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Friday, February 27, 2009

Omiyale An Unlikely But Fast Pickup

Frank Omiyale cashed in early this morning, in a market that may not see any movement from the Carolina Panthers but may see more former Panthers cashing in.

Omiyale, who played left tackle competently in two games for Carolina, quickly had contact from ten different teams, and had a deal together with Chicago before breakfast - a four year, $14 million deal that likely pushes him into a starting role with the team.

Omiyale, not originally thought to be much of a player in free agency and not terribly high on the list of any major news outlets, was one of the first players to sign and was reportedly coveted by a third of the league's teams. Free agent left tackles aren't often allowed onto the market, but Carolina has their starters in place and don't look to spend that level of money on a backup.

Chicago had immediate concerns about 2008 first round pick Chris Williams, who disclosed an injury after the draft that threatens his development. Williams, taken directly after the Panthers drafted Jonathan Stewart, was at one time considered to be a potential pick for Carolina; they took OT Jeff Otah a few picks later. Now, with Carolina holding a massively successful running game thanks in part to Otah, the Bears look toward Carolina to help alleviate that mistake after only one year.

Among the other vet backups looking to cash in - Geoff Hangartner is on his way to Buffalo for a visit and potential contract. Hangartner, a 2005 5th round pick, was the 2006 starter at center and started at both LG and RG in injury situations in 2008. The team didn't make an offer to Hangartner, expecting that he, like Omiyale, can receive starting money in free agency.

For Carolina's part, finding veteran linemen in free agency will not be hard within a few weeks, looking for more bargains like Omiyale and Vincent (and, honestly, Toniu Fonoti and Milford Brown, had the numbers game not gotten them) were a year ago.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lucas Trade Nixed; Kemoeatu, Lewis extended

Carolina, as previously rumored by Pat Yasinskas, attempted to trade CB Ken Lucas. The trade, now known by NFL.com's Adam Schefter, was withthe Lions, and was vetoed by Lucas. It's uncertain what the terms of the trade could've been. It's certainly uncertain why the team chose to stop the trade based on Lucas' ishes - he has no real say in the matter. The Lions would've gotten Lucas for only one year unless extended, which may have been what killed the deal. Not coming to terms with the new team can be cause for atrade to be canceled. Carolina can save $2.53 million by doing so, or could save a similar amount by restructuring his contract.

Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis were given extensions this week, theteam announced. Both starting tackles were due to expire after 2010;both were extended through 2014. Lewis took a direct paycut, dropping $1 mil in salary, and rescinded a $2.5 million roster bonus to push that money through the new years of the contract. Kemoeatu dropped his base salary from $3.9 million to $2.0 million, and spread $2 million throughout the length of the contract for savings of $1.58 million this year. The team also gained $4 million under the cap when the league announced the new cap would increase from $123 million to $127 million, in aprovision intended to raise the league minimum spending cap.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Carolina Cuts Ties With Three, Restructure One

Carolina restructured Landon Johnson and cut three players - Jeremy Bridges, Nick Goings, and DJ Hackett - this week in an attempt to get under the cap. Johnson wasgiven a simple restructure, which saved as much as cutting him; it gives them aveteran backup at LB as they expect to lose veterans Donte Curry and Adam Seward infree agency. The move saves $1 million. Hackett hadn't worked out in Carolina - there were many misguided sources suggesting Hackett would start over Muhsin Muhammad; he predictably got hurt andunderperformed, but was worth signing if for no other reason than to get us through the two game suspension to Steve Smith. The team saves $1.04 million by cutting him. The other two cuts, however, were valuable backups who saved roster spots and hadearned their spots on the field. Goings, an undrafted player out of Pittsburgh, made the 2001 squad as a back, and excelled in the John Fox era with work at both fullback and running back. His 2004 performance, as a 4th string RB, turned inalmost 1000 yards (on a team that had only had two 1000 yard rushers in history atthe time) despite starting only half the year. He had elevated to Special Teams captain over the last few years. They saved $745,000 on the move, suggesting that Goings' play had finally fallen off and wouldn't be the team's top backup at FBwhile also allowing them a backup at RB. The team may be looking at finding a young backup RB who can return kicks and punts. Carolina saved $2.25 million with Bridges, the top backup at OT. With Bridges gone and Frank Omiyale a free agent, the team has its starters (All-Pro Jordan Gross and first round pick Jeff Otah) signed long term, but the team has only second-year practice squad player Geoff Schwartz at OT. The team would need to pickup at leastone additional player for depth. Locking up Geoff Hangartner does become more necessary now as well, to ensure a veteran backup presence on the OL.
The hard part is whether they have the money -they added enough to cover Gross and Peppers by making cuts and restructuring Johnson, but have to clear enough money for restricted free agents (roughly $4.5 million), and then would need to clear money to make any other moves. The team saved a total of $5.035 million on the moves. That, plus the $10 millionthey started with under the cap, and the $8 million saved from a scheduled guaranteeof a Chris Gamble bonus, left them with approximately $23.035 million in space, buthave to add in space for Julius Peppers' tag ($16.68 million) and Gross' contract(assumed to cost around $4.5 million against the cap).
Adding in the $4.5 million for RFA, the team needs around $2.5-3 million before they can be under the cap. They'll need to be under the cap by Friday, February 27.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

