Trai Turner ran onto the Carolina Panthers’ practice field Tuesday a little late after having flight issues following the long holiday weekend.
He walked off about 90 minutes later without stopping to talk to a reporter, politely declining an interview request.
It’s hard to blame him: The Panthers’ three-year starter at right guard made a lot of money last winter without saying a thing.
With the glaring exception of cornerback Josh Norman, Dave Gettleman has taken care of the team’s young, deserving free agents since he became the Panthers’ general manager in 2013.
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Cam Newton. Luke Kuechly. Kawann Short.
All were signed to lucrative contract extensions that put them among the highest-paid players at their positions before they reached free agency.
Turner, the team’s third-round pick in 2014 and a two-time Pro Bowler in the final year of his rookie contract, is next up.
The two sides have had preliminary conversations, according to league sources. But given the spending the past two offseasons at his position and his place among the top interior linemen in the league, locking up Turner for the long haul isn’t going to come cheap or easy.
Upper-echelon guards in the NFL still don’t make what their tackle-playing peers pull down. But the contracts given to Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler (five years, $60 million in March) and Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele (five years, $58.5 million in 2016 helped narrow the gap).
Zeitler and Osemele both hit it big in free agency, but they weren’t the only guards to get paid the past two years. Not all of them had to change teams, either.
Cleveland doubled down at the guard spot, re-signing Joel Bitonio to a five-year, $51.2 million contract.
The Steelers gave David DeCastro a five-year, $50 million deal to stay in Pittsburgh, Kyle Long got four years and $40 million to remain in Chicago and Kansas City kept Laurent Duvernay-Tardif with a five-year, $42.4 million extension.
Neither Bitonio nor Duvernay-Tardif has been to a Pro Bowl. (Although to be fair, Duvernay-Tardif is also a medical student at McGill University in Montreal, so that should count for something.)
Meanwhile, Turner has made the Pro Bowl after each of the past two years, getting the nod last season as an injury replacement for Brandon Scherff.
One of Panthers’ core players
Pro Bowl invitations aren’t the only measure of a player’s worth.
But Turner, who turns 24 this month, wasted little time becoming one of the Panthers’ core players. He took over for Fernando Velasco early in his rookie season and has started every game the past two seasons.
After injuries crippled the offensive line late season, Turner agreed to shift to right tackle for three games despite not having played the position since high school. Before making his first start at tackle at Seattle during the Panthers’ two-game West Coast trip, a reporter jokingly suggested Turner could ask for offensive tackle money before his next contract.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” Turner said.
But with fewer than 100 days before the start of the regular season – typically when Gettleman cuts off negotiations – thinking and doing something about Turner’s next contract should soon take on more urgency.
The Panthers could use the franchise tag on Turner, although that seems unlikely because there is not a specific tag value for guards. So Turner would receive the average of the top five salaries for all offensive linemen, which this year was $14.27 million.
3 years of bargains
Regardless, the truth is the Panthers have received a bargain at both guard positions the past three years.
Turner made a total of around $1.5 million over his first three seasons before getting a bump this offseason under the NFL’s proven performance escalator clause. Turner more than doubled his salary, from $690,000 to nearly $1.797 million, because of the escalator, which awards players drafted between Rounds 3 and Round 7 based on their playing time.
Left guard Andrew Norwell, an undrafted free agent in 2014 who like Turner is in the final year of his contract, also got a substantial raise.
Norwell, who was a restricted free agent this past winter, surpassed his combined salaries from his first three seasons ($1.5 million) after the Panthers tendered him at $2.746 million.
Like Turner, Norwell has been a starter since shortly after arriving in Charlotte. And while Norwell hasn’t gone to a Pro Bowl, Pro Football Focus rated him the Panthers’ best lineman in 2016 in terms of run blocking, pass blocking and overall.
Turner and Norwell entered the NFL together and quickly became friends. They have a weekly tradition of eating wings together every Thursday during the season.
Both soon should have more disposable income to blow on wings, steaks or a new home. Whether those purchases are made in Charlotte or elsewhere will depend on how much Gettleman values the guard position.
He’s only drafted two – Turner and injury bust Edmund Kugbila – and he’s yet to spend much money in free agency on an interior lineman.
But he has two who are deserving of good-sized deals in a good market for guards.