Sidney Rice could fit Panthers but only at a discount

jjones@charlotteobserver.comApril 14, 2014 

If Sidney Rice wants a homecoming, he may have to take the hometown discount.

A free-agent wide receiver from Gaffney, S.C., and most recently with the Seahawks, Rice has been cleared to resume football activities following an ACL tear. He has drawn interest from multiple teams including the Panthers, according to two league sources.

But there are several hurdles that stand between the former Gamecocks receiver and the Panthers, and as of early Monday evening, no visit between the two had been scheduled. Along with the Panthers, the Giants, Saints and Seahawks are also interested, according to Pro Football Talk.

Rice, 27, has a history of injuries in his career and would have to pass a team’s physical before signing. After hip surgery before the 2010 season and a spot on the injured reserve list in 2011, Rice tore his ACL in October and missed the final eight games of the regular season for Seattle. Less than a month following Seattle’s Super Bowl victory, the Seahawks cut Rice after three seasons.

Rice confirmed Monday on Twitter he had been cleared by Dr. James Andrews, a leading ligament specialist, to return to football.

“Great visit w Dr. Andrews today,” Rice said. “Cleared to begin cutting at 5months and 1week.. Let’s work! #PayAttention.”

Then there’s the matter of the contract. According to the NFL Players Association database, the Panthers are third-to-last in the league in salary cap room with $1.57 million remaining under the $133 million cap. Carolina will need roughly $4.5 million to sign its selections from this year’s draft – one that’s deep at wide receiver – and the team is still exploring contract restructures with players currently on the roster.

Rice signed a five-year, $41 million contract with the Seahawks before the 2011 season after four years in Minnesota. Since he was due to have a base salary of $8.5 million in 2014, the Seahawks cut Rice and saved $7.3 million in cap space.

With his injured past, Rice will not fetch the type of money he received following the NFL lockout in 2011 when he was two seasons removed from a Pro Bowl appearance. But he’d have to take a significant pay cut as a free agent to be in the Panthers’ price range.

Within the first month of free agency, the Panthers notably lost their top four receivers from last season – Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. But since then the team has assembled a new trio.

Veteran Jerricho Cotchery is the Panthers’ No. 2 option while fellow veteran Jason Avant will likely be the No. 4 receiver. Tiquan Underwood, who was most recently with Tampa Bay, is viewed at the No. 3 option.

Rice once had the promise of a legitimate No. 1 receiving threat. He had 1,312 receiving yards in his Pro Bowl 2009 season, but in four injury-plagued years since, he has totaled just 1,743 yards. He had 15 catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns in eight games last season. But according to Pro Football Focus, Rice had the most catches of any receiver without a drop last season.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last month he doesn’t believe a team needs “a true No. 1 that does everything.” Instead, he’s looking to replace the 10-catches-per-game production from his receiving corps.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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