Crafty Panthers find ways to free up cap room

Darin GanttJanuary 27, 2008 

CHARLOTTE --There exists a notion that the Carolina Panthers don't have the kind of salary cap room needed to fix their problems or engage in the active offseason the owner has promised.

It's dead wrong.

While there will be teams with more money to spend, the Panthers have through several measures insured they'll have plenty of ability to sign multiple free agents this offseason. By way of one accounting trick slipped into two December deals, the Panthers created nearly $7 million worth of extra cap room in 2008.

There's nearly $5 million more available when they do what they already planned to do with the contract of Steve Smith. More money will come in smaller chunks throughout the spring.

Combined, there's plenty of available credit for a spending spree, according to documents obtained by The Herald and confirmed by multiple league sources last week.

The cap room exists as a surprise to many, who assumed they didn't have the funds. In December, an item appeared on SI.com which portrayed the Panthers' 2008 salary cap situation as one of the worst in the league, with only $6 million worth of room under the project $116 million cap, when they only had 35 players under contract. While technically correct at that moment, it was incomplete if not misleading.

That number included a $15.6 million cap figure for defensive end Julius Peppers, in the final year of his rookie deal. But it didn't figure the $1.5 million which will be credited back to the 2008 cap when they account for a Pro Bowl incentive which he didn't cash this season. That bonus was considered "likely to be earned," or LTBE in contract parlance, since Peppers went to Hawaii the year before. And any LTBE incentives which aren't earned become credits to the next year's cap.

It also comes from a time when Smith's figure stood at $11 million. But he's got a $6 million roster bonus due in March which the Panthers always planned on guaranteeing. Since they can then prorate the $6 million over the final five years of his contract, they'll clear another $4.8 million of room once that's done.

But the real sleight-of-hand act by cap manager Rob Rogers came quietly in little-publicized December deals for linebacker Na'il Diggs and wide receiver Jason Carter. Both contracts included huge special teams incentives, which were never designed to be reached. But since all in-season special teams incentives go down as LTBE, when Diggs and Carter didn't hit the levels prescribed in their deals, another $6.7 million was added to the Panthers' 2008 salary cap. The Panthers were one of 24 teams to employ that tactic, a way to use late-season cap room to create future excess.

More room will come when they make some cuts -- likely to include David Carr and Dan Morgan, and perhaps others such as Mike Wahle and DeShaun Foster. Creating between $18-$20 million worth of room through the collection of moves is realistic, and perhaps a low estimate.

Long story short, they've got enough money to fix things, even without extending Peppers' contract (which will create another windfall of cap room, whenever or if it's done).

The temptation for general manager Marty Hurney was to debunk the early reports, but he stayed as quiet, as he does with all contract matters. The Panthers don't comment on any numbers, although they know full well they all eventually seep out.

"Trying to explain the salary cap to the public is probably one of the most complicating and frustrating things there is," Hurney said. "But we deal with that the same way we do with contracts. I don't think we should talk about the particulars of the deals, but they come out. Then you get misconceptions about what's actually happening.

"There are some times you want to correct some of the stuff you hear, but you can't, not if you're going to be consistent about not talking about contracts."

• ONLY IN AMERICA: Not only is immigration one of the hot issues of the presidential race, it's also stuck its head into the Panthers' offseason.

Part of the reason the Panthers signed kicker Rhys Lloyd last week was so they'd have time to make sure his work papers were in order. The native of Dover, England, is in the United States on a P-1 visa, the kind reserved for athletes, artists and entertainers.

He was an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning he couldn't negotiate with other teams, but they wanted to go ahead and sign him (for two years) to make sure he'd be able to participate in spring camps.

They've been down this road before. In 2006, they offered a rookie free agent deal to Nebraska tackle Seppo Evwaraye, a native of Finland. But because he was in this country on just a student visa at the time, he was unable to sign his contract because his papers didn't allow him to work in the U.S. He never signed, and was out of football in 2006.

• EXTRA POINTS: Former defensive tackle Jordan Carstens still hopes to return to football some day, but he's not yet ready to resume his career.

The one-time starter for the Panthers was out of the league last year after failing his physical. A blood clot in his lung (the result of medication to control a kidney disease) forced him to the injured reserve list in 2006, and he didn't even get to begin camp last season.

His agent said last week that Carstens still has an eye on a comeback, but his blood-count numbers aren't in a spot that would allow it.

In addition to Lloyd, the Panthers made two other signings last week.

They brought back wide receiver Josh Davis, the local product whose season was cut short by an emergency appendectomy in August. The former York Comprehensive High School star spent the year on the reserve non-football injury list. He left Marshall as the second-leading receiver in NCAA history, and had impressed coaches with his technique before he had to leave camp.

They also added former Tennessee fullback Troy Fleming, who hasn't played since 2005. He was cut after training camp by the Titans in 2006 and Denver in 2007.

daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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