The Carolina Panthers are still dealing with the fallout of the Marty Hurney era. While he did put together a competitive unit as the team's general manager, he was heavily criticized for signing many players to large contracts. Just like last year, this will be the Achilles' heel for a team trying to retain their free agents and sign others from around the league.
Carolina has 20 unrestricted free agents per Spotrac. As much as current general manager Dave Gettleman would like to bring all of them back, it is not in the cards. Already, he has to figure out how to go about signing Cam Newton to an extension, while deciding to keep Greg Hardy via the franchise tag or a new contract or just letting him walk.
The future looks bright for the Panthers, but they cannot afford to lose some key players to free agency or retirement. Per the Charlotte Observer, as Carolina enters February, they will be $11.2 million under the salary cap, but that figure will change upon the start of the new league year.
So, who will return to don the black and blue in 2014?
The next several slides will discuss the Panthers' unrestricted free agents and the possibility of them returning to Charlotte for the 2014 season.
The future of Jordan Gross will be key as the Carolina Panthers get ready for the draft. His departure would almost make drafting an offensive tackle an absolute certainty in the first round. However, if he is retained, the Panthers could hold off on taking a lineman with their first pick and perhaps make the position their top priority going into the 2015 draft.
Gross has already stated he will either retire or re-sign with the Panthers. He will not play for another team. That kind of thinking looks optimistic for the team and the fan base as Gross could be brought back for another two years at an affordable price. There is no reason to think the Pro Bowl tackle will command a huge contract as he is on the tail-end of this career.
#Panthers LT Jordan Gross joked the team offered him a 10-year deal. You get the feeling he'd like to be back if team really wants him.— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) January 13, 2014
For now, Gross is waiting to talk with Dave Gettleman about his future and knows that coach Ron Rivera wants him back next year, per David Newton of ESPN.com. Gross may be undecided, but it seems very likely that he will be back for a 12th season when camp opens later this summer.
Prediction: Returns to Carolina on a two-year deal.
Carolina's sack leader has no problem being placed under the franchise tag. In fact, he likes the idea of playing another year with the Panthers without a contract while the front office can get their affairs in order with some of his teammates.
In the end, he expects to get paid and it's uncertain if the Panthers will be able to meet his contract expectations.
Greg Hardy may have been a sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft, but he has proven a valuable asset on a very talented defense. He recorded 15.0 sacks this past year, after registering 11.0 the year before. Given how his partner-in-crime at the other end of the defensive line, Charles Johnson, was given a big deal after his rookie contract, it's not surprising that Hardy expects a big pay day.
Johnson was one of the last contracts given out by Marty Hurney at $76 million over six years. Hardy has hinted at wanting a deal that is bigger than that, despite offering to take a hometown discount to remain in Carolina.
Fortunately, this should not play out like the Julius Peppers saga did a few short years ago. Hardy loves the area and wants to remain loyal to the team. Carolina may want to re-sign him, but it will come down to how much money they have to work with over the long haul.
Greg Hardy says Panther negotiations yet to begin http://t.co/EaKtCM9KRR— Charlotte Observer (@theobserver) January 30, 2014
Much like Jordan Gross' situation, the Carolina front office has yet to open talks with Hardy. They will probably take as much time as they can between now and March 11 (start of free agency) to make a decision about Hardy as well as the rest of their free agents.
Prediction: Franchise tag
Captain Munnerlyn was allowed to test free agency last year before re-signing with the Panthers on a one-year deal. The lack of interest in him from the other teams made it possible for him to come back at an affordable $1.1 million for the year.
There is no reason to think Munnerlyn will return under a similar deal this offseason.
After putting together his best season in Carolina (77 tackles, three sacks and two pick sixes), the underrated cornerback from South Carolina should get plenty of offers in this year's market. The Panthers will try to bring him back at a reasonable price, but it stands to reason that Munnerlyn will see what he can get from other teams.
With the emergence of Melvin White and the talent of Josh Thomas, Carolina may let Munnerlyn walk and either bring back Drayton Florence on a more team-friendly deal or look for a suitable replacement in the draft.
