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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT

After politely declining all on-the-record interviews during the season, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman met with the media Tuesday, and many of the questions that were asked were left unanswered.

That is not a criticism of Gettleman. For someone who has not had a lot of experience with the media, he deflected all the questions he needed to deflect, but he did it more skillfully than most.

While he avoided giving specific answers about contract extensions and upcoming free agents, Gettleman did not just waste everyone's time.

On third-year quarterback Cam Newton, he said: "Do I feel Cam is our franchise quarterback? He proved it to me. He proved it this year. He flat proved it."

On the daunting number of 21 unrestricted free agents he will have to make decisions on, he said: "That's just part of the new NFL."

On facing another offseason with restrictive salary-cap challenges, he said: "We are cap challenged, and that's not going away anytime soon. In the next month, we are going to thoughtfully look at next year and a three-year projection and five-year projection."

Gettleman explained he hopes the Panthers will be out of their salary-cap mess after two more years, but he is still expected to approach Newton with a contract extension this offseason.

The Panthers have until May 3 to exercise their 2015 option on Newton, but the team would much rather get its most important player locked into a long-term deal.

Gettleman would not give any specifics of how he will approach any of Carolina's contract questions, from 11th-year left tackle Jordan Gross, whose contract is set to void on Feb. 7, to defensive end Greg Hardy, who is looking for big money as he hits free agency.

The Panthers' cap situation will likely prohibit them from giving Hardy what he wants, which makes him a good bet to get a franchise tag that would cost Carolina an estimated $12 million.

But when asked about Hardy, Gettleman, for the first time, sounded like he is not afraid to play some hardball.

"There isn't a team in this league that hasn't let a big dog walk out the door, and don't print that I'm saying he's going to go," Gettleman said. "I'm just making a statement. There isn't anybody that hasn't done that.

"But again, there is a whole big puzzle we're putting together. And he's one of the pieces."

And players are not the only pieces Gettleman needs to decide how to play this offseason. Head coach Ron Rivera is heading into the final year of his four-year deal, and as the Panthers learned during a 2-14 year under then-coach John Fox in 2010, a lame-duck season is less than ideal.

Gettleman said he had "ultimate faith" in Rivera, who won six, seven and then 12 games in his first three years, but it is unclear if that faith will turn into a multi-year deal for Rivera.

While a 12-5 record and NFC South title marked the best season in Carolina since 2008, a bright future for the Panthers is not guaranteed. Gettleman had a tremendous first year as general manager, but can he follow up that success with an even rougher road ahead this offseason?

The Falcons and Buccaneers will be expected to be much improved in 2014, making the NFC South one of the tougher divisions in the NFL. Plus, the Panthers also need to find a way to at least match the talent level of the Seahawks and 49ers.

Gettleman waited more than two decades to earn his dream job. He will likely have many sleepless nights this offseason, but if he can work his magic like he did during his first year, he will continue successfully building toward his charge of making the Panthers a consistent winner.

"We have challenges moving forward, there's no doubt about that," Gettleman said. "But I will say this: I'd rather be where we are right now than where we were a year ago."

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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES

-Long snapper J.J. Jansen was added to the Pro Bowl as an alternate on Wednesday. Jansen will join teammates defensive end Greg Hardy, quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert in Hawaii.

Left tackle Jordan Gross could also be a late addition as an alternate if Joe Staley advances to the Super Bowl with the 49ers. If Gross is added, the Panthers would match their franchise record set in 1996 with seven total players in the Pro Bowl.

Carolina's coaches will also be there heading up one of the two teams in the Jan. 26 game.

-The Panthers signed eight more players to futures contracts. Wide receiver Brenton Bersin, quarterback Matt Blanchard, linebacker Ben Jacobs, guard Mike Jasper, tight end D.C. Jefferson, tackle Andrew McDonald, cornerback De'Andre Presley and defensive end Craig Roh all finished the season on Carolina's practice squad.

-General manager Dave Gettleman confirmed the Panthers received a seventh-round draft pick when they traded linebacker Jon Beason to the Giants in October. Carolina will pick 28th in the first round and now has a pick in all seven rounds.

-After their divisional playoff loss as the No. 2 seed, the Panthers remain winless when returning from a bye in the Ron Rivera era.

"We've tried something different after every one," Rivera said, when asked about his 0-4 post-bye week record. "You'd like to think you'd come off of it and play better and do some good things, but that's an unfortunate part and I've got to find an answer to that."

-In their five losses, the Panthers were outscored 69-23 in the second half. They were shutout in the second half against Seattle, Arizona and in the rematch versus San Francisco.

-The Panthers finished the season 7-2 at home, with both losses coming against teams playing in the NFC Championship Game.

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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FREE-AGENT UPDATE

Scheduled to be unrestricted in March

--QB Derek Anderson

--QB Jimmy Clausen

--WR Domenik Hixon

--WR Brandon LaFell

--WR Ted Ginn

--TE Ben Hartsock

--T Jordan Gross

--G Geoff Hangartner

--G Travelle Wharton

--T Garry Williams

--T Bruce Campbell

--DE Greg Hardy

--DT Colin Cole

--LB Jordan Senn

--LB Jason Williams

--LB Dan Connor

--CB Captain Munnerlyn

--CB Drayton Florence

--S Quintin Mikell

--S Mike Mitchell

--K Graham Gano

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Cam Newton. Backup - Derek Anderson. Injured reserve: Jimmy Clausen.

