NFC South: Carolina Panthers
Wide receiver Steve Smith could have put to rest any mystery about his future with the Carolina Panthers during a Thursday interview with ESPN’s Josina Anderson.
Instead, he added to it.
Smith avoided specifics.
“Here’s all I have to say about it,” the team’s all-time leading receiver said. “I am working out and doing all the things as I am a Carolina Panther. That’s where I am. And I’ll continue to move forward until I am told otherwise.”
Asked if he could see himself playing for another organization in 2014, Smith was equally evasive.
“It’s a business and I understand that, and ultimately decisions aren’t up to me,” the 13-year veteran said. “I’m a player. At the end of the day, if a team decides to move on, I have to either accept that or I go sit at home and cry about it. So we’ll see.”
If the Panthers are going to move on, Smith will be either released or traded soon. Teams can begin talking to representatives of free agents from other teams on Saturday and begin signing them on Tuesday.
Smith is the only one of Carolina’s top four wide receivers from 2013 under contract. Without him, the Panthers would have to secure a veteran free agent as well as use one of their top two or three draft picks on a receiver.
With Smith and his $7 million salary cap number, the Panthers don’t have much flexibility in going after free agents such as Sidney Rice, Hakeem Nicks and Devin Hester, to name a few.
Smith turns 35 in May. Regardless of what happens this season, the Panthers have to secure his replacement for the future. That part Smith seems to understand even more after his talk with Gettleman, who brought the receiver’s future into doubt when he said Smith was under evaluation at the combine.
“Like every offseason they are making moves and making decisions that are going to be, moving forward, for the betterment of the team,” Smith said “Those decisions and those conversations, I don’t know all of them. I’m not in the meeting rooms. But we talked about some things. And what we talked about it is what we talked about.”
Smith could have ended all speculation and said Gettleman assured him he would be on the Carolina roster in 2013.
That leads me to believe there’s a better than 50 percent chance that Smith won’t be back at Carolina. Then again, Smith likes to play head games with the media, so maybe this is one of those times.
Either way, the mystery continues.
But if quarterback Cam Newton doesn’t have protection and time to throw, Jerry Rice in his prime doesn’t have a chance to catch passes. That's why I still believe the pick will go to a left tackle unless there’s not a quality receiver on the board.
This would be the best long-term solution to replacing recently-retired Jordan Gross.
Carolina’s biggest issue there may be NFC South rival New Orleans, which McShay has taking Virginia tackle Morgan Moses with the 27th pick. The Saints need help on the line as well -- as the Panthers made evident with six sacks against them in a late-season game.
If the Panthers aren’t sold on keeping Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver who turns 35 in May, then they should find a way to trade him for enough value to move up in the draft and get the player that can make an immediate impact.
It happened when the left tackle got around to thanking general manager Dave Gettleman as one the people who played a role in his 11-year career with the Carolina Panthers.
"I didn't like you very much last offseason, but I got over that," Gross said with a smile.
He was referring to Gettleman asking him to restructure his contract a year ago, in essence making 2013 the last season of what Gross planned to be his final NFL contract.
Gross wasn't happy about it at the time, but he went along with the request because he's a team player and it allowed Gettleman salary-cap room to improve the team in other areas.
As he got to know Gettleman, Gross learned to like him.
He should. Gettleman is a likable guy.
But there remained doubts about the new GM, even late in the season when he hadn't approached Gross about a new deal. As Gross repeatedly said in response to questions about his future, the new regime has a different way of doing things.
Former general manager Marty Hurney was loyal to a fault. He rewarded key players with contracts that, looking back, were bad for the long-term health of the team. He was particularly loyal to players who had been with the team a long time.
Gettleman's primary allegiance is to winning.
He showed that when he asked Gross, one of the team's most respected players and leaders, to knock a year off his contract -- a year Gettleman probably would like to have back now that he realizes Gross' full value.
He showed that when he traded linebacker Jon Beason, one of the more popular Panthers, three games into this past season.