The kind of contract Munnerlyn will be looking for may not mesh with the front office, especially when they are trying to make room for two key players on both sides of the football.
A very emotional Captain Munnerlyn made it very clear he wants to be back in Carolina. Hopes for a long-term deal— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) January 13, 2014
His attitude about coming back on a long term deal is great, but it will come down to the money aspect, which may be too much for the Panthers to invest into him.
Prediction: Signs somewhere else
When Ted Ginn Jr. signed with Carolina last year, he did so under the promise that he would be more than just a special teams player. After the season concluded, Ginn had caught 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns. Needless to say, the Panthers lived up to their promise.
Ginn is still a quality return man and the best one on the Carolina roster. He averaged 23.8 yards a return on kickoffs, although he failed to take it all the way. Still, one cannot overlook his contributions to the team in 2013.
He played with a chip on his shoulder after not being involved too much in the San Francisco offense while a member of the 49ers. His 15.4 yards per reception led the team; which proved he could be a reliable target.
Some people have suggested that Ginn was a disappointment this season, but if you look at his numbers on offense, he had his best year since 2008 and he set a career high in receiving touchdowns. Based on his production this past year, it's a fair assumption he gets a new deal to stay in Carolina.
Prediction: Signs two-year deal
The issues on Carolina's offensive line led them to bringing back Travelle Wharton after he was released by Cincinnati last summer. He never really amounted to much as a tackle, but when he was moved to the inside, he was as solid a player as they come.
That alone should be why he stays around for the foreseeable future.
While Dave Gettleman should give his offensive front a lot of attention during the draft, it wouldn't be surprising to see him keep Wharton, who proved to be one of the better linemen this past year. Even if Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila return from their injuries, they will have to compete for a starting position on the line.
Wharton's experience gives him an edge.
Even though it will be a new season and the Carolina budget isn't where they would like it to be, one has to believe they will make Wharton an offer because of his familiarity and experience.
Prediction: Signs one to two-year deal to stay in Carolina
Quintin Mikell came to Carolina last year on a one-year deal with the job of shoring up a shaky secondary. He did a good job as he logged 61 tackles, three sacks and seven defended passes. Additionally, his veteran presence was good for the team.
He may have split time with rookie Robert Lester, but he made the most of his opportunities when he was on the field.
Such opportunities led to the Panthers' Week 10 victory over San Francisco and in the crucial Week 16 divisional game against New Orleans.
2nd & goal and Quintin Mikell sacks Brees for a loss of 3! #KeepPounding— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 22, 2013
Bringing him back seems like a no-brainer for the Carolina front office and he should be able to return on a deal that is both long-term and affordable.
Prediction: Signs two to three year deal
If there was ever any doubt about Mike Mitchell's motivation or support of his team in Carolina, they were quickly squashed after the Panthers defeated the St. Louis Rams in a testy game in Week 7. Mitchell was one of a few emotional players on the field and brought a high level of intensity to the game.
That same intensity remained intact for the NFC divisional round against San Francisco. Mitchell was flagged for an unnecessary roughness call and complained after the game that the officials missed a lot of calls against him.
#Panthers safety Mike Mitchell says would love to play 49ers again with a new set of officials. Called penalty against him terrible terrible— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) January 12, 2014
Heading into the offseason, Mitchell has made it known his desire to stay with Carolina.
"I had a great group of guys and I want to finish this."-Mike Mitchell. It sure sounds like he wants to re-sign and play even better next yr— Car Panthers News (@CarPanthersNews) January 13, 2014
If he does return and Quintin Mikell does as well, the Panthers should be set at the safety position with Charles Godfrey coming back from injury and Robert Lester in the fold. That would free up Carolina from having to target a safety in the draft and they can avert their focus to cornerback or another position of need.
There is plenty to like about Mitchell and he would most likely continue to bring the same intensity to not only help the Panthers win games, but to prove to everyone else just how good this team can be.
Prediction: Signs one to two-year deal with Carolina
During the season-and-a-half that Graham Gano has been in Carolina, he has restored the team's faith in the kicker position. Once secured by the long-time fan favorite, John Kasay, the Carolina placekicker was a huge question mark before Gano arrived at the halfway point of the 2012 season.
