Bears sign CB Manning to restricted offer sheet

Updated: April 21, 2006, 5:53 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Beating the league deadline by about seven hours, the Chicago Bears on Friday night signed Carolina Panthers cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. to a restricted free-agent offer sheet.

Ricky Manning Jr.
Manning

A three-year veteran and a star of the Panthers' advance to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003, Manning signed a five-year offer sheet that can be worth as much as $21 million. He will bank about $7.5 million over the next 12 months on a creative deal negotiated by agents Jim Ivler, Bill Heck and Brian Mackler.

The Panthers, who retained a right of first refusal on Manning by making him a restricted qualifying offer of $721,600 in March, have seven days to consider the offer. If they match it, the Panthers inherit the terms of the contract. Should Carolina decide not to match, it will receive Chicago's third-round selection in the 2006 draft as compensation.

The NFL deadline for signing restricted free agents to offer sheets is Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Manning is the eighth restricted free agent to sign an offer sheet. Four restricted players -- wide receivers Brandon Lloyd (San Francisco to Washington), Kevin Walter (Cincinnati to Houston) and Nate Burleson (Minnesota to Seattle) and offensive tackle Torrin Tucker (Dallas to Tampa Bay) -- have changed teams. Lloyd was actually traded to the Redskins for a pair of middle-round draft choices.

Incumbent teams matched offer sheets to three players: Guard Reggie Wells (Arizona), defensive tackle Israel Idonije (Chicago) and free safety Keith Davis (Dallas).

Before this spring, 51 restricted free agents had switched teams under the current free-agency system, which was implemented in 1993.

Chicago officials made little secret of their ardor for Manning, who visited the team's facility last week for two days, or of their intentions to sign him to an offer sheet. The Bears decided to delay signing the offer sheet until just before the deadline, wanting to wait as long as possible and hoping that the Panthers' salary cap reserves would be further reduced. The Panthers don't have much wiggle room and might be hard-pressed to match the offer, given their structure and salary cap charge for 2006.

In a move to protect themselves against the possibility that Manning might sign an offer sheet with another club, the Panthers last month added unrestricted free-agent cornerback Reggie Howard of Miami. The six-year veteran played four seasons in Carolina before signing with the Dolphins in 2004. He could become the new nickel cornerback for the Panthers if they opt not to match the Manning offer sheet.

Because of the relatively modest compensation involved, Manning was an attractive target for a Bears team seeking to upgrade at cornerback. Veteran cornerback Jerry Azumah recently retired after battling injuries for two seasons and that left Chicago without an experienced No. 3 cornerback. The team's starters are Nathan Vasher, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and Charles Tillman, considered a rising star until a difficult 2005 season.

Manning, 25, was a third-round pick in the 2003 draft and the former UCLA standout made an immediate contribution as a rookie. He played in all 16 games in '03, starting seven, and then moved into the lineup for the playoffs. Manning had four interceptions and five passes defensed in four postseason appearances, including three interceptions in the Panthers' victory at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.

He started all 16 games in 2004 and then moved to the nickel role in 2005, as the Panthers signed veteran Ken Lucas to pair with Chris Gamble in the starting lineup. An undersized (5-feet-8, 185 pounds) but physical defender and a corner blessed with excellent burst to the ball, especially when moving forward, Manning is already regarded as one of the NFL's top nickel cornerbacks.

He has started in 25 of 48 games and has 186 tackles, nine interceptions, 17 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and four recoveries.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.