Chris Gamble became the team's highest paid player ever the day after we all gave thanks, signing a $54 million deal that spans 6 years and comes with $16 million up front with the expectation of a total of $22 million guaranteed.
Gamble had become the Panthers' best corner, in my estimation, over the course of the last year. Always good at playing the ball, Gamble had become the player the Panthers saw targeted less; he had, previously, been the slightly mistake prone player who could take on any receiver but couldn't tackle. He has become a complete football player, with heavy hits, interceptions, and the ability to play almost any player in man coverage.
Gamble's value, at $9 million per year, is an astonishing rate for old-school Panther fans who remember how shockingly expensive the Ken Lucas deal was for Carolina in 2005 at $6 million per year. Deals by Assante Samuel and Nate Clements have really brought the price up for cornerbacks, and the free agent market overall exploded last year. While Carolina stayed away from high priced free agents last year, and high market deals overall, the team feels the effect of such deals when taking its tack of re-signing key players.
The move comes as a bit of a surprise - the Panthers rarely make big contract moves mid-season and the team is in the middle of an assumed playoff run. Besides becoming (for now) the highest paid player in team history, Gamble also becomes the first John Fox and Marty Hurney first round draft pick to span his rookie contract and re-sign.
The team has pending free agents in Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross, the two first round picks before Gamble, to deal with in 2009. Gross can't sign, as a Franchise player, until after the year is over; Peppers has the ability, since his contract hadn't been renegotiated, but the team has been unable to come up with a deal so far.
Most people think of the Peppers and Gross situations first when thinking ahead; Gamble's was just as big to get done, and while their two other franchise-level upcoming free agents do matter, Gamble's impact starts at the cornerback slot. For one, all four starting DBs are under contract through 2010 now. The downside is that it appears that Richard Marshall, the team's nickelback, is deemed not a long-term part of the team's future due to rapidly escalating demands as a pending free agent (RFA 2009, UFA 2010). Marshall, a top notch football player and cover corner who just happens to rank as third best at each on the Panthers, didn't have interest in signing a deal that would rank shy of Gamble's, when approached in the offseason. The team didn't want to pay Marshall that money, and apparently will Gamble. This likely means the team will move forward on Gamble and Lucas, and will do their best to keep Marshall in RFA but let him walk after.
Second, it shows the team is still preparing for its future. John Fox and Marty Hurney don't make this move if they aren't assured some long-term tenure.
Gross' status as a free agent should be worth monitoring. Gross states he wants to stay, and the team feels he's a leader; Gross states he simply ran out of time to get a deal done and was franchised for it. So, getting a deal done shouldn't be critical, but it shouldn't have impact on Gamble's contract. In the end, it should come down to a risk-reward deal of whether the team can afford to have Travelle Wharton return to LT or pay Gross a top-market deal in the level of $7.5-8.5 million per year or more.
It doesn't impact Julius Peppers' contract because Peppers was going to get more than this anyway. The team already offered a deal that would make him the highest paid defensive end - which means a deal in excess of the $12 million per year deal that Dwight Freeney received (now almost two years ago). The team loves having Peppers as a player, and he's a homegrown star. The team isn't going to let him go, so they're willing to franchise him for $17 million rather than let him walk; Peppers knows this and probably isn't going to settle for a deal that isn't amazing. So, if this deal stings, you have no idea what the impending Peppers deal will do to you.