CHARLOTTE — If this was Captain Munnerlyn’s final trip with the Panthers, it was a fun one.
Munnerlyn, the fifth-year cornerback who is eligible for free agency for the first time, returned Saturday from a week in the Caribbean on the Panthers’ annual fan cruise.
Munnerlyn joined linebacker Luke Kuechly, offensive linemen Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers and tight ends Richie Brockel and Gary Barnidge on the seven-night cruise, which included stops in Grand Turks, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Munnerlyn said it was a relaxing week — despite the fact that his future with the team remains in doubt.
“It was a great experience. Hopefully, I can go back next year,” Munnerlyn said, laughing.
With the Panthers expected to cut Chris Gamble to get under the salary cap, Munnerlyn would seem to be a priority for new general manager Dave Gettleman. Releasing Gamble would leave the Panthers with three cornerbacks, all with two years of experience or fewer — Josh Thomas, James Dockery and Josh Norman.
Munnerlyn, 24, has started 34 games in four years in Charlotte, including 25 the past two seasons. Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick from South Carolina in 2009, tied a team record in 2012 by returning two interceptions for touchdowns.
Munnerlyn said he’d like to remain with Carolina but isn’t sure whether he’ll be eligible for the team cruise next year.
“I really don’t know. My agent met with them at the Combine,” Munnerlyn said in a phone interview Monday. “Right now, we’re still over the cap. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The diminutive Munnerlyn often was a target his first two seasons, when opposing quarterbacks would go after him when he was matched against bigger receivers. But the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Munnerlyn has found a home at nickel corner, where he lined up against slot receivers and faced fewer mismatches than he did on the outside.
Munnerlyn also is a capable punt returner who averaged 9.9 yards per attempt as the Panthers’ primary returner his first two seasons.
Munnerlyn said he’s read the reports that Gamble likely will be a salary cap casualty.
“I hate to see Chris Gamble go because he still has a lot of great football left in him,” Munnerlyn said. “But if they let Chris go, they’ll probably have to bring me back. It’s hard to go with a lot of young corners, unless they want to go out and get another free agent corner.
“But I think this organization has been built around taking care of their own guys.”
Given the Panthers’ cap situation — they’re about $3.5 million over the $123 million cap — Gettleman likely will wait to see what the market is for Munnerlyn before deciding whether to re-sign him. Munnerlyn could draw interest within the NFC South, according to league sources.
Munnerlyn’s contract uncertainty made for some awkward moments aboard the cruise ship when fans asked about the upcoming season.
“I didn’t know what to tell the fans,” Munnerlyn said. “My heart’s in Carolina. I want to stay in Carolina. But at the same time, it’s a business, and it’s about being productive. I feel like this past season I had a good year, and, hopefully, I can get a good contract from it.”
Offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau was one of the players who made the trip last year. He signed a free agent contract with Dallas not long after returning to shore.