Gross: Pieces are in place

CHARLOTTE – Jordan Gross' summation of the Panthers' outlook heading into the 2013 season is straightforward.

"There are really just no excuses for us not to do well," Gross said after the Panthers wrapped up Week 2 of offseason training activities.

"We've got all the pieces in place," he added. "(OTAs) are really about our team becoming who we've been designed to be."

The 10-year veteran is confident in the makeup of a team looking to build off a 7-9 season and second-place finish in the NFC South.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of areas that trouble me on our team," Gross said. "That's a great thing."

The comfort level with head coach Ron Rivera's system has also been a source of optimism. OTAs have been up-tempo and competitive, and there is a strong connection between Rivera, his staff and the players.

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"There's definitely familiarity and comfort with one another in the building and on the field," Gross explained. "You can see it when we're out here. The players understand what the schemes are all about, and coach Rivera knows what he can expect from us."

Those expectations are high, particularly for Gross as he gears up for another season protecting quarterback Cam Newton's blindside.

Asked if he believes the 32-year-old left tackle still has what it takes to be successful at such a demanding position, Rivera quickly replied: "Yes."

"I asked (Jordan) how he's feeling and he said, 'Coach, this is the best I've felt in a long time.'"

Gross, who had ankle surgery in February, admitted it would be hard to say he's been 100 percent at any point in the past five or six years, but he's excited about where he's at physically.

He's also excited about the improving health of his fellow offensive lineman and good friend, All-Pro center Ryan Kalil.

"We missed him so bad on the field, off the field, in the locker room. Me, personally," Gross said. "He's a great center. He does a lot. Guys count on him."

Kalil has been limited as he recovers from foot surgery, but he expects to be 100 percent by the start of training camp.

"We're on track. Everything is going well," Kalil said. "It's just a matter of working through it, and I feel pretty good about what we're doing and our plan."

Kalil's return will bring more leadership to the offense Gross has captained for the past four seasons.

And Gross is noticing plenty other leaders emerge in the Panthers locker room.

"There's less pressure on a guy like myself to do everything, to hold everything together," Gross said. "Within each group, guys are stepping up."

As young leaders continue to step up, Gross will continue to lead the way he always has – honestly, directly and with some humor mixed in.

His decision to videobomb Newton at a recent press conference serves as a timely example of what Gross calls "just May hijinks."

"When I first came into this building that was the culture, and we went to the Super Bowl with a team full of jokesters and pranksters and funny guys," Gross said. "I think that makes physical pain and rough times a lot better.

"I like seeing guys enjoy being out here."

Because Gross enjoys being here. His decision to restructure his contract helped ensure that he will play his 11th season with the team that drafted him in 2003.

"Everything that I went through this offseason with the team and the contract (re-structuring), it really provided me with a sense of appreciation… I feel lucky and blessed to be here. This could have gone a different way, and I wouldn't be here right now," Gross said. "But the bottom line is this was the best option considering everything – raising a family here and wanting to be a part of the organization after I'm done playing.

"I do think we are a good team, and I'm excited about it."

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