Unable to reach long-term deal, Panthers tag Gross

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Panthers decided Tuesday to place the franchise tag on Jordan Gross, all but assuring the right tackle will remain in Carolina next season.

After failing to agree on a long-term deal, the Panthers offered Gross a one-year contract for $7.45 million, which is the average salary of the top five highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL from last season.

While the franchise tag doesn't prevent another team from offering Gross a contract, the Panthers can match any offer. If they don't, the team that signs him would have to give up two first-round picks to the Panthers in return.

It means Gross almost certainly will spend 2008 in Carolina.

"We would have liked to have got a long-term deal done, but were unable to," general manager Marty Hurney said. "Obviously Jordan is an important player to us."

The Panthers and Gross' agent, Ethan Lock, had made little progress on a new deal over the past several weeks. While the Panthers had until Thursday to place the franchise tag on Gross, Hurney and coach John Fox were scheduled to leave for Indianapolis later Tuesday for the NFL combine. That would have prevented serious negotiations the rest of the week.

Gross and Carolina could still agree on a long-term contract. The two sides have until this summer to work out a deal before the window expires.

"You can always negotiate," Hurney said.

Lock did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Gross was the eighth overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft out of Utah and has started all 80 games for Carolina in five seasons.

Gross was shifted to left tackle early in the 2006 season after a season-ending knee injury to Travelle Wharton, but is more comfortable on the right side. He switched back there in 2007 and anchored the offensive line.

At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Gross would have commanded attention on the free-agent market. Top tackles have been averaging deals around $7 million a season.

The Panthers are planning for changes along the offensive line. Mike Wahle, the starting left guard last season, was released last week in a salary-cap move. Ryan Kalil, Carolina's second-round pick last season, could become the starting center. That could shift Justin Hartwig to guard or perhaps he could be dangled as trade bait.

Wharton was re-signed last week, but it's also possible he could be shifted to guard instead of returning at tackle.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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