The Carolina Panthers are coming off one of their most successful seasons in team history, tying their franchise record for wins (12) while winning their 4th divisional title since the team’s inception in 1995. The Panthers sent a franchise-record seven players to the Pro-Bowl (QB Cam Newton, OL Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, FB Mike Tolbert, LB Luke Kuechly, DE Greg Hardy, and long snapper JJ Jansen), four of which were also selected All-Pro (Kuechly, Tolbert, Kalil, Hardy). Ron Rivera, once an early candidate for the hot seat, was awarded Coach of the Year after turning the 1-3 Panthers into one of the most feared teams in the league.
With the help of 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, Rivera made the Panthers one of the best defenses in the NFL, trailing only the Seahawks in both points (15.1 ppg) and total yards (301.2). 2014 looks bright for the Panthers, as even their 17th-ranked 2014 schedule will certainly be easier then the 9th-ranked schedule they faced in 2013 (for comparison, their schedule was ranked first entering the 2013 season). The salary cap could be the Panthers’ biggest opponent besides division-rival New Orleans next season, as 21 players became free agents after the successful 2013 campaign, 16 of which were integral to that success.
The Panthers have major decisions to make in 2014 and some of them will be emotional. Carolina reportedly has between $8-14M in cap space entering this season and current free agent salaries totaled $21M in 2013. Among the notables on offense (with 2013 cap number) are LT Jordan Gross (4.9M), LG Travelle Wharton (1.1M), WR/ST Ted Ginn Jr. (1.1M), K Graham Gano (715K), G Chris Scott (630K), and RT Byron Bell (560K).
On defense, the Panthers risk losing five starters and a substantial back up: DE Greg Hardy (1.4M), CB Captain Munnerlyn (1.1M), SS Mike Mitchell (1.1), DT Colin Cole (620K), FS Quintin Mikell (620K), and CB Drayton Florence (490K). Carolina even has decisions to make considering roster depth, as important backups like QB Derek Anderson (555K) also became a free agent at the close of the 2013 season.
It may not be the most popular choice in Charlotte, but if the Panthers want to retain the defense that helped them win the NFC South they might want to consider letting unrestricted free agent Gross (33 years old) go so that they can sign offensive line restricted free agents Bell (25) and Scott (26). Carolina should also prioritize unrestricted free agents Wharton (33 by Week 1) and multi-position backup Geoff Hangartner (31).
Such a move would allow the Panthers to move Nate Chandler to LT (Gross’ backup) and move Scott to starting RG, potentially saving ~$5M against the cap, while keeping one of the better young lines in the NFL (averaging 27.4 years of age entering 2014) intact to protect Cam Newton for years to come (Cam Newton becomes a free agent in 2015).
Signing DE Greg Hardy, CB Captain Munnerlyn, and SS Mike Mitchell should be the Panthers top priorities next to the offensive line, which will be costly. Key defensive players such as Colin Cole and Quintin Mikell may become cap casualties due to age and reliable backups (e.g. S Robert Lester).
In my opinion, the Panthers’ biggest needs are at WR, which is deep in the upcoming draft. At the 28th spot the Panthers have a serious shot at box office WRs for Cam Newton like bigger targets Kelvin Benjamin (FSU) and Davante Adams (Fresno St.) or speedy targets like Marquis Lee (USC), Brandin Cooks (Oregon St.), and Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU). The Carolina Panthers have made heady decisions putting this current team together; a few more sound emotional decisions could take this team to the next level.