Armed with a three-year extension, coach Ron Rivera faces an uphill battle to repeat as division champs. Only one team has more free agents than the Panthers' 26 this offseason. General manager Dave Gettleman played the second and third waves of free agency to perfection on a shoestring budget last year. Can he pull off the same magic again? This team can survive the loss of a couple veterans on defense, but the offense needs an influx of talent to keep up with the Seahawks and 49ers.
» DE Greg Hardy: "The Kraken" is seeking a "crapload" of money after registering a career-high 15 sacks in 2013. Hardy told the Around The League Podcast it would be "a big honor" to receive the franchise tag from the Panthers. Gettleman hasn't ruled out the possibility of allowing the Pro Bowl pass rusher to test the open market.
» LT Jordan Gross: After an Indian summer season in which he played at a Pro Bowl level, Gross has yet to decide if he will retire or re-sign with the Panthers. If he does return, it will likely be on a short-term contract in the neighborhood of $5 million per year.
» CB Captain Munnerlyn: Best suited to the slot, Munnerlyn has shown a knack for well-timed blitzes and pick sixes. No cornerback in NFL history has returned a greater percentage (71.4) of interceptions for touchdowns. Munnerlyn is hoping to cash in on a career year with a long-term deal, but said he would be open to a one-year contract for the right price.
What they need
Already desperate for playmakers with Steve Smith losing a step, the offense is in danger of losing Ginn and LaFell. Wide receiver will be a top priority. Even if Gross returns for a 12th season, the Panthers will have to locate his eventual replacement on Cam Newton's blind side. With three-fourths of the secondary due to hit free agency, the bulk of the resources will have to be spent on defense. An edge rusher will also be on the shopping list if Hardy isn't retained.
On the way out?
» TE Greg Olsen: Newton can ill afford to lose Olsen in a talent-starved aerial attack, but the tight end carries a salary cap number of $7.8 million. It's a lot to devote to a player who falls shy of Pro Bowl caliber.
» S Charles Godfrey: The Panthers could use Godfrey with Mikell and Mitchell due to hit free agency, but the six-year veteran is due to count a prohibitive $7.1 million against the cap. Godfrey, 28, missed the final 14 games of the season after tearing his Achilles tendon.
» DT Dwan Edwards: Now that Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are established as cornerstones on the interior, Edwards is a luxury the Panthers might decide they can do without. He carries a cap number of roughly $2 million.
Offseason crystal ball
Hardy seems bound for the franchise tag even though it would give the Panthers a pair of pass rushers earning a combined $20 million. Next on the agenda will be a lucrative extension for Newton, who likely will earn at least $15 million per season. Even if the Panthers address their playmaker needs in the 2014 NFL Draft, free agency might still be an option with Charlotte native Hakeem Nicks hitting the open market.
Look for Gettleman to address the secondary on the cheap again. His dominant front seven can mask a talent deficiency on the back end. Ultimately, this franchise is in better shape now than at any point in the past half-decade.