The Carolina Panthers' offseason looks to be an interesting one. Already, it has seen the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and sparked questions about Steve Smith's future with the team. The Panthers have resolved some issues by placing the franchise tag on Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and re-signed kicker Graham Gano to a four-year contract.
There is still a lot of work to be done—namely on the offensive side of the ball.
It's hard to suggest that Carolina is rebuilding on offense, but essentially that appears to be the case. The franchise quarterback is already in place, but the question remains; who will be his targets in 2014? Additionally, who will protect him in the pocket and open up running lanes for the backfield?
General manager Dave Gettleman has a lot on his plate over the next several weeks. Between the start of the free agency signing period and May's draft, he will need to find the pieces necessary to keep the offense both strong and effective.
As mentioned earlier, Gross has left a huge void at left tackle. Gettleman will need to decide if he wants to sign a veteran to the position or find the next long-term solution via the draft. The latter seems like a realistic option. The depth for offensive linemen is pretty deep this year, and it's possible two or three linemen could be added to the roster.
Ultimately, it will come down to how well they contribute.
Last year's offensive line was decent, but there were noticeable flaws. They were overpowered at times, and that cost them on critical downs. This became increasingly glaring during the Panthers' meeting with San Francisco in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs. Carolina could not rise to the occasion on goal-line situations.
The injuries at guard kept the younger players from making any contributions during the year. Both Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila were lost for the year, and Carolina had to utilize a patchwork rotation at the position which resulted in Nate Chandler and Sione Fua converting from defensive tackle to offensive guard. Much like tackle, there are no guarantees about who will be lining up on the inside.
With only one starter from last year's line returning, center Ryan Kalil, the Panthers will need to rebuild their offensive front with a bunch of big, aggressive and physical players who will provide enough time for the plays to unfold.
However, that is only one part of the equation.
There is still no clue as to which players will comprise the Carolina receiving corps in 2014. Many fans would like to believe that Smith will return and is in no danger of being released by the team. Unfortunately, his interview with ESPN's Josina Anderson (h/t David Newton of ESPN.com) did not offer any reassurances.
Making matters worse is the lack of receivers on the roster. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon are all free agents. To summarize, that means the Panthers' second, third and fourth wide receivers are set to hit the market with the future of the team's best and first receiver in question.
Over the past few days, there has been speculation about Carolina's interest in free agents like Sidney Rice and Devin Hester. The latter being a possible target if Ginn signs somewhere else. Hester would give Carolina an exceptional weapon on special teams, but his production on offense pales in comparison to Ginn.
Rice has roots in the area and is still young. The uncertainty surrounding him is regarding his durability as injuries have slowed him down in his professional career.
Recently, Bleacher Report speculated on the possibility of bringing in James Jones of Green Bay to replace Smith if the team were to cut ties with him. This would be an incredible and earth-shattering move for the fans in Carolina.
Moving on from the veterans' and free-agency pool only has the team scratching the surface. There will still be a need for young, dynamic playmakers in the huddle. There are a lot of wide receiver options in this year's draft.
Prospects like Brandin Cooks, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin all make for great additions to an offense in desperate need of a spark at wide receiver. Even the middle of the draft should feature talented receivers such as Jarvis Landry, Jeff Janis and Mike Davis.
All of these players offer significant upside that can propel the Carolina offense to great heights over the next few years. It still remains to be seen just how much of an impact they will have at the professional level.
Another new face who could appear in the offense next season could be at tight end. Greg Olsen is still the go-to guy at the position and could turn out to be the best pass-catching tight end in franchise history. However, there is a possibility another tight end similar to Olsen could be drafted by the Panthers this spring.
If that were to happen, it could give everyone an idea of what kind of offense will be employed in 2014. The draft offers a few candidates who could be taken by Carolina such as Jace Amaro or Troy Niklas. The Panthers' need at wide receiver and offensive tackle make drafting a tight end early a very unlikely scenario.
There is still a possibility one could be taken in the middle rounds. One player who has drawn comparisons to Olsen is Arthur Lynch. He can do enough to make the plays and has the reliable hands necessary be a solid third-down option if needed.
Carolina does have Brandon Williams on the roster, a player who could work his way into a more active role in the offense. He has excellent size for the position, and he has the advantage of working out with Olsen. It's not a given, but it does present the Panthers with an option.
Next year's offense will feature many new faces.
How improved will Carolina's offense be in 2014?
How well the unit performs will depend on the players integrated into the system and if Cam Newton can rise up and be the kind of quarterback who can win regardless of who is in the huddle. He took huge steps at becoming a leader last season. The 2014 campaign should be about his ability to work with anyone and still net results.
Carolina's clutch win over New Orleans in Week 16 of last season may have offered a glimpse of what Newton is capable of doing. But it was just that—a glimpse.
Last year, the defense saw new faces all over the place and fielded the second-best unit in the league. Gettleman and his staff will be hoping lightning strikes twice, and the Panthers produce one of the best offenses in the NFL during the 2014 season.
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