CHARLOTTE -- The first big question about the Carolina Panthers upcoming training camp looks like it's going to evaporate before the first player arrives.
While many don't think defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is going to show after boycotting the voluntary June workouts, those close to the situation are sure that Jenkins will be there Friday when players report to Wofford College in Spartanburg.
Jenkins was here for the mandatory minicamp the weekend after the draft, but stayed away from the entire three-week summer school since he didn't have to be there. The only other player in franchise history to do so was linebacker Kevin Greene in 1997, during a snit over a raise then-general manager Bill Polian wasn't going to give him. That set the stage for Greene's eventual release.
But while money's at least partly the reason Jenkins stayed away this summer as well, the Panthers won't repeat history.
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Team officials have been strangely confident that he'd return, and general manager Marty Hurney said last week he'd gotten no indication from agent Tony Paige otherwise.
"We've communicated the whole time, Tony and I," Hurney said. "We expect Kris to be there, no question."
Hurney's isn't blind optimism. Jenkins' representatives have apparently been working with the team to organize an outing in Spartanburg for a group of children Jenkins works with -- something he wouldn't be doing if he wasn't planning on showing up.
What he won't have when he arrives is a new contract. That's been his goal since the spring, and when Detroit gave defensive tackle Cory Redding a seven-year, $49 million deal last week ($20 million guaranteed), it added fuel to the speculative fire regarding Jenkins' status. There's no movement on a new deal, and most league observers said he needed to show up in shape and repeat last year's Pro Bowl-level play to even have a chance at another payday. He's under contract through 2009 on the six-year, $31 million extension he signed in 2003.
One agent who has similar players in his stable -- and is familiar with the way the Panthers work -- said Jenkins has little leverage since he's only played one full season in the last three because of injuries, and days away from his 28th birthday is considered a player in decline rather than one on the rise.
"Giving Jenkins a new deal right now would be like buying a '93 Ferrari," the agent said. "Sure it's a beautiful car, and not too many people have one like it. But you just don't know how long you can run it hard before it breaks down."
• SPEAKING OF CONTRACTS: Folks are quick to link defensive end Julius Peppers' contract status to the new six-year, $72 million deal signed by Indianapolis end Dwight Freeney recently. That pact contained $30 million in guarantees, making Freeney the highest-paid defender in the league.
Peppers has made clear that he doesn't really care about Freeney's deal since he doesn't view him as a comparable player. That will extend to the bargaining table as well, as most expect his next contract to be significantly larger than his Colts counterpart's.
"The reason that I have not signed an extension with the Panthers has nothing to do with Dwight Freeney," Peppers told The Herald in a March e-mail. "I don't know where people get the notion that I am waiting on him before I sign my next contract. He might be waiting on me, but my contract does not expire until after the 2008 season. Furthermore, I wouldn't compare my value as a player to Freeney or anyone else because I see myself as a complete defensive end and not just a pass-rusher."
The Panthers have made keeping Peppers a priority, and there have been discussions toward that goal for months. Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, said last week: "As you can imagine, I really don't want to comment on deals done by other agents or about the particulars of Julius' situation."
Make no mistake, when this one comes in, it will be bigger than Freeney's. The consensus among a handful of agents and personnel types last week was that a seven-year deal worth $90 million probably wasn't out of line, with $35 million or more of that guaranteed. The industry insider website profootballtalk.com suggested a lower total and a higher initial payout (six years, $78 million, $40 million guaranteed) as another possibility.
Either way, owner Jerry Richardson's going to soon get a chance to prove how much he loves Peppers, because he's going to have to reach deep to pay him.
• NEW TREND: The Panthers are apparently looking to avoid costly decisions in the future based on the way they're handling the negotiation of rookie contracts. The Panthers are asking the agents for all their picks for at least a four-year deal, which will keep this year's draft class out of restricted free agency altogether.
Even the late-rounders are getting deals with escalators that could push the fourth-year base salary from $550,000 to around $1.2 million, which will likely be close to the low RFA tender by 2010.
That decision could well stem from this year's quandary, when they gave higher tender offers to three of their own RFAs -- wide receiver Drew Carter, tight end Michael Gaines and defensive tackle Jordan Carstens. All got one-year, $1.3 million contracts because the team didn't want to risk tendering them at $850,000 and possibly losing them to other teams. At the higher level, teams would have had to cough up a second-round pick, and no one would have for any of those three.
However, those deals might end up looking bad in hindsight; since Carter and Gaines could lose starting jobs to Dwayne Jarrett and Jeff King. Carstens isn't a lock to play because of a kidney disease and its complications that kept him off the field for all but one game last year.
Hurney said avoiding the RFA dilemma was part of it, but they also hoped to add stability.
"Buying the fourth year is an advantage because you don't have to deal with restricted free agency," Hurney said. "But it's also about having a guy under contract for four years, keeping him around."
• EXTRA POINTS: While most of the attention regarding contract extensions has centered on Peppers and right tackle Jordan Gross, don't underestimate the value they place on left tackle Travelle Wharton, and their desire to lock him up long-term as well. Wharton's agent didn't want to talk about any discussions he's had with the Panthers last week, but it's no secret they like him and want to keep him.
Coming off last year's knee injury, Wharton is said to be close to returning to practice when camp starts, though the team might well ease him in. ...
Carstens agent said last week there was nothing new to report regarding his clients' health. However, Carstens will have tests before camp starts to determine if he'll be able to play this year. He was hospitalized last year after his kidney medication caused a blood clot which went to his lung, putting his future as a player at risk.