He's showing it big time by saying the team continues to evaluate Steve Smith and what role -- if any -- he will have in 2014 for the reigning NFC South champions.
That he said it about the team's all-time leading receiver without much provocation sent a message loud and clear that Hurney's way was a thing of the past.
It's like a story of good cop, bad cop.
Gross finally got over his dislike for Gettleman by spending time with him. Gross told me on Sunday, during Smith's fundraiser to fight domestic violence, that his good friend needed to do the same.
That reportedly happened Tuesday when Smith, at his own request, met with Gettleman. What, if anything, will come of it remains to be seen.
As I wrote when Gettleman first raised questions about Smith's future, the 13-year veteran deserved better treatment. Gettleman should have talked to Smith before talking to reporters, which would have prevented this from becoming a soap opera and angering a player you don't want angry.
But this is Carolina's new way of doing things. Gettleman has taken emotion out of the equation. He has been entrusted with doing his job without interference from team owner Jerry Richardson, who in the past might have protected Smith.
"When I went there as a rookie, that's all everybody told me about, that it's a real family organization 'cause that's how Jerry Richardson runs it," defensive end Greg Hardy told me during a Wednesday trip to ESPN headquarters.
"Gettleman coming in with a money-first attitude ticked everybody off, man. So he kind of changed the face of the organization to: It is a business, and once business is settled we can be a family."
It's hard to argue with the formula. It's one that, as Gettleman learned in his time with the New York Giants, wins Super Bowls. It's a my-way-or-the-highway approach that might even be essential in tough salary-cap times.
Gettleman is looking at the cold, hard facts that say only 16 times in NFL history has a receiver gained 1,000 yards after turning 35, and not once since Derrick Mason in 2009. Smith turns 35 in May.
But the GM can't overlook that there are star receivers who had more receptions at the age of 35 than at 34. Drew Hill improved from 74 to 90. Tim Brown went from 76 to 91. Cris Carter went from 90 to 96.
This isn't like when San Francisco let Jerry Rice go after the 2000 season. The 49ers had Terrell Owens emerging as a superstar.
The Panthers have ... well, nobody after Smith.
Smith still can be a No. 1 receiver for another year, maybe two. He'd make a helluva No. 2 receiver if the Panthers could find a No. 1 in free agency or the draft.
Gettleman doesn't appear to deal in ifs or possibilities. He looks at what's best long term.
He treats it like a business, even though the Panthers come off as one big, happy family.
That's reality. If Smith wants to remain with the team and ride off into the sunset as Gross did with a news conference full of laughter and tears, he probably will have to agree to a lesser role -- if not a lesser contract. And even that might not be enough for Gettleman.
Gettleman just has a different way of looking at things. While Smith is chasing numbers, attempting to finish his career ranked in the NFL's top 10 in receptions and yards, Gettleman is crunching them.
That doesn't always make for a harmonious relationship.
Gross got past that and, in the end, found an appreciation for Gettleman.
Smith must get to that point, too.
Gettleman isn't going anywhere.
There might not be a team that is in store for a rougher offseason than the Carolina Panthers. After placing the franchise tag on Greg Hardy, Carolina has plenty of salary-cap issues. Look at what defensive backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen (now minus the retired Jordan Gross) are presently under contract for the 2014 season ... and these weren’t strong areas last season. Carolina is going to have to be very aggressive and thorough in all three of these areas on draft day. McShay had the Panthers selecting receiver Kelvin Benjamin in his second mock.
Whom does McShay have the Panthers drafting at No. 28? Let's take a look :
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North Dakota State tackle Billy Turner apparently was one of those.
NFL.com's Gil Brandt tweeted that Turner will visit the Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saying it's one of the earliest scheduled visits he could remember.
At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Turner turned some heads at the Senior Bowl. He's not rated among the top tackles. Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Notre Dame's Zack Martin, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson consistently rank among the top six.
But Turner is in that second-tier mix with Virginia's Morgan Moses, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort, Clemson's Brandon Thomas and North Carolina's James Hurst.