2009

Just as a personal aside, it's funny how time flies. In 2003, 04, 05, things like the Super Bowl team, the young players added after the big game, and the big contracts signed in 2005-06 all kinda pointed toward 2008-09 as a reckoning.

This includes contracts like Jake Delhomme's - his cap figure is 6th in the league for quarterbacks and will probably be dealt with soon. It certainly impacts Ken Lucas' employment, something we'll probably find out about this week. It certainly impacted the Jordan Gross, Chris Gamble, and Julius Peppers' contracts. It's hard to believe in the grand scheme of things: 2009 will see the former two on the field, but without the latter. Peppers, for all this time, has embodied our success, partially because we placed him there; meanwhile, his eagerness to leave has only highlighted that there have been others willing to take up the flag (even if none of them, unfortunately, are DL).

It's funny, though, 2009 would've been time to deal with Kris Jenkins' contract. Dan Morgan's. Deshaun Foster would've been a free agent, harkening back to a simpler time where running backs weren't so balls-out awesome. It's been rare to see this team change so much in the last few years (much less the last seven total), watching the youth of that Super Bowl team age, watching the veterans fall by the wayside.

At any rate, it's here. Fiscal year 2009. It's odd, it all played out around what I thought it would. Sure, there was hope for Super Bowls, and we could've had one by now. But I never did expect one, and I never will. It's such a specific, unlikely thing, an elite group of teams both talented and lucky. I also had little doubt we'd get this far intact - that John Fox would still be here, that changes would inevitably come to at least one side of the ball.

And yet it's hard to look past right now, suddenly. Why?

I don't think it's fear of the Fox regime going away. I like what we did last year, and I think we can enact similar change to the DL to bring the defense back to life, especially if they can parlay the Peppers issue into something workable. I think Fox is on solid ground.

It's uncertainty, I guess. The Peppers situation. Delhomme, and how he responds, and how long he has left even if he does. The lottery-sized contracts - back when I effectively guessed a long term Kris Jenkins extension within a million dollars, back before people knew he was getting an extension? Those contracts made sense. Look at the Nnamdi Asomugha contract - that makes no sense at all. A two-year deal, completely guaranteed, that essentially allows them to franchise him without the effort, and a third-year option equal to the franchise amount for QBs? How does that make any sense?

And the long term development, the contracts? Most of our guys from the 06, 07, 08 drafts - in a way as good as we've ever had from a set of drafts, are developed. They're here, they're good. They're playing a part. We need more, since free agency has effectively been an achilles heel the last few years.

Finally, the uncertainty of the league right now is harming the ability to look past the current times. I don't think there'll be an uncapped year, but it's likely we could see a lockout, a work stoppage, if a new CBA isn't agreed upon. It's impossible to worry about whether we can (or should, from a fiscal standpoint) retain Thomas Davis if he's signed up to the expiration of a salary cap.

And we've never seen a work stoppage as Panther fans. Not within ten years of the franchise suiting up. It leaves the level of uncertainty that keeps you from being able to imagine the future.

