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Sunday, March 12, 2006
Panthers to sign center Hartwig to 5-year deal

By Len Pasquarelli

The Carolina Panthers filled the gaping hole in the middle of their offensive line Sunday, reaching a contract agreement with center Justin Hartwig.

Justin Hartwig

A three-year starter and four-year veteran, Hartwig will sign a five-year, $17 million contract. The deal includes $7 million in bonuses.

The 27-year-old Hartwig, an unrestricted free agent who had played his entire career with the Tennessee Titans, will replace longtime starter Jeff Mitchell, who is also an unrestricted free agent.

Mitchell was one of the Carolina players cited in a steroid investigating linking some Carolina veterans to a Columbia, S.C., physician. It is not believed that situation contributed to the team's decision not to retain Mitchell.

In adding Hartwig, considered by most scouts as the second-best center available in the free-agent pool, after LeCharles Bentley, the Panthers landed a player who is five years younger than Mitchell and who is seen as a peaking performer.

Hartwig also has played recently with younger linemen in Tennessee, and that might be a key in Carolina. The Panthers are expected to elevate second-year veteran Ethan Mathis, a third-round choice in 2005 who appeared in just nine games as a rookie, to the starting job at right guard. The incumbent at the position, Tutan Reyes, is a free agent who probably will sign elsewhere.

A sixth-round pick in 2002, Hartwig has been a player who has improved every year in the league. He was a tackle in college and had never played center at any level before 2003, when the Titans moved him there because of injuries. The former Kansas Jayhawk adapted quickly to the center spot and, in his three seasons there, has missed only one game.

Hartwig has more than enough size (6 feet 4, 312 pounds) and strength to take on the league's bigger nose tackles. But having played tackle in the past, he also has quick feet and is a good pass protector who can slide laterally and pick up the blitz.

Titans officials had been working since the last month of the 2005 season on retaining Hartwig, but were unable to complete an extension to keep him.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for