5 Toughest Decisions the Carolina Panthers Will Have to Make This Offseason

Charles Edwards@@CEdwards80Contributor IJanuary 20, 2014

5 Toughest Decisions the Carolina Panthers Will Have to Make This Offseason

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    The Panthers season is over and with it, many important decisions to make.
    The Panthers season is over and with it, many important decisions to make.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    The NFL offseason delivers a lot of interesting storylines from team to team each year. The Carolina Panthers will no doubt have their own noteworthy news between now and September. Along with preparing for the draft, the team will have to make a few tough decisions as it prepares for the 2014 season.

    Most of those decisions will be based on the roster. Evaluating talent from the incoming draft class and deciding which players will give Carolina a good chance to win next year is just part of the many discussions that will need to take place. Others may involve personnel on the coaching staff.

    No offseason is ever simple.

    The Panthers have a lot of work to do over the course of the next few months. The decisions they will make in the upcoming weeks will have a great deal of impact on how their next season unfolds. Here are the five toughest decisions of Carolina's offseason.

    All stats are provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Whether or Not to Keep the Same Coaching Staff

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    On the surface, this seems like a question that has already been answered. Head coach Ron Rivera has went as far to say that he expects his "entire staff to return" for next season, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. Unless defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is hired by Cleveland (a very unlikely scenario), there really shouldn't be any movement by anyone on the Carolina coaching staff.

    However, there has been a bit of an uproar over the conservative nature of offensive coordinator Mike Shula's play-calling. The talent on the offense is very capable of racking up yards and putting up points. That much was evident in 2011 during Cam Newton's rookie year, but the man calling the shots was former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

    There is no question that Shula's scheme is more conservative than what Chudzinski brought to the table in 2011 and 2012. In fact, the only real knock against his play-calling in 2012 was the consistent use of the read-option. Defenses had adjusted, and it seemed as though the Panthers were not nearly as unpredictable in Chudzinski's second year of leading the offense.

    To Shula's credit, he took the same system and simplified everything.

    Newton saw a decrease in passing and rushing yards, but he enjoyed a higher passer completion percentage and an increase in touchdown passes. He did enough of the right things to lead his team to four come-from-behind wins and clinch the NFC South.

    Of course, Carolina did not have anyone to rush for 1,000 yards or reach 1,000 yards receiving. Greg Olsen and Steve Smith led the team in receiving yards with 816 and 745 yards, respectively. Having a tight end lead the team in receiving yards should say enough about the inability of the Panthers to spread the field.  

    Then again, an argument could be made about not having a quality No. 2 receiver to take the focus off Smith and Olsen. Regardless, the offense needs to step up and make life easier for the defense. If Carolina cannot correct its woes on offense, it may come up short of its goal yet again in 2014.

    The question remains: Is Shula the right man for the job? After all, this was the same offensive coordinator who could not call a play to get his offense to score a touchdown, despite two visits deep inside the red zone in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Determining Which Position Must Be Addressed First

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Offensive line, wide receiver and defensive back are all positions of concern and need for the Carolina Panthers. How does the front office determine which area to address first? General manager Dave Gettleman will be doing his part by reviewing all of the scouting reports and will ultimately have the final say on who the Panthers take first with the 28th overall pick in the draft.

    There is an argument for every area of need.

    The Panthers still lack a viable No. 2 receiver (as noted in the previous slide) and someone who can take the torch from Steve Smith when he calls it a career. The offensive line could be in flux with the possibility of Jordan Gross retiring and the lack of depth and injuries that have taken their toll on the unit.

    The secondary has been regarded as the weakest link of a dominating defense and could benefit from having a ball-hawking safety or cornerback to keep opposing quarterbacks honest.

    Gettleman did a great job with the draft last year, and while fans were left scratching their heads or cursing some of his picks, everything turned out alright in the end. There should be no reason to question his moves in this year's draft, but his first pick will most likely spark a lot endless debates.

Offseason Trades

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Nothing gets the sports world buzzing like a trade. No matter if it's during the season or after it, the transaction creates a lot of speculation and talking points. Carolina's last trade involved sending Jon Beason to the New York Giants for a conditional pick. That pick was recently revealed to be a seventh-rounder which will give the Panthers a selection in every round this year.

    Whether or not Gettleman decides to make another trade remains to be seen.

    Carolina may not be making too much noise over the next few weeks or during the draft. If the Panthers were to make a draft-day trade, it only seems logical that they would move up to grab somebody who could be a difference-maker on the field.

    Additionally, there could be a lot of decisions on whether to deal away a player from the current roster.  

    It wasn't long ago that the trade winds suggested the Panthers would trade away one of their running backs, and it was only three years ago that Steve Smith was the subject of some rumors himself. Neither seems to be the case this year, as the team will most likely keep the running backs intact, and Smith will play through the remainder of his contract.

    The decision to make a trade is tricky.

    Trades can either benefit a team tremendously, or they can set a franchise back a few seasons. The latter is especially true of the Washington Redskins who dealt away their first pick of this year (second overall) to St. Louis in order to draft Robert Griffin III

    There should be no reason to believe the Panthers will make such a bold move themselves, but if they did, it would most likely be to grab a wide receiver.

Free-Agent Signings

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    The Carolina Panthers will have some decisions to make about which of their free agents, per Spotrac, to re-sign and which ones to let go. They may look to bring in a free agent from another team, but despite being $13.8 million under the cap, there is no reason to believe they will be making any major signings this spring.

    Per Carolina's ESPN beat writer David Newton, Gettleman could carry over as much of the cap as possible into next year. The team leads its division in cap space, but it seems unlikely it lands one of NFL.com's Around the League's top 25 free agents, as provided by Chris Wesseling. This list has some notable players who could help the Panthers out tremendously, but they may require a big pay day.

    Gettleman could focus on bringing back key players from last year's team and build through the draft. The Panthers have a lot of decisions to make on how they spend their money and who to spend it on for the long-term investment (more on that later).

    The Panthers did alright for themselves last year by signing a lot of players to one-year deals. Of course those same players may expect a longer contract if they are to remain with the team.  

    Some notable free agents from Carolina include Jordan Gross, Greg Hardy, Captain Munnerlyn and Ted Ginn Jr.

    Carolina may not make a big signing this year, opting instead to retain its current talent and build through the draft. This process was used last year, and it netted a 12-4 season and a division title.

Signing Their Key Players to New Contracts

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    This will probably be the biggest decision Gettleman will have to make this year. Defensive end Greg Hardy has come off a contract year with the kind of numbers warranting big money. He expects to be paid around the $100 million mark but has suggested an openness to take a hometown discount to stay in Carolina.  

    How much of a discount he would take remains to be seen, but either way, the Panthers are in no position to sign him to a new deal this year.

    Fortunately, he is open to the franchise tag.

    Hardy made the assertion that he would love to play another year in Carolina and give the team another year to get their finances in order to keep him around for a long time.

    That could allow the Panthers room to not only retain Hardy's services for another year, but free up money to sign Cam Newton to a new contract. The former No. 1 pick will be entering the last year of his original contract, but Carolina has an option for a fifth year. However, he is eligible for a new deal, and there is no doubt the front office wants to lock up their franchise quarterback.

    Gettleman has made getting Newton a new contract his top priority, reports Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

    In the end, that is a lot of money tied into just two players. Gettleman has shown a knack for keeping the Panthers' expenses fairly cheap while field a competitive team. It would appear that Hardy is headed for the franchise tag and the terms with Newton will be negotiated sometime soon.

    Ultimately, the tough decision will come down to how much money will be invested.

    You can make the not so tough decision to follow me and the others in Panther Nation on Twitter.