OL Set With Gross' Deal

Jordan Gross' deal ensures that the starting offensive line returns for 2009. Continuity and talent won't be problems for the upcoming season, and the team looks to be fairly deep as well.
Top backups are split on returning - backup tackles Jeremy Bridges and Frank Omiyale return. Backup C/G Mackenzie Bernardeau is returning, and the team moved quickly to re-sign practice squad OT Geoff Schwartz to a three year deal (not typical of players who haven't been able to make the roster). Bernardeau and Schwartz, 7th round picks in 2008, both have shown promise and will have a very good shot at staying on the roster fulltime in 2009.

However, key backup interior lineman Geoff Hangartner, who has started exactly half of the games he's been able to play in (27 of 54), is a free agent. He has been unable to be consistently good at guard, where he lacks inline power, but has shown competency at center. 15 of his starts were in 2006, where free agent Justin Hartwig remained injured throughout preseason and went down in the season opener as well.

Hangartner also showed as an able inline blocker at TE, where he was inserted at the goal line. The team had a very high power success rate in goal-to-go situations, and Hangartner was a big part of that. However, his inability to win the RG spot, the team's dedication to Ryan Kalil at center (where he's already playing at a near-Pro Bowl level), and the relative depth at the position overall means that hangartner may not be a part of the team's plans.

With Carolina cutting two effective reserves fighting for the RG spot as well (Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti, who along with 2008 camp cut reserve Evan Mathis were able to find other employment fast enough), it's clear the team doesn't want millions in reserve money spent behind what will now be a high priced line ($9 mil per year at LT, $6 million per year at LG, $3 million per year and a first round, 2nd round pick for Jeff Otah).

That leaves Hangartner, who can probably start at center this year for many teams, able to easily leave in free agency, and that's probably going to happen. With the backup spots solid at LT, RT, the team may look to a few more options at guard and center, but the team does have internal options as well.

Bernardeau, a sleeper in the 08 draft, was very highly rated by many scouts and considered a steal at guard; because of his smarts, he was placed at center in camp and immediately took to it. He started the season as the third string center, but made the active roster as a reserve at guard and center. He could effectively fill the backup spot at center, keeping him active for all the games as a reserve. As well, with Omiyale and Bridges playing well in injury situations at tackle, the mauling size of Schwartz may be moved inside to guard to backup Vincent and Wharton.

The team could use a late pick on what appears a very deep and high value center draft, but there's a shot they could use a 3rd or 4th on a high value guard if that player shows both a lot of size and athleticism. The Panthers traditionally draft linemen in every draft - two in 2003 (including a 1st, Gross), one in 2004 (Wharton), two in 2005 and 2006, one in 2007 (2nd rounder Kalil), and three in 2008 (including the first for Otah, the trade away of the 2nd to get him, and the two 7th round picks). Only in 2002 has a John Fox-led team not drafted an offensive lineman within the first 90 players.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Panthers Get 11th Hour Deals Done

All the pieces fell in line for Carolina at the last minute, getting a record deal done with OT Jordan Gross so they could franchise DE Julius Peppers. If not, there was a chance they would've simply franchised Gross to have more time to work out a deal, and would've completely lost out on any chance of keeping or trading Peppers.

Gross' deal has a term of 6 years, and is valued just short of $60 million. Exact terms aren't detailed, but as is typical of large deals, either a signing bonus figure or a total payout in the first few years is generally detailed. Because of the Deion Sanders rule, it's been noted that the deal pays out greater than half of the value in the first three years. It's expected that at around $22 million of the $30.5 million paid out over the next three years is in bonus form, giving Gross most likely a $12-14 million initial signing bonus and a roster bonus of $10 million in 2010. This bonus will follow the same form as Chris Gamble's - it will sit as a roster bonus for current purposes, it will be paid either way, but will be converted into signing bonus next year so it's spread over the remaining five years of the contract. The heavy signing bonus leaves $8.5 million for other salary, so it's unlikely that Gross' contract counts more than $5 million against the cap.

The team will have to clear $16.68 million against the cap for Peppers' franchise tag, and Gross' new contract, by February 27. The team also must designate tenders for its Restricted Free Agents, which will probably count cumulatively around $3 million. The team had around $18 million in space.

This blog started two years ago somewhat focusing on the contract situations of both Gross and Peppers; I've yet to talk about any one subject more. Both were named franchise player in that time, both named Pro Bowl/All-Pro in that time. Now, the team technically has both under contract, as well as Chris Gamble (signed mid-2008).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gross Deal Near?

