Big season could mean big bucks for Panthers’ Gamble
By Mike Cranston
SPARTANBURG, S.C. ó Carolina Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble saw all the big deals given to defensive backs in the offseason and realized he could be next.
Set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2008 season, Gamble is one strong, healthy and productive season away from cashing in.
“Every other day somebody else is getting signed and it’s a DB,” Gamble said. “So it’s like, ‘Man, my time could be up next.’ I just try to blank that out and think about this year and what I’ve got to do.”
Entering his fifth season, the former Panthers’ first-round pick has been a starter since his rookie year and is tied for second in team history with 17 interceptions. With a combination of speed and leaping ability, the 6-foot-1 Gamble is looking for his contract year to be his breakout year.
“My goal is to make the Pro Bowl,” the 25-year-old Gamble said. “And now I’ve got to start every day in practice, making plays and grinding it out.”
Gamble is coming off his least productive season. Playing with a cast on his right hand due to a broken thumb, Gamble had only one interception and a career-low six pass deflections.
The injury forced Gamble to miss one game and he didn’t start in three others as Carolina finished a disappointing 7-9.
“You don’t feel pain,” Gamble said. “It just feels like you’ve got one hand to play with.”
Cast-free in training camp this week, Gamble was part of a solid secondary that was drawing little attention in camp until Friday’s fight involving starting cornerback Ken Lucas and receiver Steve Smith.
Before Lucas left for Charlotte after the incident, Gamble had taken the lead in their friendly competition tracking pass breakups and interceptions.
“Chris is a guy that ended last year with a broken hand, and that kind of limited him some toward the end of last year,” coach John Fox said. “But he’s come back and worked very hard this offseason and he’s having a good camp.”
After recording 13 interceptions in his first two seasons, Gamble has managed just four in the past two years. It’s led some to call for Marshall to replace him as a starter.
But Gamble has worked exclusively with the first team in a year that could lead to a big payday after he makes about $1.4 million in the final year of his rookie contract.
The offseason saw a slew of defensive backs get big deals, highlighted by Philadelphia’s Asante Samuel (six years, $57 million) and Oakland’s DeAngelo Hall (seven years, $70 million).
“I could be that next DB but it starts first on the field,” said Gamble, who indicated the Panthers have not approached him about starting contract talks. “I’ve got to make myself go out there and have fun and make plays like I know I can. When I see that, it just puts a smile on my face that I could be one of those guys.”
The Panthers expect the secondary to be one of the team’s strengths. The three cornerbacks are joined by safeties Chris Harris, acquired in a trade with Chicago last season, and third-round pick Charles Godfrey. After Mike Minter’s retirement last year and Deke Cooper’s departure, the Panthers have become more athletic on the back line.
“I feel like we could be one of the best secondaries in this league,” Harris said. “With Richard Marshall, Gamble and Lucas, we’ve got three starting corners on our team. We’ve got depth at safety. Myself, Charles, Terrence Holt, who’s an excellent player. He brings a bunch of experience to this game, so I’m real excited about the group we’ve got.”
Among the group, Gamble faces the most pressure. With Marshall pushing him for his job and a big contract within sight, the Ohio State product is facing his most critical season.
“I’ve just got to stay consistent, make more plays and go out there and have fun,” Gamble said. “That’ll stand for itself.”