Panthers cut veterans Hackett, Bridges, Goings to clear cap space

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers began shedding veteran players to clear salary-cap space Wednesday, releasing wide receiver D.J. Hackett, offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges and running back Nick Goings.

The moves save the Panthers more than $4 million as the team scrambles to get under the $123 million cap before the start of free agency on Friday. The Panthers also have restructured the contracts of cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker Landon Johnson to create more cap room.

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The Panthers aren't the only team shedding players and salaries ahead of free agency. The Buccaneers just released five veteran players, including 11-time Pro Bowl LB Derrick Brooks. Go Around the Web for the latest on all the activity around the NFL.

Hackett signed a two-year, $3.5 million free-agent deal with Carolina before last season, but he was a disappointment in 2008. Plagued by injuries, the former Seattle Seahawk never challenged Muhsin Muhammad for the Panthers' No. 2 receiver job and eventually fell behind Dwayne Jarrett on the depth chart.

Hackett, who caught just 13 passes for 181 yards, probably had his fate sealed when he was on the inactive list for Carolina's playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals while Jarrett was the No. 3 receiver.

Bridges was a valuable reserve who could play both guard and tackle and started 28 games in three seasons with Carolina.

"Jeremy's flexibility meant a lot to the football team," Panthers coach John Fox said in a statement released by the team.

But Bridges turns 29 in April and carried baggage off the field.

Bridges was suspended for the first two games of the 2007 season after being arrested -- and later convicted -- of a misdemeanor assault charge after being accused of pointing a gun at a woman outside a strip club.

Bridges started four games because of injuries to other players last season, but he was held out of a late-season victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, less than 24 hours after he arrested again on a misdemeanor assault charge in connection with a disturbance at a restaurant. Bridges has a court hearing scheduled for Monday.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney sidestepped a question of whether Bridges' legal problems weighed in the decision to release him.

"There will be some changes for us as far as getting some new guys in here, probably younger guys," Hurney said. "That was the impetus behind it. Every year, your team has to take a different look."

Goings had the longest Carolina stint of the three players who were released. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2001, Goings was primarily used on special teams except in 2004. Because of injuries, Goings started at running back in eight games and led the Panthers that season with 821 rushing yards.

Goings played in only four games in 2007 because of a concussion, but he returned last season as a contributor on special teams.

"Nick has been a valuable member of our team since I have been in Carolina," Fox said in the statement. "As a starter or in a reserve role, his versatility and contributions on special teams, along with his unselfish attitude, were important to our team and locker room."

The Panthers might not be finished making moves. Cornerback Ken Lucas' future is uncertain, and he has been mentioned in trade talks.

"Ken's here at this point," Hurney said. "We're always talking and working on things. But I'd rather talk about what we've done at this point because anything else is speculation."

The Panthers also could try to restructure or extend contracts of other players as they maneuver a tight salary-cap situation, thanks to defensive end Julius Peppers.

The decision to place the franchise tag on Peppers required that the team offer him a one-year deal worth $16.7 million. That money will count against the cap starting Friday.

The Panthers also are squeezed by All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross' new six-year contract that's worth more than $30 million in the first three years.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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