CHARLOTTE -- Not only is Jon Beason helping the Carolina Panthers defense with his own precocious play, he's also fattening his own wallet.
By playing more -- and better -- than either side could have hoped early on, the Panthers' middle linebacker has already triggered the big payment built into his rookie deal, and is on pace to max out some of the incentives.
Beason's five-year, $11.3 million contract signed in August (eight days into training camp) was actually built as two separate contracts. He'd trigger the latter portion, with a $2.552 million signing bonus, by playing 35 percent of the teams defensive snaps as a rookie, or 45 percent next year.
Already, he's played 493 of the Panthers 591 plays. If he didn't take another snap all year, and they continued the current pace for 1,051 plays, he'd be at 46.9 percent, comfortably there.
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By hitting that benchmark this year, he'll get $500,000 of that second signing bonus added to his 2008 compensation, with the rest coming in 2009 as scheduled. That will push him over the $1 million mark for his second year, along with his $370,000 base salary and a guaranteed $242,500 roster bonus.
But there are other bumps coming as well, ones he should hit as long as he stays healthy.
His contract calls for escalators in the final three years of the deal based on the percentages of defensive plays he takes each year. He gets $100,000 added to his salary each year beginning in 2009 if he plays 60 percent of the snaps, $150,000 for 75 percent at $200,000 for 85 percent.
He's at 83.4 percent now, and that number should rise as he stays on the field for practically every play. He probably wouldn't have hit the high benchmark without the season-ending injury to mentor Dan Morgan, which cleared the way for him to join Thomas Davis in the nickel package, where they only use two linebackers.
If he stayed at the 85 percent pace for the first four years of the contract, it would mean an extra $1.8 million.
According to his representatives, he's the only player outside the top five in this year's draft whose escalators begin in the third year. The Panthers wrote the contracts of first-rounders Jordan Gross and Chris Gamble the same way.
Since the escalator clause covers each of the first two years, he could make an extra $400,000 in base salary in 2009 if he's a full-time player his first two seasons, up to $600,000 to his 2010 earnings and $800,000 to his 2011 base salaries.
He got a $3 million signing bonus initially, and hitting the bonus and the incentives will allow him to pocket $4.6 million the first two years and $7.5 million in three, numbers that his representatives said put him ahead of players picked four spots before him this year.
Of course, the way he's playing, there's even more money on the line.
He'd get an extra $50,000 if he makes the Pro Bowl this year, and bumps for future trips to Hawaii would be $100,000 for the second, $200,000 for the third and $250,000 for the fourth.
While that could be premature, he's already earning recognition outside the area for his sterling play in the middle. He leads the Panthers with 78 tackles, 24 more than second-place safeties Chris Harris and Deke Cooper.