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5 Carolina Panthers Who Will Be on the Roster Bubble in 2014

Charles EdwardsContributor IJanuary 7, 2014

5 Carolina Panthers Who Will Be on the Roster Bubble in 2014

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Every offseason sees a team transition in order to become better for the next year. These moves can involve players, coaches or front office executives.

    The Carolina Panthers will be taking care of this business once their season comes to a close, which hopefully will be in February. This slideshow will focus on the players and, more notably, those players who are on the bubble for returning to the team in 2014.

    Whether a player is released or traded, the Panthers have a few guys they will need to decide the future of with the organization.

    Up-and-coming stars like Greg Hardy should be safe entering the free-agency period, as Carolina will either re-sign him to a new deal or utilize the franchise tag to keep him around for another season.

    Moving forward is all about holding on to players who will help the Panthers in the future and issues like injuries, contract size and age typically factor into who is let go and who stays.

    The upcoming slides will touch on players who fall under one of those categories and whose future is on the bubble with the team going into next year.

     

    All stats are provided by ProFootballReference.com unless otherwise noted.

Brandon LaFell, WR

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Brandon LaFell is the ideal bubble candidate because he is in the last year of his contract and he didn't exactly do anything special to boost his role as a solid No. 2 receiver on the team.

    In hindsight, he didn't have an all-around bad season, but more was expected than the total production he turned in. He closed 2013 with 49 receptions for 627 yards and five touchdowns.

    To put things in perspective, tight end Greg Olsen had a better receiving season than LaFell did.

    LaFell was given a legitimate chance to secure himself a job as one of the team's primary targets moving into next year when Steve Smith was unavailable in Week 17 at Atlanta. He was shut down the entire game. The week before was not much better, as he was held to one catch for 13 yards versus the New Orleans Saints.

    For an offense needing more from its receivers to help open the running game and give Cam Newton reliable downfield targets, LaFell's reputation for inconsistency could be his undoing.

    There is a chance that LaFell may be brought back on a one-year deal like Captain Munnerlyn was last summer.

    Still, it should be interesting to see how Carolina proceeds this year in building its offense. With young talent like Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt waiting in the wings, LaFell may need to have a huge postseason to help his cause if he wants to remain with the Panthers.

    Folks in Carolina have been patiently waiting for LaFell to emerge as a go-to receiver. So far, he has been a disappointment.

Captain Munnerlyn, CB

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    This time last year, it was uncertain if Captain Munnerlyn had played his last snap with the Carolina Panthers. He was allowed to test free agency, but when he wasn't offered a long-term deal anywhere, he stayed with the Panthers on a one-year deal.

    Not only did Munnerlyn stay with the team that drafted him, he put together one of his best seasons as a defensive back in the league. He set career highs with 73 tackles and three sacks.

    There is no reason to believe he won't earn a nice payday for his performance this past season.

    Because of this, the Panthers are in a position where they will need to make a big decision. Do they keep the young veteran and sign him to a long-term deal or let him walk and allow newcomers like Melvin White to step in and replace him?

    Carolina is still reeling from the big contracts of the Marty Hurney era and may not be able to keep Munnerlyn if another team offers a bigger and better deal.

    His contributions on defense will be difficult to replace, especially seeing as he scored twice for the defense this past year. Of all the players on this list, Munnerlyn is perhaps the only one the Panthers should really want to retain.

Byron Bell, RT

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The strength of the Carolina offensive line will determine the success of the running game and the effectiveness of Cam Newton. After beating out former Panther Jeff Otah for the starting position at right tackle in 2011, Byron Bell has been a bit of an underachiever over the past couple of seasons.

    It's bad enough that the line has been suspect in keeping the blitz in check or keeping guys healthy, but Bell appears to be the only one who gets beat in the trenches and is a liability on the strong side.  

    According to Rotoworld.com, Bell has been inserted at right guard, but could not find success at the position before returning to the more familiar right tackle slot. The line was considered weak on that side last summer, and considering the possibility of the Panthers taking a lineman with their first pick in the next draft, right tackle may be starting point.

    That means Bell would have to go.

    Further complicating the issue is the uncertainty of Jordan Gross' future.  The veteran left tackle has not given a hint about his plans after the season, and if he goes, the need to protect Newton's blind side becomes more critical.  

    In that scenario, Bell may continue to have a job. However, if Gross remains in place for another season or two, Bell could be moved out to clear a spot for a younger, better tackle to be groomed and mentored into a quality, NFL-caliber lineman.

    Bell has proven he can be a good lineman, as evidenced by his great game against the New York Giants, but he has faltered in others like the Week 2 game at Buffalo when defensive end Mario Williams dominated him throughout the entire contest.

    A wild card, yes. Bell still has the potential to remain with the team for awhile. However, he will need to bring consistency to the right side and block better for his quarterback.

Josh Norman, CB

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    A starter last year and bumped to third string this season, Josh Norman could be on his way out the door. Between Captain Munnerlyn and Melvin White, there was really no room for Norman to reclaim his starting position in the secondary.  

    After breaking onto the scene in 2012 by starting 12 of 16 games and recording 71 tackles and an interception, Norman only appeared in seven games and logged a meager four tackles this year.

    To say his follow-up to last year was disappointing is an understatement.

    Injuries weren't the culprit for his lackluster numbers, although he was banged up in Week 2 at Buffalo. He was just outperformed by the new blood in the secondary and eventually lost his place at the table.

    With White and Josh Thomas seemingly ready to step up and replace Munnerlyn should he choose to leave, Norman could very well find himself out of a job as well.  

    There is still a chance he remains on the team as a backup, but he will need to do the things that made him a starter last year and play with a chip on his shoulder. Just ask Steve Smith about playing with something to prove.

Jonathan Stewart, RB

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Jonathan Stewart spent the majority of the season injured and, as a result, only appeared in six games. Couple that with the fact that DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert did well as a tandem, and it would appear that Stewart automatically becomes expendable.

    The rumors about releasing or dealing Stewartsuch as this one from Gil Brandt of NFL.comhave been swirling for awhile, and after this year, those rumors could become reality.

    When healthy, Stewart is one of the best backs in the game. He is a proven 1,000-yard rusher and can be a feature back for any team needing an upgrade at the position. Once again, that is assuming he is healthy.

    Carolina could be set with Williamswho enjoyed being the featured back for much of the seasonand Tolbertwho is a legitimate red-zone threatas its backfield duo. Williams may have reached 1,000 rushing yards if he hadn't split carries with Stewart in those six games.

    Stewart would go on to carry the ball 48 times for 180 yards. If Williams had been given those touches, he would have eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground.

    If Stewart remains in Carolina for the upcoming season, it will be a surprise. The Panthers could be set at the position with Williams, Tolbert and Kenjon Barnerwho will most likely begin more commonplace on kick and punt returns—as a third option. 

    Stewart hasn't appeared in 16 games since 2011, and with that kind of track record, it may be time to move him. He's still a fan favorite, but in the end, the NFL is a business and the Panthers are going to want to build their roster with players who can stay healthy and contribute.

     

    Panther Nation, you can follow me on Twitter .

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