Panthers quiet as free agency begins

The Carolina Panthers prepared for the start of free agency by freeing up some much needed cap space. The team officially restructured the deals of defensive end Mike Rucker and linebacker Dan Morgan, hoping both have more tread left on their tires and are able to come back from injuries. They also redid the deal of quarterback Jake Delhomme, converting base salary into bonus money.

The future of Rucker and Morgan had been in question because of financial and medical concerns.

Rucker, who turned 32 earlier this week, is coming off a torn ACL and MCL in his knee last season, was scheduled to count $6.9 million under this year's salary cap and receive a $2.35 million roster bonus on Wednesday.

Clearly, he wasn't going to get that.

But Rucker, who wanted desperately to finish his career in Carolina, settled for a reduced bonus of $937,500 and agreed to shave $900,000 off his scheduled base salary of $1.9 million. By doing so, Rucker, who ranks second in team history in sacks, allowed the Panthers to free up about $2 million in cap space.

As expected, Carolina saved an additional $2 million when Morgan agreed to return and forego his scheduled $2 million roster bonus on Thursday. Morgan, whose season was a wash last year after suffering his fifth career concussion in the season opener, said he has been medically cleared to play. He will return to training camp this season and has a chance to recoup that money if he reaches certain playing time incentives in 2007. With the roster bonus out of the way, the Panthers wouldn't be on the hook for any additional money if they were to cut Morgan in training camp.

The Panthers received the most cap relief by restructuring Delhomme's deal, a simple accounting move in which they turned his base salary into bonus money that can be prorated over the remainder of his contract. The move cleared around $3.8 million in cap space.

The Panthers aren't expected to be huge players in free agency, but they will go after a few select targets. Their top needs are at linebacker, safety, kick/punt return, offensive line and tight end. They may also look to replace Chris Weinke with another quarterback, perhaps someone like Brad Johnson.

There was one roster casualty on Thursday as the team released wide receiver Karl Hankton. That came a day after tight end Kris Mangum retired.

Hankton was selected by his teammates as the special teams captain in each of the past five seasons and is the franchise's all-time career leader in special teams tackles with 94.

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