He's likely a second-round pick at best, so don't look for the Panthers to use the No. 28 pick on him.
But with an upgrade needed on the offensive line, and knowing general manager Dave Gettleman likes building from the inside out, don't be shocked if Carolina takes a couple of tackles in the first three or four rounds.
They did draft defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks a year ago, and that turned out pretty good.
Turner's visit doesn't tell you much about what the Panthers are doing in the first round, only that they are preparing to address their weaknesses -- and tackle is a big one, along with wide receiver and secondary -- throughout the draft.
"Steve Smith is one of the most feisty, most courageous receivers out there," Ebron told ESPN.com. "I would love to play with a guy of his caliber, with his attitude. That's what you want on the football field.
"You don't have to talk. You just play with emotion and passion. That's what Steve does. I respect everything he's done at Carolina and has brought to the table."
But unless they trade up from the 28th pick, into the top 15 and possibly the top 10, they won't have a chance at what is considered the best tight end prospect for the May draft.
Not that tight end is among Carolina's top priorities with needs at wide receiver and offensive tackle. Plus, they already have a star tight end in Greg Olsen, who led the team in receptions this past season.
But imagine if quarterback Cam Newton had Ebron, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound target who considers himself a game-changer in the mode of San Francisco's Vernon Davis, along with Olsen in a two-tight end set. Imagine if the Panthers had a second tight end who was almost as good at blocking as he is at receiving.
It has worked out pretty well for the New England Patriots.
"I would definitely like to stay at home,'' Ebron said during a phone interview as part of the Gillette "Pressure Point'' campaign. "I don't see any flaws in anything Carolina does. I love their head coach. They have a great general manager.
"I would love to stay home even though they have a great tight end.''
Ebron also would love to play with Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver. But general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera have been vague on Smith's role in 2014, or if he will have a role.
It is a situation that has Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who will turn 35 before this season, miffed.
It's a situation that Ebron has followed from a distance.
"Hopefully, he stays at Carolina,'' Ebron said. "I wouldn't see why he wouldn't.''
The Panthers seem to have much more urgent needs than tight end. But a player such as Ebron would be almost like adding another wide receiver as Davis is for the 49ers.
Ebron ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds at the combine despite a tweaked hamstring. He has the ability to draw coverage from the secondary that would take the pressure off lesser players at wide receiver.
He had 62 catches for 973 yards, surpassing Davis' Atlantic Coast Conference record for most yards by a tight end, this past season as a junior. He's impressive enough that he expects the Panthers to follow up their interview at the combine with a personal visit once he's had his pro day.
"I doubt I'll be there for them at 28,'' Ebron said confidently. "I highly doubt that. But if they are willing to trade up, they know exactly where I will be.''
So what's next with eight days before players hit the open market?
Mitchell gave the league's No. 2 defense an invaluable attitude with his aggressive style. He led all safeties in yards allowed per reception (8.1) and tied for third in interceptions with four.
If the Panthers can't come up with the money to re-sign him, there are many teams interested. Look for a deal to get done before free agency begins March 11.
The question is whether Mitchell will remain at free safety or return to strong safety with Charles Godfrey expected back after a season-ending Achilles injury. Mitchell moved to free safety after Godfrey was injured in the second game, and the defense only got better from there.
The other part of that question is whether the Panthers will keep Godfrey. He has a big salary cap number ($7.1 million), but the team could clear $5.1 million in cap space if it cuts him after June 1.
That could be an option if the deal can't be renegotiated for a lower number.
Of Carolina's three free-agent receivers -- Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon -- Ginn makes the most sense because he is the team's leading kick returner and a deep threat for quarterback Cam Newton.
It's hard to imagine LaFell, who has been average at best as the team's No. 2 receiver, coming back unless it's at a bargain price. Look for him to hit the open market.
The Panthers also seem content with letting starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn test the market to determine his value. They did this last season and got him for a bargain.
Look for Carolina to turn its focus to free-agent upgrades from other teams once it signs Mitchell and Ginn. The picture on Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, should become clearer this week as well.
