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Offseason Forecast: Carolina Panthers

With the offseason officially underway, Around The NFL will examine what's next for all 32 teams. The series continues with the Carolina Panthers.

What's changing?

General manager Dave Gettleman has been a team-building wizard the past two years. With hands tied by the salary-cap sins of the previous regime, Gettleman has cobbled together the first back-to-back division winners in NFC South history, relying heavily on rookies and afterthought free agents. This is the first offseason in which Gettleman is able to "move up in class," spending money to fill holes.

Gettleman made it clear last month that he views Cam Newton as a franchise quarterback. That said, the Panthers are in no rush to hammer out a long-term deal. Instead, they are poised to exercise Newton's fifth-year option at $14.667 million. The franchise tag is available next offseason, if necessary. Newton isn't without his skeptics, but he's a uniquelytalented NFL quarterback.

Don't expect many earth-shattering changes this offseason. This roster got its makeover in November, when coach Ron Rivera jettisoned slow veterans and overhauled the secondary. The Panthers were a materially different team in December and January than the previous three months.

Biggest free agents

»*DE Greg Hardy:* The Panthers are not expected to re-sign Hardy after the Pro Bowl defensive end sat out 15 games while on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List last season. It's unclear yet if Hardy will be forced to open the 2015 season under suspension for last year's assault charges.

»*OT Byron Bell:* Carolina's offensive line finally coalesced in the second half of the season with Andrew Norwell and Mike Remmers emerging at left guard and right tackle, respectively. Unfortunately, Bell remained the weak link at left tackle. Newton needs an upgrade on his blind side.

»*DT Dwan Edwards:* Edwards is entering his mid-30s, and the third-year duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short is ready for more snaps. The Panthers also agreed to bring back veteran defensive tackle Colin Cole on a one-year deal. If Edwards is ditched, the Panthers will need to pick up a rotational tackle via free agency or the draft.

Other key free agents:Ed Dickson, Chase Blackburn and Joe Webb

On the way out?

»*RB DeAngelo Williams:* Williams said on Feb. 23 that the Panthersinformed him of his release, freeing Ron Rivera to give a more talented and effective Jonathan Stewart additional carries. Dumping Williams will leave dead money on the cap, but the Panthers can reduce that charge by $2.3 million by designating the transaction as a post-June 1 cut. 

Gettleman doesn't have much more fat to trim because he chopped Antoine Cason and Jason Avant late in the season and released veteran safety Thomas DeCoud earlier this offseason.

What they need

It starts with speed on offense. That need became when undrafted rookie Philly Brown, an afterthought to start the season, went down with a shoulder injury in the Wild Card round victory over the Cardinals. This roster could use another receiver to ease in this year and succeed Jerricho Cotchery in 2016. Other areas to hit on offense include left tackle and backup running back. As Gettleman is wont to say, the defense could use a "hog molly" or two inside and another "blue goose" pass rusher, as well as a young safety to push Roman Harper.

Offseason crystal ball

The Panthers don't seem to be in any hurry to extend Newton's contract. It's more likely that tight end Greg Olsen and linebacker Thomas Davis, two of the best at their respective positions, will be rewarded with new deals in advance of their walk years. If the front office needs to free up money, they can restructure Charles Johnson's $20 million cap hit. Gettleman will take a "best player available" approach into the draft, with wide receiver and offensive tackle perhaps highest on the list of priorities.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast breaks down all the latest from the combine and gives updates on Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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