All of those reservations should be put to rest as Gano kicked 24-of-27 field goals and was perfect on every point after attempt. Overall, he is 33-of-38 when it comes to field goal kicking and is almost flawless on the point after with 62-of-63.
Gano has the leg strength to kick the ball from 50 or more yards as he has done this seven times while in Carolina (six of which occurred last year). That kind of range makes it easy for the Panthers to get points on the board even if Ron Rivera has shown a penchant for going for it on fourth down inside their opponents' territory.
Aside from working on deals for Jordan Gross and Greg Hardy, Gano's future with the team should be among the top priorities among their free agents.
Prediction: Signs long-term deal
Domenik Hixon proved to be clutch in Week 16. Will it be enough to bring him back for another year?
Derek Anderson, QB
Derek Anderson has been with the Carolina Panthers since 2011. He has accepted his role as a backup and mentor to Cam Newton. Last year, he was a free agent and returned on a one-year deal. Considering the league's attitude towards young quarterbacks, it seems unlikely Anderson would find work as a starter anywhere else.
In fact, his experience and familiarity with the offense is reason enough for him to remain with the Panthers. He hasn't taken too many snaps in a real game since Newton went down temporarily with an injury in the 2012 season finale at New Orleans.
Expect him back on another one-year deal.
Ben Hartsock, TE
Regarded as a blocking tight end, Hartsock hasn't had much of a role with the Carolina offense. He will probably be signed to a one-year deal and may have to compete for a spot on the roster during training camp.
Bruce Campbell, RT
This could go either way. On one hand, the Panthers don't want to become short-handed at offensive tackle if Gross does retire. On the other, Campbell hasn't been nearly as effective as the team would like him to be. If Gross returns, Campbell will probably be released.
Jimmy Clausen, QB
Clausen was released before the start of last season and then placed on the team's injured reserve after not being claimed off waivers. It is very doubtful he will return as the former second-round pick from the 2010 draft never panned out in the league.
Colin Cole, DT
Another one-year player the Panthers signed to add depth at defensive tackle. Cole only appeared in nine games, recording 17 tackles and intercepting a pass. With the team having a pick in every round this year, they may just release him and replace him with a rookie via the draft or sign one as an undrafted free agent.
Dan Connor, MLB
Connor was brought back to help add experience and give Carolina another decent linebacker to backup Luke Kuechly. It would be nice to see Connor remain with the team, but he really isn't a necessity to have around unless the Panthers need depth at middle linebacker.
Drayton Florence, CB
Florence had the game-winning interception against San Francisco in Week 10. He has played well in Carolina this season and should be brought back if a long term deal with Captain Munnerlyn isn't reached. Even if Munnerlyn does return for the 2014 season, Florence would be a great cornerback to rotate in and out of the secondary.
Geoff Hangartner, OG
Hangartner came back to the Panthers last November. While his deal was on a one-year basis, he seems likely to return as he has a rapport with the line and could bring an additional veteran presence to a line that could be losing some leadership (if Gross retires).
Domenik Hixon, WR
He didn't get many opportunities on the field this season, but Hixon came up huge in Carolina's Week 16 victory over New Orleans. Carolina could re-sign him to a one-year deal, but it is very possible they allow him to walk and pursue younger receivers through the draft.
Eric Norwood, OLB
He had nothing to do with the team this season or any season since being taken by the Panthers in the 2010 draft. Norwood should be given his outright release or signed to the practice squad.
Jordan Senn, OLB
More renowned for his leadership on special teams, Senn should return to Carolina on a team-friendly, long-term deal. He only had seven tackles in 14 games this past season, but he is a positive role model to the young players on the team and is a positive influence on the locker room.
Jason Williams, OLB
He appeared in only 11 games and tallied just four tackles. He could be brought back on a one-year deal or be given the opportunity to find work somewhere else. Williams' future in Carolina could depend on the Panthers' draft strategy and whether or not they bring in another linebacker.