Captain Munnerlyn (41) and Mike Mitchell (21) were both key players in 2013. Both are scheduled to enter free agency this offseason.
The Carolina Panthers have to figure out a way to re-sign their top free-agent targets, but having little cap room to work with will not make the task an easy one. If that wasn't a big enough worry for the front office, their top free agent may not be able to be brought back with the franchise tag. That is how limited the Panthers are financially in 2014.
However, if a couple other contracts can be restructured, there may be a glimmer of hope in retaining the services of a couple key players who were part of a 12-4 team in 2013. Carolina will have to make some tough decisions and will not be able to bring back everyone, but it won't be from a lack of trying.
The next few slides will discuss the free agents out of Carolina and the odds of them being re-signed to a new deal, as well as which free agents the Panthers could pursue from other teams. Keep in mind that the Panthers' budget will limit them in the market and they will probably aim to lock up most of their free agents.
Potential free-agent targets outside of Carolina are of the opinion of the writer and do not reflect the views or offseason strategy of the Panthers.
Greg Hardy has been a pleasant surprise since joining the Carolina Panthers as the team's sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft. It may not have been surprising to the Carolina coaching staff, which saw a lot of potential in the former Ole Miss defensive end. Ever since his rookie season, Hardy has gradually improved himself and there is no reason to believe that at 25 years old he has reached his peak.
Unfortunately, it would seem the Panthers are in no position to retain him. The limited money the team has available under the salary cap will make it nearly impossible to sign him and a few other key players that make up the team. Looking ahead to the future, the Carolina front office will have to do what they can to free up money to lock up both Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly to long-term deals.
There is the possibility of the team retaining Hardy with the franchise tag.
However, that will be pricey, since defensive ends who are tagged in 2014 will be looking at a projected salary of $12 million for one year. Joe Person, of the Charlotte Observer, made an interesting suggestion about the franchise and that was to tag and trade Hardy. The move would net draft picks and would provide a team in need of a pass-rusher with one of best in the game.
Still, it is too early to tell what exactly the future holds for both Carolina and Hardy. As of now, it may be time to accept the fact that his days with the Panthers are over.
Odds—50-1 (long-term deal), 25-1 (franchise tag)
Carolina would like to maintain a strong veteran presence in its secondary. Re-signing Captain Munnerlyn could be the way to go. Assuming the Panthers allow Greg Hardy to walk, the available money that would have been used to retain him would be used to sign Munnerlyn to a long-term contract.
Keeping Munnerlyn in Charlotte would be good as he is one of the most opportunistic corners in the game today. Over the course of his five-year career, he has intercepted seven passes and returned five of them for touchdowns.
If Carolina is able to re-sign Munnerlyn, it may not be tempted to take a cornerback too early in the draft and can focus on addressing needs at wide receiver and offensive tackle. That's not to say the position can be overlooked, because it could use an upgrade.
Despite the fact that Jordan Gross is contemplating retirement, there is still reason to believe he will return in 2014. How long of a deal he signs remains unknown, but it would be nice to have a veteran presence on the offensive line to help mentor and mold a young tackle into a capable replacement.
Carolina needs to have someone it can trust to protect Cam Newton's blindside and Gross has proven himself time and again. He was awarded for his efforts with a trip to the Pro Bowl this past season.
The Panthers don't have to worry about Gross playing for someone else, as he has made it clear that if plays in the league in 2014 it will be in Carolina.
Gross shouldn't command too much money and should be offered a deal that will be fair for both sides if he decides to continue his playing career.
Oddly enough, Graham Gano is probably high on the free-agent target list. He has done a great job since replacing Justin Medlock halfway through the 2012 season and it would be a shame if the Panthers cannot re-sign him to a new contract.
He has good leg strength and accuracy, which bodes well for a team that has a tendency to go for it on fourth down when they are in opponent territory. Gano gives Ron Rivera a couple options when that particular situation presents itself.
Gano is still young enough to remain in Carolina for an extended period of time. If he can continue to be clutch and reliable, he should be able to hold down the kicking duties with the Panthers for the foreseeable future. The only obstacle that will need to be overcome is the one involving the contract and how much money the Panthers are willing to spend.
He will be a cheaper option among some of the free agents the Panthers have on the team, but he stands out as one of the better kickers entering the free-agent pool this offseason.
Mike Mitchell was arguably the best free-agent signing of 2013. After his first season in Carolina, Mitchell should be rewarded with a long-term contract. Assuming Charles Godfrey is 100 percent recovered from his Achilles injury, the Panthers may need Mitchell back at safety.
Last season was very impressive, as he recorded 72 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions. Additionally, he defensed 10 passes. It could be argued that he and Captain Munnerlyn were two of the bright spots of a weak secondary.
Mitchell has made it clear that he wants to stay with the Panthers and continue on the journey that began last year.
"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
Signing him will carry major implications into the draft, as retaining him will probably allow Carolina to stand pat on the position, while his departure could force the team to use an early pick to fill the need.