After a 2012 season where many questioned his status as an elite young quarterback, Newton re-emerged in national conversations by leading the Panthers to their most wins in five years by playing smarter. Newton's passing and rushing yards were down this season, but he finished with career highs in passing touchdowns, passing percentage and passer rating. Anderson could land elsewhere in 2014, but there does not appear to be much reason for Carolina to not want him back.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - DeAngelo Williams, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups - Jonathan Stewart, Kenjon Barner.

Solid, but unspectacular, Williams racked up his most carries and receptions since 2009. Injuries allowed Stewart to play in just six games, but his contract situation essentially has him attached to Carolina through at least 2014. Tolbert earned a much-deserved Pro Bowl spot and he will be an important part of the Panthers' offense again next season.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Greg Olsen. Backups - Richie Brockel, Ben Hartsock, Brandon Williams.

Olsen broke the franchise record for most receptions by a tight end for the second straight season. He may not be as well-known or as dynamic as Saints TE Jimmy Graham or Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, but Olsen became the first non-wide receiver to lead the Panthers in receptions with 73 this year. Williams, a former basketball player and physical specimen, was a project who dressed nine times as a special teams contributor.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell. Backups - Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon, Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt, R.J. Webb.

Smith finally appeared to lose a step in his 13th season. More of an intermediate than deep threat, he finished with 64 receptions - his first year since 2004 (when he played just one game) when he did not lead the team in receptions. LaFell set career highs in receptions and touchdowns, but the fourth-year player may end up somewhere else as a free agent. Ginn was arguably the biggest surprise of the season, catching five touchdown passes, one fewer than he had in his previous six seasons combined. Hixon was a minimal contributor, but his game-winning touchdown catch in Week 16 against the Saints was perhaps the most memorable moment of Carolina's season.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton, C Ryan Kalil, RG Nate Chandler, RT Byron Bell. Backups - C Jeff Byers, C Brian Folkerts, G Geoff Hangartner, G Chris Scott, G Edmund Kugbila, G Amini Silatolu, T Garry Williams, T Travis Bond, T Bruce Campbell.

Kalil returned from a 2012 season interrupted by foot surgery to earn a fourth trip to the Pro Bowl. Gross, in his 11th season, had another strong year protecting Newton's blind side and the Panthers are likely hoping he will play at least one more season. Wharton and Hangartner were former Panthers brought back to help stop the bleeding from a rash of pre- and early-season injuries to the line, but Carolina hopes youngsters Silatolu and Kugbila can return healthier to contribute in 2014. Chandler was not terrible for a converted defensive tackle, but the Panthers would be better off if they find a better starter to replace him and tackle Byron Bell.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Greg Hardy, LDT Dwan Edwards, RDT Star Lotulelei, RDE Charles Johnson. Backups - DE Mario Addison, DE Frank Alexander, DE Wes Horton, DT Colin Cole, DT Kawann Short, DT Linden Gaydosh.

Hardy followed up his breakthrough 11-sack season of 2012 with a franchise record-tying 15-sack year. The unrestricted free agent will be looking for a huge contract, something the Panthers probably cannot afford this offseason, so he looks like a possible franchise tag candidate. Hardy teamed with Johnson, who had 11 sacks, to become the first Carolina duo to rack up double-digit sacks in consecutive seasons. Lotulelei and Short, the Panthers' top two draft picks, shored up the middle part of a line that was soft for many years. Edwards could be a cap casualty, but the young and extremely talented line should be a force for at least a few more seasons.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Chase Blackburn, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis. Backups - Dan Connor, A.J. Klein, Jordan Senn, Jason Williams.

Kuechly followed up his Defensive Rookie of the Year season with a year that could earn him the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Davis' comeback story got even sweeter as he played all 17 games and set career highs in tackles, sacks and pass deflections. Blackburn was a solid free-agent acquisition, but Klein looks like the future at outside linebacker.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Captain Munnerlyn, RCB Melvin White, SS Quintin Mikell, FS Mike Mitchell. Backups - CB Drayton Florence, CB Josh Norman, CB Josh Thomas, CB James Dockery, S Colin Jones, S Robert Lester, S Charles Godfrey.

This was the weakest unit coming into the year and it played much better than expected, for the most part. Munnerlyn stayed on a one-year deal and proved yet again he is a serviceable starter despite his size. Mitchell and Mikell were free-agent pickups that shored up the secondary after Godfrey was lost early in the year. Lester and White, a couple undrafted rookies, played much better than expected, but the Panthers need to find some better talent heading into 2014.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, P Brad Nortman, KOR/PR Ted Ginn, LS J.J. Jansen.

Gano had the best season of his five-year career, making 24 of his 27 field-goal attempts and leading the league in touchback percentage. Nortman followed up a somewhat disappointing rookie year by setting franchise records in gross punting average and net yards. Ginn, who did not score a return touchdown, was not as dynamic as most hoped, but he was still the best returner the Panthers have had in years.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/140116/carolina-panthers-teamreport