- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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No. 1 in my ranking and evaluation of the 21 Carolina Panthers scheduled to become unrestricted free agents is a player that has talked of retirement.
Drum roll, please ...
Left tackle Jordan Gross.
You'd probably figured it out by now, and I still see how you can make a case for defensive end Greg Hardy being here. But there are reasons beyond statistics that landed Gross in this spot, and I'll discuss them below.
To rehash the rankings so far:
No. 21 quarterback Jimmy Clausen, No. 20 wide receiver Brandon LaFell, No. 19 cornerback Drayton Florence, No. 18 guard Geoff Hangartner, No. 17 linebacker Dan Connor, No. 16 linebacker Jason Williams, No. 15 tackle Bruce Campbell, No. 14 cornerback James Dockery, No. 13 defensive tackle Colin Cole, No. 12 guard Travelle Wharton, No. 11 linebacker Jordan Senn, No. 10 quarterback Derek Anderson, No. 9 cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, No. 8 wide receiver Domenik Hixon, No. 7 wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., No. 6 tight end Ben Hartsock, No. 5 place-kicker Graham Gano, No. 4 strong safety Quintin Mikell, No. 3 free safety Mike Mitchelland No. 2 defensive end Greg Hardy.On to No 1:
Jordan Gross: When you talk about the total value of the 11-year veteran you have to look at intangibles such as leadership and chemistry. Many of the Panthers credited Gross' "Highlanders" speech before the fifth game at Minnesota as key to the turnaround. Carolina won eight straight and 11 of its last 12 regular season games after that. Gross also is key to the locker room chemistry. He gets to know everyone and is a good gauge for when potential issues may arise, and he's good at making sure they don't arise. Gross also is the best tackle on the team. He's coming off one of his best seasons and I believe has a couple more good ones in him. As I've said many times recently, the Panthers could draft a future replacement for Gross and let him play on the right side until Gross steps down. Or that player could start at left and Gross could return to the right side where he played as a rookie in 2003. Regardless, it could be an upgrade for the line. Gross hasn't committed to returning, saying he wanted to find out if the Panthers want him back. Head coach Ron Rivera does. It's up to general manager Dave Gettleman to make it work financially. I'm sure Gross would be willing to work with the team to make it a win for both sides.