INDIANAPOLIS – Piecing together a roster in today's NFL is like putting together a puzzle – the kind of puzzle that sits on your coffee table for weeks as it slowly but surely takes shape.
But don't try this at home because all the pieces of this puzzle aren't even in the box. To further complicate matters, pieces that appear to fit snuggly today might not fit at all tomorrow.
General manager Dave Gettleman is in charge of the Panthers' puzzle. It won't be easy, but the good news is that many of the pivotal pieces are locked in place and the entire puzzle doesn't need to be rebuilt following a 12-4 season.
"You're always going to have holes you have to plug; that's the way it is. You can't avoid it," Gettleman said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "But if you're drafting well and you're developing well – and that's one thing (head coach) Ron Rivera and his staff do a great job with – you'll be fine.
"There are only two teams in this league right now that have had winning seasons four years in a row – New England and Green Bay. That's what our goal is, and to do that we have to be thoughtful with what we do with every player, with every dollar."
The Panthers' situation relative to the salary cap is better than it was when Gettleman ascended the podium at Lucas Oil Stadium one year ago for the first time as a general manager, but it's still the biggest thing that makes the puzzle so daunting.
Gettleman and others around the league are hopeful the cap will increase from $123 million to $130 million before the new league year begins March 12. Even if it does, the Panthers – like a lot of teams – will still face difficult decisions when it comes to shaping their roster for 2014 and beyond.
"Last year we were quite a bit over, and we had to do some maneuvering just to get under for the first day of the league year. The progress for this year is that we don't have to do any of that, but that doesn't mean we're sitting here with $35 million," Gettleman said. "Every penny helps, but we're trying to get the thing under control. If it goes to 130, very frankly I don't know if we're going to spend to 130. We're going to be smart. If you're constantly up against the wall, you can't maneuver.
"Our free agency is going to be just like last year. We're going to look for guys that we feel have been overlooked that can help us. We thought we did pretty well last year."
The free agency part of the puzzle includes decisions on players that were key cogs in last season's success but could become free agents next month – players like defensive end Greg Hardy. It also includes decisions on what players to bring in that were on other teams last year – players the Panthers hope can match the 2013 production of wide receiver Ted Ginn and safety Mike Mitchell for example.
But for the next few days – and for the previous few days back in Charlotte – the focus is on the part of the puzzle dedicated to the draft.
"We just had our February draft meetings with all the college scouts coming in," Gettleman explained. "We met for about five days, worked on the draft board, eliminating players that don't fit us offensively and defensively.
"Then for the next week, the college scouts met with the coaches and got them tuned in and ready for the players here in Indianapolis."
Gettleman said his lengthy evaluation of the 2013 roster leading up to the Combine revealed the goal of improving in the secondary and on offense as a whole. But Gettleman, fresh off picking defensive tackles in the first two rounds of his inaugural draft as a general manager, said position needs wouldn't impact his approach to this May's draft.
"Don't write that in the draft the Panthers are taking this and this and this," Gettleman said. "Philosophically, we're going to take the best player on the board.
"Nobody in America expected Star (Lotulelei) to be there with the 14th pick last year. My Giants buddies were laughing at me because we turned the card in in 30 seconds. Yes, he was the highest player on the board, and so was KK (Kawaan Short in the second round). We're going to go with that philosophy."
When the dust settles on the 2014 NFL Draft, the large majority of the roster will be in place. Panthers fans can rest assured that between now and then, Gettleman will leave no stone unturned.
"You want to keep developing your players, developing your talent so that you can have sustained success," Gettleman said. "From a personnel standpoint, you obviously need to have your quarterback. We have our quarterback. The next thing you really want is a nice spread of age across your roster – the wily veterans that know what it takes, the guys that are in the prime of their career and the young guys that are contributing. Something that was exciting for us last season was that at meaningful times, we had six rookies on the field on defense.
"We've just got to continue to get better. You're constantly going to shuffle your roster. You can't maintain the status quo. You've got to use all the methods that you can to improve."