’s gut didn’t lead him astray, and a significant amount of the car ride was spent on the phone and computer using a hotspot, as the deal heated up. Erin drove across Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas. Samir drove through New Mexico and a little bit of Arkansas. Driving Interstate 40 instead of a coast-to-coast flight allowed him to be physically in the office, while getting the entire family back to Charlotte, to make sure that the deal was signed by both parties and completed just before the 4 p.m. deadline.
It wasn’t the most glamorous first couple of days of a marriage for the Suleimans, but it worked. A wedding, big new contract for the team’s best offensive lineman and a honeymoon all in a two-week span.
Samir Suleiman, director of player negotiations and salary cap manager for the Panthers, has been part of the Panthers’ front office since January 2020, originally brought in by former general manager Marty Hurney from a similar role with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In an industry centered on getting jobs based on who you know, Suleiman has spent years with four different organizations — the Jaguars, Rams, Steelers and Panthers — two of those stops in jobs created specifically for him.
“I’m proud of the fact that every job I’ve taken, I didn’t know somebody, I wasn’t hired as a favor,” Suleiman said. “In two of the jobs, both St. Louis and Pittsburgh, those jobs were created for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had people help me along the way. As far as obtaining every job I’ve had, I’ve worked for that.”
Suleiman’s name is commonly mentioned in press conferences by Panthers coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer once a deal has been completed, but he often stays behind the scenes.
“Samir Suleiman was very involved,” Fitterer said on Nov. 11 when asked about signing Cam Newton to a one year deal.
Subtle nods to the man tasked with figuring out how the Panthers can afford the team they have while still remaining below the NFL salary cap.
“Samir is very much an observer,” Erin said. “He takes everything in. He’s a processor, likes to analyze and get the whole picture of things. He’s an onion, he’s a private guy.”
With sights on becoming a general manager one day, Suleiman’s work behind the scenes is instrumental to long-term team building. Two years ago, the Panthers were in a bad spot with the salary cap — $51 million in dead cap space — with contracts negotiated by Hurney.
Heading into this season, the dead cap is still vast, but the Panthers had the second-most cap space, thanks to Sulieman. Having open cap room has allowed the Panthers to build for the future, while also making aggressive moves like trading for former All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and signing quarterback Cam Newton mid-season.
The Panthers will still have some finessing of their salary cap to figure out for next season. While Teddy Bridgewater’s contract will be off the books, they will still be on the hook for Sam Darnold, who is owed $18.8 million in 2022 after Carolina picked up his fifth-year option prior to the season. But Darnold likely won’t take another snap for the Panthers, and they’ll have to decide whether to re-sign Newton, sign another quarterback or draft one next year.
Each year, the NFL vets minority candidates for general manager and head coaching positions in an effort to increase diversity among the top levels in the NFL and improve hiring practices. Suleiman was recently named to the NFL’s list of leading minority candidates deserving of general manager consideration.
“I never think of present day, present year. I always think of future consequences,” Suleiman said. “Going out next year, year after things like that. I think you have to, just kind of stay ahead of the game and anticipate positions of need in the future.”
The Panthers’ “problem-solver”
Professional sports teams often have a person described as the “cap guy,” but it’s rarely defined what that job actually entails or what it takes to get there.
Suleiman is the son of a Palestinian father and Argentinian mother who met in high school after immigrating. He grew up primarily in Virginia and attended military school for high school before attending James Madison University to play football.
After realizing his talents as a wide receiver likely wouldn’t take him to the NFL, Suleiman began pursuing other careers surrounding professional sports. A week before his senior year of college, he sent his resume to every NFL and NBA team looking for any kind of internship to break into professional sports and got some offers, including as a community relations intern with the Panthers.
It wasn’t until after the last game of his college career that his head coach recommended sending a letter to the league office, and he found a fit with the Management Council, which is responsible for representing clubs in negotiations related to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“I just thought that that would be a good place to learn the business from the ground up, because at the time (1997), the salary cap was only four years old,” Suleiman said. “A lot of teams were still trying to learn that.”
He then spent two years in Jacksonville as the Manager of Contract Information, before joining the St. Louis Rams as Director of Football Administration.
“He really has a broad and unique skill set, which I think enables him to function … at the highest efficiency, whether he was engaged in operational details, or whether it was strategic planning,” former Rams president and general manager Jay Zygmunt said. “Whether it was detailed, or whether it was the view from 30,000 feet, he was very good at that.”
In St. Louis, Suleiman’s strong work ethic was on display and he would often come into the building around 4 a.m. He served as the Rams’ de facto assistant general manager.
“He was a problem-solver, not a problem-maker. And that’s something that obviously we’re all looking for,” Zygmunt said. “He was an integral part of everything we did and it was also, obviously, an integral part of our 2001 championship team.”
The Rams during that time period were regarded as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” but lost Super Bowl XXXVI to the New England Patriots after winning the big game two years prior — before Suleiman joined the team.
The contracts he submitted in 10 seasons in St. Louis never had issues, and he was exposed to all areas of the building.
Zygmunt became a mentor of Suleiman’s and someone he remains close with, including attending the wedding this summer, a day he called “really amazing.”
