Friday, March 04, 2005

Panthers go deep to sign key pair

Free agents Wahle, Lucas get bonuses of almost $25 million

Staff Writer

March 4, 2005

The Carolina Panthers, a team known for staying in shallow free-agent waters in recent years, took a huge plunge Thursday.

With the lure of about $23 million in bonus money, the Panthers landed two elite free agents: Offensive lineman Mike Wahle from Green Bay and cornerback Ken Lucas from Seattle. After not getting a single starter in last year's free-agency period, the Panthers got two on the second day players were allowed to sign with other teams.

"We don't get at this end of the pool a lot," general manager Marty Hurney said.

"But we just felt like the opportunity was right for both these guys as far as being good fits and being our kind of people as well as very good players. We hope they're two guys that will be here for a long time at very important positions for us."

Consider the moves a sign the Panthers believe they're a lot closer to being the Super Bowl team they were in 2003, than the 7-9 squad last season. Although the arrival of Lucas and Wahle might seem a departure from the team's practice of acquiring core players in the college draft, both players are young and fill major areas of needs.

Wahle, who turns 28 this month, signed a five-year deal worth up to $28 million that includes $11.5 million in bonus money split between this year and next. His cap figure for this year will be $2.7 million.

Lucas, 26, signed a six-year deal worth about $6 million a season that includes about $13 million in bonus money.

"(The Panthers) are on the doorstep," Wahle said. "I've been in this league seven years and never been to a Super Bowl. That's real important to me. I think the leadership they have here from the front office and all the way down to the players, I think we're going to be in a good position."

That position, at least on paper, got a lot better. Wahle, who spent all seven seasons with Green Bay, should help an offensive line that struggled after a series of injuries last season. Although the most glaring need seemed to be at right tackle and Wahle's contract is more representative of a tackle than a guard, the immediate plan is to place him at left guard.

"He'll more than likely start at left guard and go from there," coach John Fox said.

If the early plan holds true, Wahle will line up between center Jeff Mitchell and left tackle Jordan Gross. That's a strong trio, but there would still be major questions on the right side. Although the roster could change in free agency or in the draft, the most likely scenario would be for Travelle Wharton to get the first shot at the right tackle job.

Wharton played well after taking over as the starting left guard in the middle of his rookie season, but the team believes he has the tools to play tackle in the NFL. Tutan Reyes was the starting right guard last season and could remain in that role.

"If they need me somewhere else, we'll play somewhere else," Wahle said. "I think just getting the best five guys on the field is the best scenario and what we're looking for."

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