Carolina Panthers - TeamReport

NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT

Wide receiver Steve Smith announced Wednesday that he will not be returning to the Carolina Panthers.

"I will always be a Carolina panther No contract can ever change that CLT is my home and will always be my home... I love you #panthernation," Smith tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

"But I still have a lil bit of football left in me.... #agent89 Out."

The question is where will he end up next. There were reports as the free agency period began Tuesday that the Panthers were trying to trade him. It now appears that the team could release him.

Smith is due to make $7 million under the salary cap next season. If the Panthers release him, they still owe the 13-year veteran $3 million in 2014 as part of a three-year extension he signed in 2012.

"Where we are disappointed is the fact he signed an extension to stay loyal to the club and complete his career as a Panther," his agent, Derrick Fox, told the Associated Pres. "That is why we did the long-term deal. Now we are at a crossroads where the Panthers don't want him anymore."

With Smith apparently on the way out, the Panthers are left with Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Kealoha Pilares as their top three receivers. Brandon LaFell is an unrestricted free agent.

Smith's release would count $5 million toward the salary cup. If he is designated for a post-June 1 release, the money could be split over the next two seasons.

--So far, the Panthers' offseason has been dominated by talk about Smith, and rightfully so. The guy many would call the best player in franchise history will likely be released if Carolina can't trade him. But as they head into free agency, the Panthers have much bigger issues to deal with than Smith's status.

Even if Smith had returned to play a 14th season, quarterback Cam Newton would be in desperate need of weapons. Greg Olsen is an underrated tight end and the best receiving option the Panthers have brought on board since Smith. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart still have some tread left on their tires. But Carolina has little else to make many believe it can compete for an NFC title.

Not only does Newton need some more firepower, but he also could use some more protection.

The Panthers have a Pro Bowler in Ryan Kalil, but come Week 1, the four other offensive line positions could be filled by guys other than the ones who started the majority of games last season.

At guard, the Panthers are putting a lot of faith in Amini Silatolu returning from an ACL tear and Edmund Kugbila coming back from a lost rookie season. At tackle, Jordan Gross has been enjoying retirement for a couple months already and Byron Bell isn't necessarily an ideal starter.

Carolina not only needs to fill holes on the line, they have to fill those holes with better, bigger and faster talent.

Defensively, after franchising defensive end Greg Hardy, the Panthers front seven remains one of the scariest in the league. But the secondary may have to be completely rebuilt, and that unit was the team's most suspect position on the team last season.

A 12-4 record was great last winter, but this spring its put Carolina in the unfortunate position of having a late first-round pick. The 28th spot isn't all that ideal when you have so many holes to fill. And after committing more than $13 million to Hardy for his tag, the team is tight against the salary cap again.

So how will general manager Dave Gettleman fill out the roster the next few months?

Like he did last year - via draft picks and bargain-bin veterans.

The Panthers won't be big players in free agency. Gettleman will instead look for one-year Band-Aids like he did last offseason.

On the surface, it looks like the Carolina is a long shot to string together its first back-to-back winning season in franchise history. But Gettleman and company had less money and plenty of holes to fill last March, and they somehow put it all together to form an NFC South title.

The impending moving of Smith certainly signals a changing of the guard in the locker room, but it's just one part of what has been an inevitable makeover for the Panthers this offseason.


NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES

--The Panthers are going to need one big retirement home. Two weeks after former left tackle Jordan Gross retired, two of his teammates have also decided to hang it up.

Guard/center Geoff Hangartner and guard/center Jeff Byers announced their plans to return on Tuesday.

Hangartner had three stints with the Panthers during his nine-year career. He finishes with 85 starts in 118 games played.

Byers' four-year career essentially ended when he broke his foot in Week 9. He finishes with seven starts in 22 games played.

--On the day before free agency began, the Panthers re-signed tight end/fullback Richie Brockel and guard/tackle Garry Williams. Brockel, who could have been a restricted free agent, picked up a two-year deal, while Williams inked a one-year offer.

Brockel is a typical a?oglue guya?? who has played in 43 games in two seasons with the Panthers. Williams started 2013 at right guard until he tore his ACL in Week 1.

