Panthers 'cap' Steussie

3-29-01, 11:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The very week the NFL counseled teams not to compensate for big deals by compromising their future salary cap room, the Carolina Panthers did it anyway.

How does a team with $1.5 million under the salary cap get the best player in free agency? According to published reports, here's how Carolina lured left tackle Todd Steussie to a contract he signed Thursday:

They gave him a $4.7 million signing bonus for a six-year, $28 million deal that includes a $500,000 salary for this season. That computes to a $1.292 million cap hit for '01.

But it's really a one-year deal. The Panthers have the option to keep him next March, when he's due a $2.5 million roster bonus. That way, the Panthers can get rid of a big number if they have salary cap problems, and Steussie could be a free agent again next year when players are banking on expansion Houston driving up the market because the Texans will be starting from scratch on their cap.

The Bengals remain leery about a big deal like the one Steussie got because they want to hold back enough money in case they have to match a contract for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. And they fear pushing money into the future because of key players whose contracts are up in the next two years.

How badly did the Panthers want Steussie in their derby with Cincinnati and Denver? He said when it came down to crunch time Wednesday night, every 20 minutes he got phone calls pushing the Panthers from everyone from the owner's son to the quarterback, "and no one else did that."

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SMITH CASE:** In Thursday's readiness hearing, an April 16 trial date in San Diego was set for quarterback Akili Smith's DUI. Myles Berman, his lawyer, said there are three options: plead guilty, agree to the trial, or get a continuance. Berman said no decision has been made yet.

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