General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera have said Smith's role is under evaluation. Look for them to meet with him, his management or both in the next few days to see where things go.
Should the Panthers look into the market for an upgrade at receiver, an intriguing prospect became available Friday when Seattle released Sidney Rice to clear salary-cap room.
Rice played high school football in Gaffney, S.C., about an hour from Charlotte, and was a star at the University of South Carolina 90 minutes away.
His numbers haven't lived up to his contract in recent years, but injuries have played a role. His 2011 season was cut short by a concussion, and an ACL injury kept him from finishing last season.
He is still young at 27 and at 6-foot-4 would give quarterback Cam Newton a tall target.
But Carolina's first priority will be re-signing Mitchell and Ginn.
That's what brought Smith and several hundred friends -- including many of his teammates -- to Ten Park Lanes on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Charlotte.
Smith and his family have embarked on a campaign against domestic violence through the Steve Smith Foundation. It's an important campaign to the team's all-time leading receiver because he suffered through domestic violence as a child, something he only recently began talking about.
That the timing of this campaign came as the Panthers are trying to decide what role the 34-year-old receiver will play on the team next season -- or if he will play a role at all -- is merely coincidence.
And Smith won't let that stand in the way of his message.
"All of this football talk, I'll address it by saying this," Smith said. "Football is a part of my life. It is not my life. Whatever day I decide I no longer want to play or no longer pursue the opportunity to play ... I will live longer than that.
"My legacy here starts with my family."
Smith's situation with the Panthers likely will come to a head this week. My guess is he'll be back, maybe at a reduced price, maybe at a reduced role.
What Smith does with the foundation is just beginning. He has donated $1 million of his own money to begin this battle.
It has begun now because his mother, Florence, finally is allowing her son to talk about what many families keep a secret forever.
In a candid interview with Charlotte's WSOC TV a week ago, Smith talked about the first time he remembered seeing his mom "getting punched."
"They got into an argument and like a coward, he hit my mom," Smith said of his dad in the interview. "Being a young kid ... police at your house, the ambulance ... it was probably the first time as a kid I think that I hated someone.”
These are the memories Smith has kept hidden from the public for most of his life.
“He was standing on top of her with his hand raised and she was crying and he was calling her names," Smith recalled of another violent moment. "I was so concerned that I slept with a machete under my pillow to protect myself, my brother and my mom if I had to.”
Sunday's event was put on in conjunction with Safe Alliance, which in 2013 responded to nearly 12,00 violence hotline calls in Mecklenburg County.
Safe Alliance's Karen Parker said having Smith on board was big because when he comes to speak at clinics and other functions it puts a face on domestic violence and lets those listening know he's "been through this and made it out, and you can, too."
So whatever happens in Smith's football life pales in comparison to what happened in his real life.
So after consulting with ESPN's top cap gurus, here's what I came up with for Carolina.
The Panthers currently are approximately $18.3 million under the cap with an early conservative estimation of a $126 million cap. If the league bumps the cap to between $132 million and $133 million as was reported last week, that'll add approximately another $6 million to the total.
So Carolina is looking at about $24 million in cap space to sign its own free agents and those from other teams.
Recent restructures to the deals of center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and linebacker Thomas Davis helped significantly. Kalil's cap number dropped from $10.4 million to $7,284,000. Stewart's dropped from $5,496,250 to $4,585,000. Davis' dropped from $5,816,666 to $3,566,666.
That's a combined savings of just under $6.3 million.
It would help even more if Carolina could get defensive end Charles Johnson's $16.4 million cap number reduced.
Clearing this room should help keep defensive end Greg Hardy, one of the team's 20 remaining free agents now that left tackle Jordan Gross has retired.
The team has until 4 p.m. ET on Monday if it decides to use the franchise tag on its sack leader. The $12 million hit would be a bargain compared to what Hardy likely will get in the open market.
Coach Ron Rivera wouldn't say on Wednesday whether the team has notified quarterback Cam Newton's representatives that they plan to activate the 2011 draft pick's fifth-year option.
