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Monday, April 24, 2006
Carolina passes on matching Manning Jr. offer sheet

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

The Carolina Panthers will not match the restricted free agent offer sheet signed last Friday by cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., allowing the three-year veteran to move on to the Chicago Bears on a five-year contract that could be worth as much as $21 million.

The decision, arrived at on Monday, came one day after Manning was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with suspicion of assault after an altercation at a local restaurant.

It is not believed that Manning's arrest played any part in the Panthers' decision. Instead, Carolina coaches and executives determined that Manning's price tag was too expensive for a nickel cornerback.

By opting not to match the deal, the Panthers will receive Chicago's third-round pick in the draft.

A star of the Panthers' advance to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003, Manning signed the five-year offer sheet on Friday evening, just hours before the league deadline for restricted free agents. He will bank about $7.5 million over the next 12 months on a creative deal negotiated by agents Jim Ivler, Bill Heck and Brian Mackler. The deal includes so-called "de-escalators" that could reduce its overall value if Manning is not a starter in the latter years of the contract.

Manning was the eighth restricted free agent to sign an offer sheet and the fifth to change teams. Four other restricted players -- wide receivers Brandon Lloyd (San Francisco to Washington), Kevin Walter (Cincinnati to Houston) and Nate Burleson (Minnesota to Seattle), and offensive tackle Torrin Tucker (Dallas to Tampa Bay) -- had changed teams earlier. Lloyd was actually traded to the Redskins for a pair of middle-round draft choices.

Also on Monday, incumbent teams matched offer sheets to three players: guard Reggie Wells (Arizona), defensive tackle Israel Idonije (Chicago) and free safety Keith Davis (Dallas).

Before this spring, 51 restricted free agents had switched teams under the current free agency system, which was implemented in 1993.

Chicago officials made little secret of their ardor for Manning, who visited the team's facility two weeks ago for two days, or of their intentions to sign him to an offer sheet. The Bears decided to delay signing the offer sheet until just before the deadline -- waiting as long as possible and hoping that the Panthers' salary cap reserves would be further reduced. The Panthers didn't have much wiggle room and, with the structure of the contract, could not match, in part because of the high salary cap charge for 2006.

In a move to protect themselves against the possibility that Manning might sign an offer sheet with another club, the Panthers last month added unrestricted free agent cornerback Reggie Howard of Miami. The six-year veteran played four seasons in Carolina before signing with the Dolphins in 2004. He should become the new nickel cornerback for the Panthers.

Because of the relatively modest compensation involved, Manning was an attractive target for a Bears team seeking to upgrade at cornerback. Veteran cornerback Jerry Azumah recently retired after battling injuries for two seasons. That left Chicago without an experienced No. 3 cornerback. The team's starters are Nathan Vasher, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and Charles Tillman, considered a rising star until a difficult 2005 campaign.

Manning, 25, was a third-round pick in the 2003 draft and the former UCLA standout made an immediate contribution as a rookie. He played in all 16 games in '03, starting seven, and then moved into the lineup for the playoffs. Manning had four interceptions and five passes defensed in four postseason appearances, including three interceptions in the Panthers victory at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.

He started all 16 games in 2004, then moved to the nickel role in 2005, as the Panthers signed veteran Ken Lucas to pair with Chris Gamble in the starting lineup. An undersized (5-feet-8, 185 pounds) but physical defender, and a corner blessed with excellent burst to the ball, especially when moving forward, Manning is already regarded as one of the NFL's top nickel cornerbacks.

He has started in 25 of 48 games and has 186 tackles, nine interceptions, 17 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and four recoveries.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.