Carolina Panthers

Harris, Wharton deals headline busy day

Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall and safety Chris Harris tackle San Francisco's Vernon Davis on Dec. 2, 2007. Harris and the Panthers finalized a four-year extension Thursday.
Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall and safety Chris Harris tackle San Francisco's Vernon Davis on Dec. 2, 2007. Harris and the Panthers finalized a four-year extension Thursday.

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers finished up safety Chris Harris' four-year contract extension in the morning, easy because they knew where they were putting him. A few hours later, they knocked out a six-year pact for left tackle Travelle Wharton, who might not end up playing that spot at all.

The Wharton and Harris deals were the headliners on a busy day for the Panthers. They also finalized the agreed-upon three-year extension for defensive tackle Damione Lewis, and were working furiously on a number of smaller deals, including one for fullback Brad Hoover. They're continuing to negotiate with several other of their own free agents, meaning more deals could follow quickly on the heels of one of their busiest days in recent memory.

But while the terms of the Wharton deal weren't available, that they reached the accord makes it the most significant so far this offseason.

Now that they've got him secured, they know they have the options they wanted on the offensive line, even if they don't know where they'll all fall.

"He's an offensive lineman," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said when asked where Wharton would line up. "He's a very talented player, and he's our kind of person, and he wanted to stay, so really we look at it as a win-win.

"He's played left tackle, but one of the things we view as a positive with our offensive line is the position flexibility."

Though he played the high-demand spot most recently, there's also a very good chance Wharton will play left guard this year, filling the vacancy created by Monday's release of Mike Wahle (who agreed to a deal with Seattle on Thursday). That's the spot Wharton played as a rookie in 2004.

Wharton laughed when asked his preference, quickly falling back into the eager-to-please mode that's made him such a favorite of coaches here.

"I'd love to play tackle, but really, it doesn't matter to me at all," Wharton said with a laugh. "I'll play wherever. The big thing for me is fitting into the puzzle wherever they want me, and playing to my capabilities and making this team better."

Of course, moving him inside means they need to add another tackle. They're going to keep Jordan Gross, who'll be franchise-tagged if they don't get a long-term deal done by next Thursday. And once you pencil him in, they could still tap into a deep crop of tackles at the top of this year's draft to add to the offseason's top priority.

"We've said all along we were going to address the lines," Hurney said.

And they want to do so with guys who can do more than one thing. They haven't ruled out moving Gross back to left tackle once he re-signs. Wharton could play tackle or guard. They could move Justin Hartwig to guard to get Ryan Kalil on the field at center, and they still have versatile blockers such as Jeremy Bridges and restricted free agents Geoff Hangartner and Evan Mathis under control, as well.

Fixing the blocking is a must, considering the offseason emphasis to improve the running game -- along with the unspoken mandate for extra protection for quarterback Jake Delhomme coming off last year's elbow surgery.

On the other side of the ball, Harris took another step in becoming the next in a line of institutions at strong safety by signing his new deal.

He was already under contract through 2008, but the Panthers saw the opportunity to provide some continuity to the spot that was Mike Minter and a bunch of guys for the last decade.

"Chris came in last year and proved to be a good fit for us," Hurney said. "He made a lot of plays for us last year, and he expressed an interest in staying here, and we were able to get something done."

The deal's worth a total of $13.327 million over the five years, and is built in a way that should enable him to play it out.

Nearly 40 percent of the sum comes in the first two years of the deal (almost $5.3 million), making it more "real" than a lot of contracts which feature big payments in late years that the player never sees.

Harris got a $2 million signing bonus, and will receive a $1 million roster bonus next March. The deal also includes Pro Bowl escalators worth $400,000 and $300,000 worth of workout bonuses, and base salaries which are evenly spread as the deal progresses. He'll make $527,000 in base salary this year, $1.7 million in 2009, followed by payments of $2.05 million, $2.45 million and $2.9 million.

"It's a stable deal, and when you have stability in your organization, that's when you win," said agent Albert Elias.

The two sides began talking about a deal last November, and agreed to keep talking after the Super Bowl. They started talking in earnest again last week, knocking out the bulk of the numbers before finalizing things this week.

For their money, the Panthers hope they're buying a player who's still improving.

The 25-year-old Harris had started 20 games in two years for Chicago, but made an immediate impact in Charlotte, registering a franchise record eight forced fumbles in 2007.

In fact, he significantly outperformed Minter, who had seven forced fumbles in his previous six seasons before retiring during training camp, coincidentally following the trade that brought his replacement here.

Where Harris still has to catch him will be as a leader, though the contract positions him nicely to grow into that role. The Panthers now have eight players on defense under contract through at least 2010 (five of them linebackers and defensive backs), giving them a considerable base to build on.

And in hindsight, last August's trade looks more and more like a steal for the Panthers. They gave up this year's fifth-round pick for Harris, who's already added more than the usual corps of role-players you get late in the draft.