The Panthers have until May 3 to make that notification. It makes little sense to do it until closer to that date because the team would be responsible for about $15 million in 2015 if Newton were to suffer a career-ending injury between now and May.
In all likelihood, Carolina will have to exercise that option eventually to give it more time to extend Newton's deal long-term. The team can continue to negotiate after exercising the extension, and it has more immediate needs to take care of in free agency.
As Rivera said on Wednesday, there are a lot of moving parts.
As the landscape of Carolina's playground changes, so does the landscape of the team -- particularly the offensive line.
There's a chance in 2014 that center Ryan Kalil is the only starter at the same position he was when last season ended. It's not an enviable position for a team looking to get back to the playoffs, but it easily could happen.
Here's how looking at last year's starters:
Left tackle -- Gross. We know he's gone. Coach Ron Rivera said his replacement could come from one of three players on the existing roster in right tackle Byron Bell, fifth-year player Bruce Campbell or Nate Chandler, a backup tackle before injuries forced him into the lineup at right guard. If it's not one of those, then it'll be a free agent or draft pick. Regardless, a new starter.
Left guard -- Travelle Wharton. He started the final 14 games there, including the playoffs. But he was signed after starter Amini Silatolu was injured in training camp. There's a good chance the 32-year-old Wharton, a free agent, won't be re-signed. And even if he is it's likely a healthy Silatolu will get first dibs on the starting job. Or maybe it'll be Chris Scott, who started there in the opener before moving to the right side to replace the injured Gary Williams (ACL). Don't count out Williams, either.
Center -- Kalil. Four Pro Bowls since 2008. He's not going anywhere.
Right guard -- Nate Chandler. He played well, starting most of the final nine games after Scott suffered a knee injury in the first Atlanta game. He kept the job even after Scott was healthy. But suppose Scott beats him out in camp? Or Chandler gets the left tackle job. Or Edmund Kugbila, last year's fourth-round pick that spent the season on injured reserve, could take the job. Don't forget as I said above Williams, who started there the first game before the season-ending knee injury. Don't count on Geoff Hangartner. He plans on riding into the sunset with Gross unless something dramatically changes last minute.
Right tackle -- Bell. He took a lot of heat last season for allowing sacks, and according to Gross much of it was undeserved. Gross, like Rivera, said Bell should have a shot at left tackle. If he gets that job, there's an opening on the right side. There could be anyway if the coaching staff feels that heat was deserved and an adequate replacement can be found.
And don't forget, the Panthers certainly will sign a free agent offensive lineman or two and draft at least one. General manager Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside out with what he called "hog mollies'' after taking a pair of defensive tackles with Carolina's first two picks in the 2013 draft.
I often am wary of teams with a new front line. But like Bank of America Stadium, it could be better when the renovations are completed.
Let Gross explain.
"I always said I don't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are,'' he said on Wednesday. "They should be for a long time, and that's going to be regardless of whether I am here or not.
"And that's a beautiful thing.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith deserves better.
The Carolina Panthers wide receiver deserves a chance to finish his NFL career the way left tackle and longtime friend Jordan Gross did on Wednesday -- under his own terms.
He doesn't deserve to hear second-hand that his future with the organization with which he has spent his entire 13-year career is being evaluated, that the team doesn't know the extent of his role for 2014.
Or if he'll have a role.
This is a business, but even in business there is room for common decency. If general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera had questions about whether Smith could continue as the team's No. 1 receiver -- or No. 2 or 3 -- they should have discussed it with him during his exit meeting immediately after the season.
Or at worst, bring him in once they began considering options.
They've done neither.
So Smith arrived for Gross' retirement news conference, a moment so emotional that he barely could talk without choking up, to face questions about his future.
To his credit, he took the high road. He declined to talk about comments Gettleman and Rivera made last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that brought his future into question.
If you missed it, here's a sample of what Gettleman said.
Neither Gettleman nor Rivera would give a simple "yes" then or Wednesday when asked if Smith would be on the team in 2014 -- even though Smith's contract runs through 2016 if the Panthers pick up his option years.