The NFL Network's Adam Schefter has good news on the Jordan Gross front:

http://blogs.nfl.com/2009/02/16/panthers-trying-to-hash-out-new-deal-for-ot-gross/

The deal, apparently either a 5 year, $45 million deal or a 6 year, $54 million deal, will probably have close to half of the contract in guarantees.

The team, said to be completely absent of news on the Gross front, looked to be in a tight spot with negotiations. Hoping to franchise Julius Peppers, they would have a much tougher decision to make if Gross isn't under contract. The deadline to franchise is this Thursday, February 19. Free agency starts February 27.


Of course, all of this is still nonetheless made easier by a mid-season contract to Chris Gamble.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

New Coaches Announced

The Panthers announced their defensive coaching staff this week, having earlier named DBs coach to be Ron Milus and LBs coach as Richard Smith. They rounded the staff out with Brian Baker for the defensive line.

Baker and Milus come from the St. Louis Rams, where they were part of an underwhelming defense that finished in stiff contrast to the 2008 Colts of new coordinator Ron Meeks. The Rams finished near the bottom in every category on an awful team, while Meeks' Colts finished near the top. Likewise, the Richard Smith-coordinated Texans defense failed where the Colts' defense excelled.

But fear not, these are solid hires. They're not the flashy names (who, by the way, are still unemployed, and look to be out of work for 2009), but they're still good names. Smith is a fiery coach whose stint as a coordinator had mixed reviews, but he was an ace linebacker coach with the 49ers and Jaguars on good defenses. Baker's young DL in St. Louis always played from behind - being forced the run down their gut and having no opportunity to play in an even game; Milus' defensive backs got picked on early and had no opportunity late. Each of these men have had success in the league, and will bring a lot to the table.

Of the trio, I'd call Smith the strongest, Milus the weakest. Milus hasn't shown stable work as a pro, having some flashes of success and stories of specifically tutoring young players who blossomed, but then oversees units overall that are weak. Smith is a heartfelt, emotional leader that should be a good match to the power of Jon Beason and Thomas Davis; his somewhat cheesy motivational techniques as a Texan shouldn't apply under the calculated Meeks defenses.

Baker's involvement with the DL in Minnesota got the ball rolling on the power they have at DT in the Kevin/Pat Williams duo; he also coached Lance Johnstone to 15 sacks as a situational end. He pulled success out of Leonard Little in St. Louis on a bad team that didn't have anything at DT and didn't have Grant Wistrom any longer.

John Fox gave similar comments to each when hired - good teacher, good communicator. Good energy. These seem to be the common elements to the staff, the first completely new unit in seven years.

Coordinator: Ron Meeks*
DL: Brian Baker*
LB: Richard Smith*
DB: Ron Milus*, Mike Gilhammer
Coaching Assistant/Quality Control: Sam Mills III

*newcomer

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lewis a Likely Cut?

Damione Lewis may have to eat some salary, or else. In an offseason where Ken Lucas and others are the high profile wishlist cuts, Lewis seems the quiet but most likely choice.

With a $2.5 million roster bonus, a $6.8 million cap hit overall, and a shoulder injury, his three year deal may be reduced to just his 2008 performance. Being setup as a potential parachute, the team had apparently worked in enough language to get themselves out of the contract if necessary. His three year deal signed in 2008 was $14 million - which included the roster bonus and a big raise to $3 million in salary. Cutting him would cost a $1.14 million prorated bonus acceleration, and save the salary and roster bonus (a total savings of $4.36 million).

Lewis may be able to stay, of course. A median resolution would be to apply the $2.5 million as a signing bonus, which would put half of it on next year's cap. That'd save the team $1.25 million. Or he could be offered to stay at his salary, without the roster bonus and a cut in pay, in a move that would tell him that they don't require his services - if he wanted to walk, he could. Which, with a bum shoulder, may mean difficulty finding work.

The Panthers need better answers at defensive tackle, where Lewis and Ma'ake Kemoeatu got mauled in the second half of the year after a solid first half (things got worse, of course, when Kemoeatu got hurt).