--The Panthers lost one of their key special teams guys shortly after the start of free agency. Linebacker Jordan Senn, who was the team's special teams captain in 2012, signed with the Bears.


NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL


--WIDE RECEIVER: With Steve Smith essentially out the door and Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon heading into free agency, that leaves guys like Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Keoloha Pilares as Cam Newton's receivers next season. The Panthers will do something about that.

--TACKLE: Eleven-year starter Jordan Gross is enjoying retirement, so the Panthers have to work on bringing in a guy to protect Cam Newton's blind side. Byron Bell could slide over from right tackle, but he's struggled often during his three seasons, so Carolina could use two new starting tackles.

--CORNERBACK: The Panthers are again letting Captain Munnerlyn test free agency waters. If he doesn't return, that leaves Carolina with guys like former undrafted rookie Melvin White and the disappointing Josh Norman.


FRANCHISE PLAYER: DE Greg Hardy (tendered at $13.116M; signed tender March 4).


--QB Derek Anderson took just 17 snaps last year in his third season as Cam Newtona's backup. The Panthers like his rapport with Newton, but they could look to replace Anderson with a guy whose game is tailored closer to their starter.

--OT Bruce Campbell spent all of last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The Panthers need bodies on the line, and if they bring Campbell back, that's what he'll be.

--QB Jimmy Clausen spent all of last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The guy who started 10 games in 2010 will try to find a home elsewhere.

--DT Colin Cole, who was out of football from 2011-12, started 13 games last season. He could return if the Panthers can get him cheap.

--LB Dan Connor played specials teams in five games last season after he was waived from injured reserve by the Giants. He was brought in for depth and won't likely be back.

--CB Drayton Florence was cut before last season began, but the Panthers brought him back in September. The 11-year veteran started five games, but if he plays next year, it will likely be elsewhere.

--WR Ted Ginn joined the Panthers to improve their return game, but then emerged as a legit receiving option. His career-high five touchdown receptions may have made him too pricey for Carolina to keep.

--TE Ben Hartsock is coming off his third season as the Panthers' blocking tight end. The team would like to bring him back, especially for his help in the run game.

--WR Domenik Hixon scored just one touchdown in 2013, but the game-winner against the Saints in Week 16 was arguably Carolina's biggest play of the season. He's well-liked in the locker room and the Panthers would like to bring him back on the cheap.

--WR Brandon LaFell set career highs with 49 receptions and five touchdowns last season. The Panthers will let him test the market and only bring him back if they can get him cheap.

--S Quintin Mikell started 12 games after the Panthers picked him up just before the start of the season. An 11-year veteran, Mikell could be brought back to a team in need of bodies in the secondary.

--CB Captain Munnerlyn set career highs in tackles, sacks and passes defended last season. The Panthers let him test the market last offseason before bringing him back with a one-year deal, and it appears that's the team's strategy again.

--G Travelle Wharton started the final 12 games of last season in place of an injured Amini Silatolu. If the soon-to-be 33 year old doesn't retire, he could very well be back in Carolina next season.

--LB Jason Williams was cut before last season began, but the Panthers brought him back in October. With special teams ace Jordan Senn off to Chicago, Williams' special teams talents may be brought back.


--OT Byron Bell (tendered at $2.187M with second-round pick as compensation) has made 40 starts at right tackle over the last three seasons. The Panthers could give him a shot to start at left tackle, but Bell winning that role seems unlikely.


--G Chris Scott (tendered at $570,000) made eight starts at guard last season. The Panthers would rather have someone else start in 2014.


--TE.FB Richie Brockel: Potential RFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.

--CB James Dockery: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.

--K Graham Gano: Potential UFA; $12.4M/4 yrs, $3M SB/$3.95M guaranteed.

--DE Greg Hardy: Franchise FA; $13.116M/1 yr.

--T/G Garry Williams: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.



--C Jeff Byers (ERFA/retired).

--T Jordan Gross (UFA/retired).

--G Geoff Hangartner (UFA/retired).

--S Mike Mitchell: UFA Steelers; terms unknown.

--LB Jordan Senn: UFA Bears; $795,000/1 yr.