The vagueness was deafening.
But Smith, not one to bury his thoughts, didn't keep quiet on Tuesday. While talking on WBT radio from Utah, where he was donating $150,000 to the University of Utah -- the school that he and Gross attended -- for a family foundation academic scholarship, he expressed his dismay.
He talked about the shock of having to read management's comments on the Internet and hear them from third parties.
He nailed it when he said: "If I ... did that the reverse way, I think it would have been very unprofessional on my end and a destruction. I wish the individuals would have had that conversation with me first and privately."
Smith was calm and professional throughout the radio interview. He's come a long way from the player who early in his career became so volatile over situations that he attacked teammates on three different occasions.
Had he gone on a rampage, however, few would have faulted him. He has had a career (836 catches, 12,197 yards) worthy of the team's Wall of Honor if he never catches another pass.
Such numbers demand more respect.
At least better communication.
Maybe it's time for the team to move on. Maybe the team can find a younger No. 1 receiver in free agency and/or the draft. An overall upgrade definitely is needed.
But Smith still can be viable. Teammates feed off his energy. A rookie would benefit from his experience.
Remember what Rivera and others said about him as he attempted to come back from a late-season knee injury to play against San Francisco in the playoffs? Let me refresh you:
- Rivera: "He works very hard at his craft. That's why he plays at such a high level continually. He's a great example for our young guys in how to practice hard. Steve, again, is still the big vocal point of who we are. When you put the tape on, you still see people matching [defensive backs] on him. You still see teams rolling coverage toward him."
- Offensive coordinator Mike Shula: "You lose a guy like Steve, it is a big concern because he is such a warrior on game day and a productive player and presents a lot of problems for the defense. Obviously, he gives you a playmaker, but he gives you good looks in other areas to make other guys play better."
- Tight end Greg Olsen: "He really sets the coverage for us when Steve's out there. It's important. He's our main guy."
In other words, Smith deserves better than he's getting now.
Maybe this will all work out. Maybe Smith will return and the team will benefit. Rivera said to be patient and let it play out. But he should be talking to Smith and explaining what is happening.
Smith still can be volatile if he gets mad enough. He still can be disruptive.
Neither are what you want in the offseason from one of your all-time greats. Not when you're trying to get back to the playoffs.
Maybe that's another reason Smith was so emotional on Wednesday. When Gross told Smith by phone he was retiring, Gross said, "What an unbelievable feeling it is to go out playing for one team and knowing that it was my choice." Words that surely reminded Smith of the way he wants to go out.
"I think it matters to him," Gross said.
Gettleman has reminded several times that all the facts that go into personnel decisions typically don't come out until two or three years down the road -- if ever.
He warns that the biggest mistake you can make is an emotional decision.
"The truth of the matter is, everybody is on the outside looking in," he said two days after the season. "So when a team makes a decision to let a quality player -- and not a myth, but a legitimate quality player -- walk out the door, the first thing you do is sit back and say, 'What are they doing?'
"The fact of the matter is, there's stuff going on behind closed doors that we don't know about. I don't care what sport it is. You don't know all the facts. Unless you know all the facts all you're doing is speculating."
But to leave the player speculating seems harsh.
And not just any player, but one that has meant what Smith has to the organization.
He deserves better.
It was sad. It was funny.
It was tearful. It was laughable.
It was Jordan Gross.
Gross did both.
Carolina's left tackle officially called it quits on Wednesday after 11 NFL seasons, saying it was the right time to leave. He said goodbye the way only he could, taking us through a pictorial journey of his career filled with one-liners and tears.
He began with a picture of him fresh out of the University of Utah, his face admittedly a bit chubby and his ears undeniably big. He ended with a picture of him, his wife and two kids on the sideline at the 2014 Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
"It's time for me to go," Gross said. "I learned in college you never want to stay at the party too long or bad things will happen."
Gross, 33, spent most of the news conference fighting back tears. Surrounded by many of his teammates from his rookie year in 2003 to his current team, he admittedly couldn't find anybody to look at that didn't get him choked up.
