CHARLOTTE – The first priority of the 2014 offseason for general manager Dave Gettleman and the Panthers front office is to evaluate the roster that brought Carolina back to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
That evaluation will take place over the next month. That process will involve Gettleman, the coaching staff and pro scouts reviewing the entire body of work during the 17-game season.
"The most important team you have to know is your own," Gettleman said.
And once the evaluations are made, there will be tough decisions to make due to the Panthers' salary cap situation.
"We are cap challenged. That's not going away any time soon," Gettleman said. "We have to identify the core and then keep the core. That's what you have to do.
"Everybody can count. We've got 21 UFAs (unrestricted free agents). There's no secrets here. We have got a lot of decisions to make. The biggest mistake you can make is make emotional decisions. We have to make business decisions, and it takes time."
Added head coach Ron Rivera: "We've got to evaluate. That's the key word right now."
The 21 unrestricted free agents include veterans like defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team with a career-high 15 sacks in 2013, and left tackle Jordan Gross, a six-time team captain. The list also includes several first-year Panthers who played significant roles like safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn.
After enjoying so much success in 2013, all of the players who are set to become free agents expressed a desire to return to Carolina. The challenge for Gettleman and his staff is determining which pieces of the puzzle fit into the plans for 2014 and beyond.
"Everybody lets players go," Gettleman said. "There hasn't been a team in this league that hasn't let a big dog walk out the door. There isn't anybody that hasn't done that."
A lot of players walk out several doors during their careers. Many of those same players walk into a new organization with a one-year contract in what Gettleman described as the "new NFL."
"The whole landscape has changed," Gettleman explained. "If I am a 27-year-old player and I think I am really good and the market is not there for me, I am going to take the 1-year deal. Every team is in the same situation. What happens is you've got a class of guys that really become mercenaries.
"I don't think anyone wants to have 21 guys floating through. I'm not looking for that. But you are always going to change the back seven-eight guys of your roster. That's just the way the league is designed."
Like all NFL rosters, changes will be made. But Gettleman hopes to retain the chemistry that was developed during the Panthers' run to a 12-4 season.
Despite severe salary cap limitations a year ago at this time, the 2013 Panthers raised the bar. Gettleman must overcome similar challenges in 2014 but plans on designing on a roster that has the pieces in place to raise that bar higher.
"Very frankly, I am really excited about the future and where we are going," Gettleman said.