Carolina’s flexibility limited
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó With little salary-cap space and most of their core players under contract, the Carolina Panthers are expected to be quiet when free agency begins today.
Yet as long as four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers’ future remains uncertain, the Panthers will remain in the NFL’s offseason spotlight.
While Peppers has made it well known he wants to play elsewhere next season, the Panthers still slapped the franchise tag on him last week. That means they’re on the hook for a one-year deal worth $16.7 million that eats up a large chunk of the salary cap and makes a free agency spree impossible.
But the move also won’t allow Peppers to leave unless another team gives up two first-round picks.
With that unlikely, the Panthers could still pull off a trade for less compensation ó if Peppers agrees to a new contract with that team.
Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey, and Panthers general manager Marty Hurney remained mum on the issue Thursday as it appeared Carolina won’t be a major player elsewhere in free agency.
“If you look at our situation, we’ve got our starters back from last year,” Hurney said. “We’ve got a good part of our nucleus back. I think we’re in a situation where we have a good young core that has either headed into or is heading into their second contracts. I think it’s good situation to be in.”
Counting Peppers and cornerback Ken Lucas, who has a large salary-cap figure and is being shopped, the Panthers have all 22 starters locked up from last season’s 12-4 team that won the NFC South before imploding in the playoffs against Arizona.
Still, the Panthers have uncertainty on both lines.
A day after the team released the versatile Jeremy Bridges to clear salary-cap space, fellow offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner decided to test unrestricted free agency.
“He’s going to explore some other opportunities,” agent Eric Metz said. “We’ll see where it goes from there this weekend.”
Hangartner, Carolina’s fifth-round pick in 2005, started nine games last season due to injuries, including at right guard in the NFC divisional playoff loss.
Long-snapper Jason Kyle and return man Mark Jones are among Carolina’s other unrestricted free agents.
The Panthers on Thursday offered starting tight end Jeff King, a restricted free agent, a one-year tender worth $1.545 million. Another team can’t sign King without giving up a second-round pick.
The Panthers offered reserve linebacker James Anderson and safety Nate Salley the low tender of $1.01 million. A team would have to surrender a third-round pick to sign Anderson and a fourth-rounder to get Salley.
The Panthers have also restructured the contracts of starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis to clear more cap space that could help Carolina get a talent infusion on defense.
If Lucas leaves ó and the NFL Network reported Thursday that Lucas nixed a trade to Detroit ó Carolina would need help in the secondary.
The Panthers also offered deals to defensive tackle Nick Hayden and cornerback C.J. Wilson, who are exclusive rights free agents. The team did not offer contracts to defensive tackles Gary Gibson and J’Vonne Parker and receiver Jason Carter.
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