CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers had a very good secondary in the present when they signed cornerback Chris Gamble to a long-term extension last week.
That deal ensured they'd have one into the future, even if no one's sure how exactly it will be configured down the road.
Right now, they're simply delighted to have three top-shelf cornerbacks at their disposal as they make a playoff push. Moving forward, they're happy to have options in an area that's one of the hardest to fill.
Along with Gamble, they have starter Ken Lucas and nickel Richard Marshall, giving them one of the top sets of corners in the game.
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"I think we've got a very solid group," safety Chris Harris said. "It allows us to play man-to-man and not worry about if somebody's getting isolated, or somebody's isolating one of the one-on-one because they can all hold their own. It's good to have three starting corners on your team ...
"When you have three starting corners, ... we're lucky to have that commodity, because if somebody gets hurt we don't have a drop-off at that position."
Keeping Gamble wasn't cheap, as it cost them a six-year deal worth nearly $54 million, with $20 million in guarantees payable the first year. It's a steep price, but considering the market and their ability to replace him, it was the cost of doing business.
General manager Marty Hurney said keeping Gamble was part of the team's bedrock plan, which is to draft well and keep them. Since Gamble's still only 25 and playing better by the year, the contract will make sure his peak years are spent with the team that drafted him in the first round of the 2004 draft.
But with Gamble taken care of, the Panthers will have interesting calls to make on the other two soon, and that's where the future gets complicated.
How long should they hang onto Lucas, keeping Marshall out of the starting lineup? And how long can they keep Marshall, and at what price?
Lucas will turn 30 during the playoffs and has a salary cap number that with restructuring has swollen to more than $9 million next year. That's given him and understandable set of concerns. It might be called paranoia, but it's more like a realism about the business he's been in for eight years now.
Asked if Gamble's deal gave him pause for his own future, Lucas' first reaction was that he didn't care, that he was in the middle of a season and not concerned about what happens in 2009. But the more he talked, the more it became clear there's something in the back of his mind.
"You never know," Lucas said. "As you can see, especially in this sport, contracts are never really guaranteed. You can see with DeAngelo Hall, he signed a seven-year deal (with Oakland), and he's gone in the first year. That's just paper money really, like Monopoly money.
"You've got to perform, like you did before you got the contract. If you don't, they can send you off."
While there have been recent hiccups, there's nothing in Lucas' play to suggest he's in a decline. But at his age, he's no longer an ascending player, and they have another of those on hand. The combination of those factors makes him a potential salary cap casualty, and everyone knows it.
Still, you can make a case for keeping him in Charlotte for several reasons. First, he's still pretty good at what he does, and would be tough to replace. Second, he's earned some emotional capital because of the way he handled this summer's fight with wide receiver Steve Smith. Lucas has always been a bit of a loner, but was drawn into the family because of his quiet forgiveness this summer. Even the most pragmatic businessman would have to consider the impact of parting with him at this point.
But it's not as if things are clear-cut when it comes to Marshall either.
The third-year nickel back, who turns 24 next week, is a combination of physical and graceful, with the potential to be the best of the three. He's still working on his rookie contract, which expires after next season. But because of a kink in the collective bargaining agreement, his financial future's up in the air as well.
Without an extension to the CBA, Marshall's part of a group of players victimized by rules for the potential uncapped 2010 season. Under that scenario, players would need six years of service to be unrestricted, and those with less than that remain restricted free agents, giving the team an opportunity to theoretically hang onto him for another two seasons at cut-rate prices.
Marshall's agent said last spring there were some discussions about an extension, but they didn't progress. Marshall's side was looking for something in the $8 million per year range, but the Panthers (having not yet dealt with Gamble) balked at the price tag. That might have been a bad idea, because the economic slowdown that has hit the rest of the country hasn't applied to the cornerback market in the past, and it's not as if he's getting cheaper.
If they decided to part ways with Lucas -- which would be a dicey call, considering what's out there to replace him -- they'd be more than comfortable starting Marshall. They also like the progress of 2007 seventh-rounder C.J. Wilson, but would need to add some help.
The free agent market's not deep in talented cover players (which spurred Gamble's deal). Only former South Carolina standout and current Houston corner Dunta Robinson is available to fill in at an elite level, and Lucas would probably be the next best option if he was cut. The Panthers are also without a first-round draft pick after last year's trade to get tackle Jeff Otah, and need to use the picks they have left to restock other positions such as the defensive line.
Hurney wouldn't comment on any potential future deals, and those involved swear such concerns will take care of themselves down the road -- and rightly so.
Right now, the Panthers corners are the backbone of a defense that's not as good as it once was up front. So it's up to them to hold up over the last month, in hopes of doing more.
"I mean, you know this is a business so you play for today," Lucas said. "You know tomorrow's not promised to you, so we just try to seize the moment right now. We're on a roll right now, we're 9-3 and have a chance to do what our goals were to start the beginning of the year. That's to go to the super bowl and win it this year. That's still intact and we have a realistic opportunity to do so.
"Me and Chris and Richard, we all get along very well and have a good chemistry back there. It'll be good to keep that together (down the road), but like I say, that's just us, on the surface. We don't know what they're thinking upstairs. And you can't worry about that."