Most of them were choked up as well. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who barely can remember the last time he was on a football field without the player who followed him to Carolina from the University of Utah, stopped several times to fight off tears.
Asked about one moment in the news conference when there was a picture of him on the right shoulder of Gross in the Super Bowl following the 2003 season, the raw emotion spilled over.
"Just a great teammate," he said, biting his upper lip. "I'm good. I can't keep it together."
And he walked away.
Gross walked away from football for many reasons. He couldn't see putting his body through another season and risk the possibility of not being able to enjoy a family skiing trip as he just returned from.
He also felt the Panthers were headed in the right direction regardless of whether he returned or not. I won't bore you with details of who might replace him here. This is all about Gross.
Gross actually knew this was going to be his last season a year ago, "barring some miracle, where I knew I wouldn't have any more pain in my body."
And it's not like he's really going anywhere. He still plans to be around the organization. As he hinted, it'll likely be behind a microphone, whether it's doing his weekly "This is Gross" podcast or doing analysis for the team's in-house network -- or possibly both.
Center Ryan Kalil jokingly said Gross will be around the stadium so much it'll be like he's on pretend injured reserve.
But regardless of how much Gross is around, he'll be missed -- on and off the field. His leadership meant just as much to the team as his ability to protect the blind side of quarterback Jake Delhomme during his rookie season to Cam Newton the past three seasons.
He was selfless to a fault, always coming to coach Ron Rivera to fight for the team needs and not his own. Rivera felt like he lost a friend as much as a player.
"He always started off, 'You don't always have to do it this way, but ...'" Rivera said when describing one of Gross' visits to his office. "It was always the 'but' that got me."
But Gross got people because they respected him. That was reinforced by the number of coaches, current teammates and former teammates that lined the visitors' locker room for the goodbye.
It was in the visitors' locker room, by the way, because the stadium is under an $87 million renovation.
Guard Geoff Hangartner flew from Austin, Texas, to be here. Smith cut a family vacation to Utah short.
"Not many of us get to play with that one team and have personal success and have a positive impact, not only with the team but the organization and community," tight end Greg Olsen said. "He pretty much lived what every player hopes to have as their timeline in the NFL."
That didn't make Wednesday's goodbye any easier. Kalil knew his good friend was dreading the moment, so he hired the quartet to lighten the mood.
He even sang along. Here's a sample of the variations they came up with:
"Happy Trails to you, my aging and departing friend. Happy Trails to you, I can't believe it's the end. ... No more cares about the spin or speed or bull rush. So try to not get knocked back while in retirement. ... Happy Trials, to you, you'll be missed on third-and-10."
That, as Smith said, summarized what Gross meant to the team.
"He always kept things fun, great spirits," Smith said.
And in the end, Gross left on his own terms.
It was sad. It was funny.
But it was Gross.
For three years he's had a Pro Bowl player protecting his blind side -- the reason left tackles are such a high-priced commodity. Now he blindly awaits who that player will be.
Here's a breakdown of the possibilities:
Existing players: Not a lot of great options when you consider this player has to protect the franchise quarterback. Right tackle Byron Bell possibly could switch sides, but he's shaky at best. Maybe this will help explain: Pro Football Focus gave Gross a rating of 33.5 this past season; Bell got a minus-2.8. It wouldn't surprise if Bell is replaced on the right side. Free agent Bruce Campbell spent some time at left tackle, but that didn't really work out. Nate Chandler moved from the defensive line to tackle a few years ago, and finished this past season as the starting right guard due to a rash of injuries. He played well, too. It might be asking too much for him to move to tackle, although Carolina once turned tight end Matt Campbell into a pretty good left tackle during the 1990s after a lot of trips to Krispy Kreme to bulk up.
