The Carolina Panthers will need to develop a plan of action for the offseason regarding how to build their team.
Do they try to re-sign their free agents or bring in a more affordable veteran? Do they continue to stay young and build through the draft? Essentially, the Panthers should be working on a wish list of sorts that encompasses both the free-agent market and the incoming draft class.
It may be fair to say their wish list involves those key players that are about to enter free agency. That same list should also consist of some of the top draft prospects at their respective positions. Careful planning and organizing will be paramount to how many of the players on the Carolina wish list end up on the final roster.
The Panthers may not get everyone they want, but they should be able to lock up a few notable and productive players.
Sooner or later, the Carolina Panthers will have to rebuild their offensive line. It so happens that Jordan Gross may be at the end of his career, and that could mean the Panthers will have to find his replacement in this draft. Even if he returns, drafting an offensive tackle would bring stability to the offensive front and allow the team to focus on other areas of the line down the road.
It is no secret the Carolina Panthers would like him to return. They can rest easy knowing they shouldn't have to compete with other teams as the veteran Pro Bowler stated he wouldn't play for any team but Carolina.
However, retirement is still a very real possibility. The Panthers would love to have him on the field and in the locker room for another season or two as it would help in the development process of a young rookie tackle.
Tyson Clabo (Miami Dolphins, Free Agent)
If Gross does retire, the Panthers may seek out a veteran who can fill in as a buffer until they bring in a young offensive tackle to take the reins for the long haul. Clabo could be an adequate solution. He has experience playing in the NFC South, as he was a member of the Atlanta Falcons for seven years.
His contract with Miami was only for a year, so he shouldn't be expecting anything longer than two years. His bottom line could be in Carolina's spending range, which would make him more appealing if in fact the team decides to bring in an outside veteran.
Taylor Lewan (Michigan)
Assuming that some offensive linemen drop because teams are targeting quarterbacks and wide receivers, Lewan should be atop the Carolina wish list. He has the size and strength necessary to be an excellent tackle in the NFL. His ability to hold his blocks and be effective on the outside has him drawing comparisons to Jake Long.
Morgan Moses (Virginia)
It's hard not to like Moses as the Panthers' first pick. Not only would he most likely be available, but his ability to effectively block in the running and passing games would help improve the offensive effort. Moses is a bit bulkier than Lewan, despite being slightly shorter. If he can do for the Carolina offense what he did at Virginia, the Panthers could see a stark improvement in their total offensive ranking next season.
Seantrel Henderson (Miami)
As a mid-round projection, one has to like the possibility of Henderson being drafted by the Panthers. His 6'7", 331-pound build makes him a mountain of a man for defenders to get around. Assuming Carolina holds off on taking an offensive tackle early, Henderson could be taken when they pick in the third or fourth round.
Wide receiver has long been an issue the Panthers have delayed in addressing or not addressed properly. Previous draft picks at the position have included Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards and David Gettis. Only LaFell remains with the team and has yet to really establish himself as a sound No. 2 receiver.
Carolina could look at both the draft and free agency to fill this role. Although Domenik Hixon disappointed for the most part, he did have the game-winning touchdown grab against New Orleans. However, in a league that demands consistency, he may be out of a job despite his clutch catch. Just ask former New York Giants receiver David Tyree.
Controversy aside, Cooper stepped up in a big way after the Eagles lost Jeremy Maclin for the season. He had 47 receptions for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. Prior to this season, Cooper was merely a third- or fourth-string wide receiver who only started 10 games between 2010 and 2012.
He proved he can be a reliable target on the field, and if the Eagles don't bring him back, he could be a possible target for the Panthers. However, after coming off a great year, his contract demands may be more than what Carolina is willing to offer.
Devin Hester (Chicago Bears)
Hester has been a mainstay with the Bears for a long time. He has been more renowned for his kick- and punt-return prowess than anything else. However, he has been inserted into the Chicago offense on occasion. But he did not contribute to that unit in 2013 and may seek greener pastures in free agency.
Carolina appealed to Ted Ginn Jr. last season, as he not only got to be a big part on special teams, but he put together a decent season in the offense. Hester would allow the Panthers to add more speed to their offense and, if combined with both Ginn and Steve Smith, it is hard to imagine not one one them being open downfield.
Hester is still a force on kick returns as he averaged 27.6 yards per return last season, which was the second best mark of his career. Teaming him up with Ginn would force kickers to boot the ball out of the end zone as each man has the ability to take the return deep.
Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State)
At 6'5”, 235 pounds, what is not to like about Benjamin? He is the ideal receiver the Panthers would love to have since Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans will no doubt be off the board late in the first round. During the Seminoles title run of 2013, Benjamin caught 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns. He practically doubled his production from the year before. It is time for Carolina to begin a new era at wide receiver, and it could start with Benjamin.
Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt)
Slightly smaller (6'3”, 209 lbs) than Benjamin, Matthews is still an ideal receiver with size the Panthers could pursue on draft day. The young man could help himself tremendously if he has a great combine and pro day.
He was a great asset for the Commodores and should be able to do the same for Carolina. Based on production, Matthews had a better season than Benjamin, despite only scoring half as many times (seven touchdowns). He caught 112 passes for 1,477 yards in his senior year. His steady improvement over his four-year collegiate career suggests he is probably one of the most NFL-ready receivers in the draft.
Cornerback is one of two positions on the Carolina roster that can either be of great importance or one that just needs some added depth. The determining factor will be free agency and whether or not Captain Munnerlyn remains with the team. If he does, he and Melvin White should be the front-runners for the starting spots on the field. If Munnerlyn leaves, the Panthers will need to address the position within the first three rounds or find a replacement in free agency.
Based on their lack of cap room, it seems logical they may just use the draft to fill their need at corner. However, there may be a corner that could be available in free agency they can afford.