Carolina probably doesn't have to worry about targeting one of its wide receivers in free agency. However, Ted Ginn Jr. did turn in a great season as a receiver and was solid as a return specialist. The latter will serve as the reason why the Panthers want to keep him in Charlotte.
The Panthers haven't had a decent kick or punt returner since Ginn's arrival and he fills a major void while the team breaks in younger talent like Kenjon Barner.
As a receiver, Ginn wasn't overly impressive, but he was able to stretch the field better than Brandon LaFell and was able to turn in his best season as a receiver since 2008. The need for speed may be the ultimate goal in tweaking the offense.
The Panthers are expected to draft a wide receiver early in the draft and there are a couple of names that are more than capable of burning opposing secondaries. Having a veteran tandem like Ginn and Steve Smith teamed up with a speedy rookie could cause a series of mismatches for defenses.
Ginn's production wasn't so great that he will command a huge pay day. If anything, he will be looked upon as a veteran asset who can play special teams and be inserted into the offense at any given time.
Justin Tuck appears here because Dave Gettleman is familiar with him and the Carolina front office hasn't been shy about bringing in free agents from New York (Chase Blackburn and Domenik Hixon). Tuck makes sense because he could be an insurance policy if Greg Hardy becomes too expensive to keep around.
At age 30, Tuck should be a relatively cheaper option and has established the kind of production in which the Panthers could sign him to an affordable deal laden with incentives.
Plus, Tuck would be the kind of player to help maintain Carolina's aggressive style on defense without missing a beat. Opponents would not be able to concentrate on Charles Johnson at the other end of the line and he could give the team a couple good years before looking for a solid replacement through the draft.
Don't underestimate Gettleman's influence. He is doing some great things with the Panthers and considering the season the Giants had in 2013, the grass may look considerably greener in Charlotte.
Another New York player to keep an eye on is Hakeem Nicks. His name has been floating around the Carolina fanbase as a potential target for awhile now and his production proves he can be a solid No. 2 option next to Steve Smith and he could fit into the Carolina budget.
Nicks' best season was 2010. During that year, he caught 79 passes for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns. He only appeared in 13 games, so imagine what he could have done with a full season under his belt. Last year, he played in 14 games and started in six of them. His numbers were considerably lower from 2010 and 2011.
That kind of fluctuation could work in favor of the Panthers. The change of scenery could be beneficial to Hicks, who might flourish in Carolina's offense.
Carolina will be unable to land a top free agent this year, but Nicks is the type of player who can come in on a fair deal and help boost the offense.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Carolina add some veteran depth at offensive tackle this offseason.
After completing a one-year stint in South Beach, Tyson Clabo could look for a similar deal as he is at the end of his career.
What makes him an interesting target is his familiarity with the NFC South. He spent seven seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, and since 2008 he has played in every game with the exception of last year. He only appeared in 15, but he has proven to be quite durable at this position.
Clabo would be a person of interest if Jordan Gross retires. It is hard to imagine Carolina signing another veteran if Gross remains with the team, as they will look to build toward the future via the draft.
It's a safe bet that the only change at offensive tackle will come in the form of a rookie. However, one cannot rule out the possibility of bringing in a veteran like Clabo for the short run.
Eric Decker has been getting mentioned in the same breath as Carolina since the season ended. Yes, the Panthers have a need for a wide receiver and Decker is an ideal candidate to not only fill the position, but is still young enough to make significant contributions over the next few years.
However, his asking price may be too much for the Panthers to afford.
Decker is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in which he scored at least 11 touchdowns. Granted, he had the benefit of Peyton Manning throwing to him in those two seasons, but any agent worth their salt will want to negotiate a lucrative deal for the receiver.
In the event Carolina can somehow find a way to sign Decker, its need at wide receiver isn't nearly as pressing and attention could shift to the offensive line and secondary. Of course, that won't negate the possibility of Dave Gettleman drafting a highly regarded receiver prospect, as he will continue to build for the future.
Realistically, Decker will want more money than the Panthers are willing to pay.
This idea seems way out in left field, especially given the fact he isn't a free agent this year.
However, the Panthers' beat writer at ESPN, David Newton, has brought up an interesting scenario. If Greg Hardy leaves, could Carolina try to bring back Julius Peppers?
The Chicago Bears may not be able to afford Peppers this year and while he is not a free agent, he could be a cap casualty in order for the team to free up some extra money.
Peppers is owed $18.8 million in 2014. Despite an intriguing case by Newton, it's doubtful the former Carolina star will return home.
With all of the intangibles in place, it seems very unlikely this scenario plays out. Ron Rivera is still very high on keeping Greg Hardy with the team and Peppers may have worn out his welcome in Charlotte.
This would not be like Muhsin Muhammad returning after his tenure in Chicago. Remember, Peppers left after he felt he had maxed out his potential in Carolina. His departure rubbed fans the wrong way and he has since become vilified in his home state of North Carolina.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Peppers return to finish his career with the Panthers. It just won't be this year.