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Hamstring tear could cost Francisco a spot on Panthers' roster

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There inevitably would be smiles and chuckles each time a list showing NFL teams' "top acquisitions" would circulate this offseason and Aaron Francisco would appear in Carolina's column.

Still, while he was there by default because the Panthers didn't make any big-name signings, Francisco has played in the last two Super Bowls and was supposed to be a key cog on special teams, an area where the Panthers desperately needed help.

Only now a lingering, ugly looking hamstring injury is putting Francisco's once-secure roster spot in jeopardy.

"I can definitely say it's the most frustrated I've been in my career," Francisco said Thursday. "to be out here on a new team trying to earn a job and then not be able to get on the field. Hopefully, I can get back soon enough, before the last preseason game."

Francisco needed only to slightly lift his shorts to reveal the bloody bruising on the back of his left thigh Thursday to indicate why he again was sidelined after practicing some one day earlier.

Francisco first suffered what he called a partial tear of his hamstring on Aug. 3, the sixth day of training camp. Close to returning, he re-injured it on the last day of camp on Aug. 18 as he did conditioning drills.

That's when the muscle started bleeding and the bruising occurred. It had gone away by Wednesday, so Francisco tried to practice. But he experienced intense pain, and the bruising was back Thursday.

The Hawaii native now can only hope he'll be fit to play in Carolina's final preseason game Sept. 2 at Pittsburgh. If not, the coaching staff will face a tough decision when final cuts come two days later, even though the 27-year-old Francisco has an impressive resume with the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts.

"Yeah, I'm a little concerned. I haven't been able to show the coaches what I can do," Francisco said. "Normally I can push through injuries and play through them, but it's my first time ever having a hamstring injury. It's the one thing you can't push, or it will just set you back even further."

While Francisco is perhaps best known for desperately trying to push Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes out of bounds on his game-winning touchdown catch in the Super Bowl two years ago, he has carved out a career as a solid special teams player after going undrafted out of BYU in 2005.

After leading the Cardinals in special teams tackles in 2006, Francisco spent two seasons as Arizona's special teams captain and fill-in starter at safety. He was playing that role when Holmes caught the winning TD pass in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2008 season. Francisco still catches some grief from Cardinals fans, but he insists Holmes wasn't his assignment.

"Fans, they see the guy close to the ball and they automatically assume it's that guy's fault," Francisco said. "But any football player who knew what coverage we were in and what route we got would know that wasn't my main responsibility on that play."

It turned out to be Francisco's final game in Arizona, and he acknowledged it "caught me off guard" when he was let go in final cuts before last season.

Francisco quickly signed with the Colts two days later. He was inactive for six games in a row late in the season, but he started the final two at strong safety and played on special teams in his second consecutive Super Bowl -- another loss.

"Great experiences," he said. "Obviously, I would have liked to have won at least one of them, but it's always good to go."

The Colts didn't offer the restricted free agent a contract this spring, but Francisco quickly received interest from other teams. The Panthers intrigued him because last season they ranked 29th in punt-return coverage and 30th in kickoff-return coverage and had openings in a young secondary.

"I had some other options, but this definitely I thought was the best fit for me," Francisco said.

But he has only been able to watch as Carolina's coverage teams have struggled again and rookie Jordan Pugh has moved up the depth chart at safety.

Francisco expressed frustration Thursday as he glanced down to his bad left leg, uncertain if he'll have a job in Week 1.

"We got a pretty good look at him in the OTAs and minicamp, but he's got some catching up to do," Panthers coach John Fox said. "Hopefully, he can do it in the next two weeks."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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