James Anderson heard his cell phone ring early Tuesday, rolled over and saw it was someone from the Panthers’ office calling.
“Oh, no,” Anderson thought. “This can’t be good.”
Rob Rogers, the Panthers’ salary-cap manager, told Anderson he was being released and he needed to come to Bank of America Stadium for a physical.
Two seasons after Anderson set the franchise’s single-season record for tackles, he was gone.
He chalked it up to a deep linebacker corps and Football Economics 101.
“Looking at some of the cap stuff and some of the moves that had been made, I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be a move. But that’s kind of part of the business,” Anderson said. “They appreciate what I did. We’re loaded at the position. They thanked me and wanted me to go out and see what the market is like, which is why they’re doing it now.”
With middle linebacker Luke Kuechly’s emergence during a NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign and the return of weakside linebacker Thomas Davis from three ACL surgeries, the Panthers viewed Anderson as expendable.
By releasing Anderson, they’re putting their faith in Jon Beason, a three-time Pro Bowler who has missed all but five games the past two seasons to injuries. Beason (five years, $51.5 million) and Anderson (five years, $22 million) signed lucrative extensions two years ago during the post-lockout spending spree conducted by former general manager Marty Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson.
But Kuechly’s ascension and Davis’ comeback gave Carolina four linebackers for three spots. Something had to give.
It was Anderson.
“Any day, anybody’s number could be up. Next year it could be someone else,” he said. “I don’t think they’re doubting the fact that I could play and can continue to be a productive player. It was just one of those moves.”
The Panthers designated Anderson as a June 1 cut, allowing them to split his accelerated bonus money over the next two years. Doing so will create $3 million in cap space after June 1, although they will have to carry $2.8 million in dead money on next year’s books.
As expected, the Panthers were relatively quiet during Tuesday’s start to free agency.
They agreed to terms on a one-year deal with No. 3 tight end Ben Hartsock, according to his agent. Hartsock, 32, is a blocking specialist who caught two passes for 30 yards his first two seasons in Charlotte.
Gary Barnidge, the backup to starting tight end Greg Olsen, also is a free agent.
The Panthers declined to make qualifying offers to their restricted free agents – defensive tackle Andre Neblett and cornerback Nate Ness, who spent his only season in Carolina on injured reserve. Neblett, an undrafted free agent from Temple in 2010, started seven games in three seasons. He had seven tackles in 2012 after missing the first four games while suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
But the biggest move involved Anderson, whose 94 games were the most played by a linebacker in team history.
Anderson, 29, a third-round draft pick in 2006, had his best season in 2011 after Beason and Davis went down with season-ending injuries during the first two weeks. Anderson broke Beason’s season record with 174 tackles, a mark that fell last year when Kuechly collected 205.
Anderson set the club’s single-game tackles record with 20 in a Week 3 loss to the Giants last season. He missed the final four games with a nagging back injury and finished with 84 tackles, third on the team behind Kuechly and Davis.
Coach Ron Rivera praised Anderson for his contributions.
“I would like to thank James for what he has meant not only to our organization but also to this community,” Rivera said in a release. “James went about his business in a professional manner and did everything we asked. We wish him the best.”
Anderson has been training in Portland, Ore., with backup linebacker Jordan Senn, who re-signed with the Panthers this week.
“I feel better this offseason than I’ve felt in years,” Anderson said.
He’s leaving for Mexico this week to teach football to about 1,500 children with a group led by Jaime Moreno, the play-by-play announcer for the Panthers’ Spanish radio broadcasts.
Even after the rough, wake-up call Tuesday, Anderson never considered skipping the trip.
“I think it’ll be fun,” he said. “It’ll be a little different, but it might be a much-needed getaway right now.”