CHARLOTTE – Moments after his best season came to close, defensive end Mario Addison said he hoped it wouldn't be his last season with the Panthers.
"I like this organization," Addison said. "They are players' coaches. They look out for you."
Addison's sentiment was similar to that uttered by other several other potential free agents in the hours following Carolina's season finale. Only time will tell which players return and which players land elsewhere.
"You don't want to think about it during the season, but now the doors are back open," said defensive tackle Kawann Short, along with Addison among 15 potential unrestricted free agents on the Panthers' roster. "I like it here. They took a chance on me in the draft. My heart is here. Hopefully things work out."
Players like Addison and Short will be under their current contracts until the new league year begins March 9, unless they are waived (highly unlikely in their cases) or are signed to extensions before. Particularly in the case of Short, there's speculation that he could be a candidate for the franchise tag that teams are allowed to use on one player each year to bring back the player for a season in lieu of a long-term deal.
General manager Dave Gettleman said he'll do whatever is best for the team in terms of the tag.
"Anything that we need to do to make this team better," Gettleman said, "we're going to do."
In 2015, Short set a franchise record for defensive tackles and tied for the league lead at the position group with 10 sacks. He recorded 6.5 sacks this season, while Addison paced the Panthers with 9.5 sacks in 14 games.
"I think KK started slow. The expectations on him were very high, but as the year started to wear on, about halfway through it, you started to see him work back to form," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I think Mario is a complete defensive end who can play pretty much anywhere for you. He's a dynamic player. He's an explosive player."
Rivera himself is among the reasons many players prefer to return to Carolina if possible.
"Coach Rivera and his leadership, that fits with my culture," wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. said. "As long as you buy in, things can be whatever you want them to be."
Ginn learned that money isn't always the end-all in contract situations when, after enjoying a breakout year in Carolina in 2013, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. His role was reduced and he was released after the 2014 season, after which he welcomed the opportunity to return to the Panthers.
The Panthers technically are Addison's fourth team, but his first three teams came over the course of his first one-and-a-half seasons in the NFL after he went undrafted out of Troy. Still, that means Addison, who became a Panther in 2012 after Carolina claimed him off Washington's practice squad, knows there are no guarantees in this league.
"It's a business," Addison said. "I just hope everything works out for the best."
Panthers players show appreciation for fans with hand-written thank you notes following 2016 season.