CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are preparing for the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance, Feb. 7 against the Denver Broncos in Santa Clara, California. It's a good time to unveil my list of the top 10 players in Panthers history:
10. Jordan Gross: A three-time Pro Bowl tackle who was an anchor of the offensive line for 11 seasons. He started 167 games and probably could have played another season or two had the Panthers not been strapped under the salary cap after the 2013 season. He started every game at right tackle as a rookie in 2003, helping Carolina reach the Super Bowl. The Panthers thought so much of him in 2008 that they used their franchise tag on him. There haven't been many better leaders in the team's history.
9. Ryan Kalil: The best center in Panthers history, and they've had a few good ones. A second-round pick in 2007, Kalil is a five-time Pro Bowl selection, including this season. He's a two-time first-team All-Pro selection and has started 115 of the 118 games in which he played. He has anchored this season's line, which is among the best in the NFL at run and pass protection.
8. Greg Olsen: Wesley Walls would have been in this spot a year ago. But Olsen, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end, has surpassed almost every franchise record Walls established. Acquired in a trade with Chicago for a third-round draft pick in 2011, Olsen owns the team record for receptions (348) and receiving yards (4,311) by a tight end. He has done in five seasons what it took Walls seven to accomplish. Olsen doesn't get the national recognition of fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, but only Cam Newton has meant more to the Carolina offense over the past five years.
7. John Kasay: Many will remember Kasay for the kickoff that went out of bounds in the final two minutes of Super Bowl XXXVIII following the 2003 season. That gave New England possession at the 40 and set up the game-winning, last-second field goal. But Kasay was the most clutch kicker in Carolina history and one of the original Panthers. He spent 15 seasons with the team and scored a franchise-high 1,482 points. He had four winning kicks during the 2003 Super Bowl run, and had a 50-yarder in the title game.
6. Luke Kuechly: Shouts of "LUUUUKE!" have been reverberating through stadiums since the Panthers made Kuechly, a middle linebacker, the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year that season. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and has led the NFL in tackles since he entered the league. He already has two interceptions returned for touchdowns in this year's playoffs. You could make a solid argument to put him in the top three of this list.
5. Thomas Davis: Similar to former Carolina linebacker Sam Mills, what Davis represents has been as important as his performance. And his performance has been strong. He passed Mike Minter this season as the team's all-time leading tackler. He also made his first Pro Bowl this season. In 2012, Davis became the first player to successfully overcome ACL surgery three times on the same knee. His courage and perseverance make him the heart of this year's Super Bowl team. Davis' contributions to the community also can't be overlooked. The NFL honored him as the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
4. Julius Peppers: The defensive end out of the University of North Carolina was the No. 2 overall pick of the 2002 draft. His 81 career sacks from 2002 to '09 are by far the most in team history. So are his 21 multiple-sack games. He was a disruptive force who played a big role in Carolina reaching the Super Bowl in 2003. His 143 interception-return yards in 2004 established an NFL high for defensive lineman.
3. Steve Smith Sr.: The 5-foot-9 wide receiver holds the franchise record for receptions (836), receiving yards (12,197) and receiving touchdowns (67). His 69-yard touchdown in double overtime to end a 2003 divisional playoff game at St. Louis is arguably the most memorable play in franchise history. He was one of the most popular Panthers for the toughness he displayed. He also was controversial because of his fights with teammates, but nobody ever doubted his desire or his talent.
2. Cam Newton: The first pick of the 2011 draft would have been near the bottom of this list before this season. But what he has done in leading Carolina to a 17-1 record and a trip to the Super Bowl shot him up the board like a hot album on the Billboard chart. He threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushed for 636 yards and 10 scores in the regular season. Newton is the most polarizing player in the league today, and arguably the most polarizing player in Carolina history -- but if he isn't the NFL MVP this season, there should be a demand for a recount.
1. Sam Mills: If you based this solely on statistics, Mills would be well down the list. But Mills, an original Panther, embodied everything Jerry Richardson wanted the organization to represent when he founded it in 1995. There's a reason Mills, a 5-foot-9 middle linebacker, is the only Carolina player with a statue outside Bank of America Stadium. He represented class on the field and off. His interception of a shovel pass and return for a touchdown against the Jets in 1995 sparked the team's first win. In '96, at 37, Mills led the second-year franchise to a 12-4 record and the NFC Championship Game. He also made the Pro Bowl that year. He played three seasons for Carolina before transitioning into personnel and coaching positions with the franchise. He died in 2005. The "Keep Pounding" speech he gave during Carolina's 2003 run to the Super Bowl, while he was battling cancer, remains the franchise's mantra. You can argue Newton is the most talented player in team history, and in time he'll likely top this list. That might even happen after Super Bowl 50. But when you understand all Mills meant to this organization when it began, and what he still means today, you'll understand why he is No. 1 here and now.