Suleiman met his eventual wife, who was a Rams cheerleader at the time, at one of the team’s charity events. They’ve known each other for 16 years, and were friends first, but started dating five years ago. Erin is now a psychologist and sexologist.
“The exact moment that I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him I was (living) in Kansas City, and we reconnected and started dating and he was kind of saying, ‘Hey, are we going to do this or not?’ ” Erin said. “He said, ‘I know I hadn’t been there for some of your darkest days, but I want to be there for your brightest.’ ”
An avid hunter
Sitting in Suleiman’s office is a snakeskin football, a sign of his one of other passions. He is an avid hunter, having traveled all over the world to hunt a variety of animals, something he learned from his father and his father learned from his father.
Suleiman’s father taught him to eat everything he hunts, and he has adapted a conservationist approach, such as hunting Burmese pythons with his bare hands and killing a hippo in Mozambique that killed a boy. Hippos kill an estimated 500 people per year in Africa, according to National Geographic. He also killed a wild turkey this past spring, and he and his family plan to eat it on Thanksgiving.
“I just enjoy being out in nature. Some of my best thinking, just about life while I’m sitting ... waiting for something to show up,” Suleiman said. “I just kind of appreciate nature and as I’ve gotten older, I kind of appreciate the gamesmanship and skill set that it requires to out smart a coyote or something like that, where they have just phenomenal superior senses to humans.”
Those observational skills have benefited him in more ways than one. Suleiman does more than just manage the Panthers’ salary cap. He’s at practice every day and has experience scouting. Team building for the future is a large part of the role he plays.
“The biggest challenge is really kind of balancing where you allocate your resources, whether it’s draft picks, or salary cap dollars for those players and making the right choices and right commitments of the players that you want to build your team around,” Suleiman said.
When constructing a new contract and deciding what the Panthers are willing to pay, Suleiman consults comparable deals at the position based on experience and statistics of numbers that he is constantly updating.
“A lot of teams I’ve been on they’ve had, just as an example, multi-Pro Bowl players at the same position,” Suleiman said. “You always want to keep in mind the pay scale of your own team, because that is a factor in the locker room. And then again, when you’re trying to build a team for the present and the future, you’re kind of balancing out contract lengths. And when the contracts are going to fluctuate in particular years, things like that.”
Suleiman declined the idea of building the team in terms of rebuilding for the future, instead pointing out that the team’s philosophy when adding a player, is if they will be an asset to the team now with their goal of winning sooner rather than later.
He pointed to signing edge rusher Haason Reddick to a one-year deal. The team knew he could help them this year — Reddick ranks third in the NFL with 10.5 sacks — and they’ll see how things play out before deciding what to do with him next season.
Fitterer, the Panthers’ general manager, described Suleiman as knowing the cap “inside and out” and that he has become someone that relies on quite a bit. The pair did not know each other before Fitterer was hired by Carolina in January 2021, but Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who Fitterer previously worked with, told him he’d be in “good hands” with Suleiman.
“He’s really good with the details, like structuring the language and the model of it,” Fitterer said. “He also does a really nice job of, OK, if we do this deal, this is what it looks like in the future for us.”
Contracts aren’t the only area Suleiman’s negotiating skills come into good use. He went back and forth for hours with someone on Craigslist just so he could get $3 for selling an old Kenny Loggins CD, Erin said. He also lands deals for team employees, like when he got a good price for Lasik surgery for himself, coaches and other staff in the Jaguars organization. One of the keys of negotiation, he said, is that no one will give you what you don’t ask for.
When it comes to negotiating for players with agents, his approach is to be consistent and fair.
“I try not to be generous, if that makes sense,” Suleiman said. “Agents know if I tell them something, they can trust me, they can hold me to my word. And because like the precedent consistency is there, the track record is there, so I just think they appreciate being upfront.
“… If we cut a player, and they ask me, what can he do better? Why didn’t it work out there? And I’ll tell them what they can work on.”
Multiple NFL agents described the directness that Suleiman operates with, and how they know that they’ll get the truth from him. Those relationships are valued.
Suleiman, who’s in a contract year with the Panthers, hopes to take everything he’s learned and use that to take the next step as a general manager.
“I think a lot of people think that GMs just have to scout big players. I think there’s a lot more that goes into it than that,” he said. “You have to understand the business side, you have to understand, pick the right coaches, you have to have some kind of relationship with the non-football side of the building. You have to understand the fan base, you have to understand a demanding owner. I think just all of that, things that I’ve been exposed to over my career.”
Editor’s note: Reporting by former Observer Panthers reporter Alaina Getzenberg for this story happened during the NFL offseason.
Notable Panthers deals by Samir Suleiman
▪ LB Haason Reddick: One year, $6 million
▪ QB Cam Newton: One year, $6 million (up to $10 million if he wins a Super Bowl)
▪ WR Robby Anderson: Three years, $37.5 million
▪ QB Teddy Bridgewater: Three years $63 million
▪ RT Taylor Moton: Five years, $85 million
▪ RG John Miller: One year, $1 million
▪ LB Frankie Luvu: One year, $1.1 million