After a career year, Carolina would love to have Munnerlyn back with the team in 2014. He has even stated he would like to return on a long-term deal. However, there is a possibility that the Panthers will not be able to afford him because of the salary cap. If he is able to be retained, he will be a positive presence within the secondary.
Walter Thurmond (Seattle Seahawks)
If the Panthers are to consider spending a lot of money (which seems like a very far-fetched idea), they could choose to spend it on Thurmond. A David Newton ESPN article suggested the Panthers and Seahawks were only separated by the talent of their secondaries. If Carolina were to bring him in, that would be an excellent start in the right direction. Thurmond did well for himself in 2013 by recording 33 tackles, one sack, one interception and a forced fumble.
Aqib Talib (New England Patriots)
He is probably more on the Carolina fans' wish list than the team's. He will command a decent contract in 2014 as he is considered by NFL.com's Chris Wesseling to be the fourth best cornerback in the free-agent market.
His ability as a corner is nothing to scoff at, as he had 41 tackles, four interceptions and a forced fumble. Talib may as well be a wish-list-caliber player because the Panthers will not be able to afford him. However, the fans in Carolina can't argue the notion of how fun it would be to yell at him every day from July to December to “Ice up, son!”
Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State)
It's unlikely Carolina drafts a cornerback in the first round. The only way that happens is if he is the best player available. If Gilbert somehow dropped down to the Panthers, he would be a solid asset to a vulnerable unit. Gilbert did well for himself in his last year at Oklahoma State.
He had 42 tackles and seven interceptions. Two of his picks he returned for touchdowns. If he is not available in the first, Carolina will probably look at addressing the position in the second or third rounds.
Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State)
Joyner did a little bit of everything in 2013 as his school marched towards a national title. He registered 69 tackles, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. His ability to blitz should play nicely with the Carolina defensive scheme and could warrant a second-round selection.
Of course, since this is a wish list, he will probably be off the board late in the second, which will prompt the Panthers to take another cornerback or look at another position entirely.
This is the other position that could fluctuate in terms of importance depending on how the free-agent-signing period turns out. Carolina has both a free safety and strong safety hitting the market, but Charles Godfrey could return to full strength after being sidelined with an injury for much of last year. The Panthers may only target on of their free-agent safeties considering how well rookie Robert Lester played this year. Still, Carolina has its wish list of players for this position.
Mitchell did well for a guy playing on a one-year contract. He exceeded expectations as he put together his best year as pro. His production warrants consideration after recording 67 tackles, four sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. He was definitely a bright spot on an otherwise underrated secondary. The Panthers would love to bring him back, and Mitchell has said he would like to return.
He wasn't as productive as his teammate, but Mikell still had a good season. His 59 tackles and three sacks helped cement the Carolina defense as one of the best in the league. It stands to reason that Mikell will be a lot easier to sign than Mitchell, but with the team on the rise, both players may accept less money to remain with a contender.
Malcolm Jenkins (New Orleans Saints)
The New Orleans Saints will no doubt try to retain Jenkins. He enjoyed solid success with the organization during the first five years of his career and could be looking at an extension. However, in the spirit of rivalry, it would be interesting to see Carolina make him an offer if he were to test the market.
The previous slide suggested the Panthers may only offer a considerable amount of cash to bring in Seattle's Walter Thurmond. It stands to reason there is a case for Jenkins as well. Having him in Charlotte would give the Panthers defense a better understanding of how the New Orleans offense works and could serve as the X-factor in head-to-head meetings. It doesn't get any more "wish list" than this.
Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (Alabama)
How well the Panthers build up the inside of their secondary could decide on how early to address the position in the draft. In the event of worst-case scenario, Clinton-Dix could be a target. The top free safety in this year's class according to CBSSports.com, he would have to fall or have Carolina trade up to draft him.
He may not be a prototypical ball hawk, but he does enough to keep receivers honest. In his last year at Alabama, he had 51 tackles and two interceptions. The Panthers would have to be really hurting at safety to consider drafting Clinton-Dix with their first pick.
The general perception around the Carolina fanbase seems to be that they want defensive end Greg Hardy to return, but realize he may be too expensive for the team regardless of whether he is offered a new contract or placed under the franchise tag.
The Panthers still have Frank Alexander, who is more than capable of playing the position. Unfortunately, Hardy's absence could allow teams to double-team Charles Johnson until Alexander steps up and leaves his mark on opposing backfields.
Love him or hate him, one cannot deny the talent (language NSFW) the young man possesses. He has compiled back-to-back seasons of double-digit sacks and is ready to be compensated for his production. If it weren't for the financial strain due to the big contracts given out by Dave Gettleman's predecessor and the need to lock up Cam Newton to an extension, giving Hardy his due wouldn't be an issue.
The Panthers' wish here should be a bump in the salary cap or a drop in the amount of money the franchise tag will cost. Regardless, it doesn't look promising for a continued relationship between Carolina and Hardy.
Justin Tuck (New York Giants)
Tuck may be had for a little less money than Hardy. Gettleman has shown a knack for bringing in former New York players from his days working with the Giants organization. Tuck could be a discounted Hardy if the terms are right.
His 2013 season had him recording 63 tackles, 11.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Tuck is 30 years old, and it stands to reason his best days are behind him. However, he can still be brought in on a fair deal that would be mutually beneficial to both sides.
Dee Ford (Auburn)
This hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker may be better suited for a 3-4 base defense, but considering what he can do at either position, he could be a dark-horse top pick for Carolina in the first round.
Should Hardy be given his walking papers, the team's interest in Ford should become increasingly higher. A third of Ford's tackles in 2013 were sacks as he tallied 10.5 on the year. The talent and production he could bring to Carolina would more than compensate for the departure of Hardy.