Cheap cornerbacks not likely to last long

Darin GanttMay 18, 2008 

CHARLOTTE -- For now, the Panthers have more starting cornerbacks than starting jobs. It helps that two-thirds of them are cheap.

Enjoy it now -- it won't last long.

With Ken Lucas entering the big-number phase of his six-year, $37 million contract signed in 2005, Chris Gamble becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the coming season and Richard Marshall looming two years out, the Panthers have some expensive decisions to make over the next few years.

Marshall's agent said last week he had some "cursory" discussions about an extension with the Panthers earlier this spring, but was quick to add "they didn't really go anywhere." Then he dropped the bombshell.

"In two years," agent Steven Feldman said, "I would not be surprised if Richard Marshall is the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history."

Not bad for a guy who's not a full-time starter, and might not be this season. The Panthers stuck with Lucas and Gamble at minicamp, though Marshall might eventually be better than either. He's already more of a complete player than Gamble (better able or more willing to come up and hit), but the Panthers have stuck with Gamble because of his pure cover skills.

The good news for the Panthers is that Gamble and Marshall are still affordable. Gamble's in the last year of his five-year, $7 million pact, and will make $1.435 million in base salary this season. Marshall's four-year, $2.86 million will pay him $445,000 and $530,00 in base salaries the next two years.

That's chicken scratch in a market that has exploded. Big-ticket corners rank only behind quarterbacks in terms of compensation, and the deals grow by the year.

Nate Clements set the bar in 2007 with his eight-year, $80 million deal with San Francisco. Seattle was willing to put a $9.465 million franchise tag on Marcus Trufant this offseason before giving him a six-year, $50.2 million pact. Oakland put the exclusive franchise tag on Nnamdi Asomugha (at least $9.8 million), and then gave DeAngelo Hall a seven-year, $66 million contract after acquiring him from Atlanta. Philadelphia, already owning a good pair of starters, gave Asante Samuel six years and $57 million.

That rising tide has lifted all boats, with lesser lights such as Jacques Reeves and Randall Gay punching the clock for better than $4 million per year on their new deals with Houston and New Orleans, respectively. San Diego's third corner, Drayton Florence, got six years and $36 million from Jacksonville.

General manager Marty Hurney said he thought the exploding corner market had as much to do with the concentration of individual players hitting the market at once rather than any big-picture trend. He also said there were no active discussions going on with Gamble or Marshall.

But Feldman's prediction aside, it's clear the Panthers are going to have to spend heavily to keep either Gamble or Marshall in the coming years. The only question is whether they choose to compete in a market gone wild.

• EXTRA POINTS: During an interview on Sirius NFL Radio last week, coach John Fox alluded to shortening training camp this year because of the lack of bodies. Without NFL Europe exemptions, they'll have just 80 on hand, eight or nine short of what they've had in recent years.

Lightening the load might drop camp to less than three weeks. They'll report on July 25 and start practice the next day, going a week before coming home for FanFest. There's another five-day stint before the first preseason game on Aug. 9, then a short turnaround before their Aug. 14 trip to Philadelphia. If they go back to Spartanburg at all after that game, it likely won't be for long. That's the kind of carrot Fox likes to dangle from the end of a stick to motivate players, and it usually works.

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