Kemoeatu seems to be a keeper, having not come up in cap-cutting discussions so far this year, and there being no June 1 exemption this year means he'll probably be restructured. Lewis, the pass-rushing side of the equation, is probably a player the team would like to keep - in that role, coming off the bench as a rusher, and in a supporting role fiscally as well. Finding a starting player won't be easy, but will probably happen - if just a run-supporting starter.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gross/Peppers - down to the wire?

Since this blog's inception, offseason talk has included or revolved around Jordan Gross and Julius Peppers. At that point, two seasons ago, you'd assume that seeing the pair in the Pro Bowl would be an unquestionably happy moment.

But, after two years' work attempting to sign the pair, neither are. One, Gross, wants to stay. The other, Peppers, is clear on wanting to move on. As always, the pair seem tangled in each other - if Gross can't sign, the team may hesistate to franchise and trade Peppers. They have ten days to choose to franchise one or the other, and will probably lose both if not wrapped up.

And, at this point, things don't look promising for a Gross contract right now, according to Steve Reed of the Gaston Gazette. It doesn't put things out of reach by any means, however.

As well, I don't think the franchise tag should be involved with Gross. In what would cost $9 million for another year's rental, Gross could string this process out for years, gaining guaranteed money every year while continuing to get both raises and opportunities for free agency.

But the franchise tag belongs on the bigger commodity - Peppers. The commodity that will allow them to reap something for such a talented but troubled player. For that, it may be worth chancing Gross walking. Franchising Gross keeps Gross, something that should've happened anyway, to the detriment of getting something for Peppers.

Don't get me wrong. If you have to choose one Pro Bowler over another, being willing to stay and being a big part of the running game's success makes Gross the guy to keep. But franchise tagging has to be done by the 19th - you have until the 27th to sign guys to keep them from free agency. And putting the franchise tag on Peppers does two things - it opens the market for Peppers trades, and it makes sure to tell Gross that it's a long term deal if he wants to stay.

Even if that means chancing losing him.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cable Hired In Oakland; KC Hire Soon

With the Panthers still without defensive assistants, the staff of the Oakland Raiders looks ready to shape up - they've officially hired former OL coach Tom Cable. Cable's a guy I wanted here when we had our opening on the OL, and I wish him the best. With him onboard finally, the expectation is that their remaining staff will fill out a bit more, which may include DC John Marshall and LBs coach Mike Haluchak.

Haluchak, who Darin Gantt confirmed as a LBs coach candidate, has history with John Fox and may be his top candidate for the position. Tim Krumrie (DL, Pete Carroll's nemesis) is still under contract with Kansas City, but they're about to hire a new head coach as well and that may impact his decision to stay (or to be kept). These are the top two guys available, in my opinion, but there are others available as well:
Jim Haslett (LBs), Rick Venturi (LBs or DBs, and close ties to Haslett), Keith Millard (DL), Johnny Lynn (DBs), Brett Maxie (DBs). None of these have been claimed yet, and I'd take any of them.

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There's idle speculation about former players coming in to help out - Brentson Buckner (DL), Mike Minter (DBs). I honestly haven't heard Mike Rucker's name which is actually concerning - while Buck was a natural leader and helped young guys like Rucker and Julius Peppers in their habits and tape study (and kept Kris Jenkins in line), Rucker was probably the most cerebral football player the team's ever had. He always had his technique on point, he never got fooled, he was always ready. You could tell this year, when you saw our new ends break contain, that Mike Rucker never did. Remember the playoff game in St. Louis, where Rucker flattened Marshall Faulk coming out of the backfield on a three-man line, which forced a sack? That's awareness that saves 40-yard plays. Rucker would be as good a coach as any player since Sam Mills, and certainly better than Kevin Greene (recently hired to coach OLBs under Dom Capers' 3-4 in Green Bay).

But the stark reality is that while any of the above could get in (if nothing else, on minority internships, though they don't need it in Carolina), I seriously doubt any would. They have lucrative careers, careers that let them spend time with family and travel instead of spending 14 hour days on football. Why do you think you see fifty coaches on ESPN right now? It's easier money.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Our Hearts Go Out To Jerry Richardson's

Obviously, Jerry Richardson and family are in our thoughts during recovery from heart transplant surgery. Get well, Big Cat.