Free agency: The big question here is how much the Panthers want to spend. A top-flight left tackle is expensive, and they have a lot of other needs to fill with 21 unrestricted free agents. In all likelihood, they'll look for an up-and-comer they can get for a reasonable price regardless of what they do in the draft. It's really a pretty good year with quite a few good tackles about to hit the market in Baltimore's Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe, Kansas City's Branden Albert, St. Louis' Austin Howard, Cincinnati's Anthony Collins and Oakland's Jared Veldheer. Albert you can probably forget about based on his last contract.
The draft: The good news is this is one of the deepest drafts at tackle in years. Some might argue you can get help in the middle rounds. The bad news is you probably can't get a potentially sure-fire starter outside the first round, and the top three -- Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews -- should be gone when Carolina drafts at No. 28. They are by far the cream of the crop. That leaves candidates such as Virginia's Morgan Moses, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, North Carolina's James Hurst, Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James and Ohio State's Jack Mewhort as possibilities.
The dilemma: There are two. First, losing Gross means the Panthers almost have to find a way financially to keep defensive end Greg Hardy, whether it's with a long-term deal or the franchise tag. I believe they will. They can't afford to start over without cornerstones on the offensive and defensive line and hope to improve. Second, they still have a big need at wide receiver, particularly with Steve Smith's future somewhat up in the air. The good news is the wide receiver draft crop is just as deep if not deeper than the offensive line, so a potential starter could be had in the second round.
Jordan Gross is listed at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, so to say the Carolina Panthers have a big hole at left tackle now that he's retiring is an understatement.
But the bigger hole will be in the locker room.
Gross' heart is his biggest asset.
Beyond what the eighth pick of the 2003 NFL draft brought to the team in terms of protecting the quarterback and run blocking, Gross has been a stabilizing factor off the field.
If there was a potentially disruptive issue brewing, he usually was the first to nip it in the bud. If the team needed an inspirational speech, he was the one you could count on to give it.
Many credited his Highlanders speech when Carolina was 1-3 as the catalyst for this past season's 12-4 record.
Gross' contributions off the field were why I rated him the top priority among Carolina's 21 unrestricted free agents, including defensive end Greg Hardy.
Gross epitomizes class.
His retirement, which will be made official on Wednesday, means Carolina's focus with the 28th pick of the draft has to lean heavily toward a tackle -- unless one can be found in free agency.
In all likelihood, the team will try to find one both ways.
There's really nobody on the roster capable of replacing Gross, who has been with the Panthers since they selected him 11 years ago.
"It's that old adage: There are guys that play professional football and then there's professional football players," Carolina center Ryan Kalil told me this past season. "As long as I've known Jordan, he's always been the epitome of a true professional."
Kalil understands and appreciates Gross' value to the team as a leader as well as anyone.
"He's easy to talk to," he said. "Jordan is one of those guys who has a relationship with almost everybody on the team. It's important for him to know his teammates. He doesn't just stay in his little bubble.
"Because of that, he has a good pulse on what the personality of the team is like. That's important, because when you have a guy who is a true leader, who understands everybody and then gets up to speak or make a point about something, he's somebody you care to hear what he has to say."
One of the best to ever play in a panther jersey. I wish he would stay but you gotta do what u gotta… http://t.co/aYDOKDhpQc— charles johnson (@randywattson) February 25, 2014
Gross, 33, came to Carolina from the University of Utah two years after the Panthers drafted college teammate Steve Smith. Gross' retirement leaves the team's all-time leading receiver without what some consider his stabilizing force.
Quarterback Cam Newton told me that Gross was the person behind the scenes "controlling that inner animal" in Smith.
"It will never probably come out the way people will want to say it, and maybe I'm giving Jordan too much credit, but he doesn't get a lot of credit at all," Newton said.
Smith may have a different opinion on how Gross impacts his "inner animal." Smith made a point to bring up Newton's comment after the team saw its eight-game winning streak end at New Orleans.
But there's no denying Smith will miss Gross -- if the receiver is still playing. That came into question last week when general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera were unusually vague on their receiver's future.
"For me, it'll be a sad day when I look in the huddle and he's not that left tackle," Smith said in December. And Smith tweeted on Tuesday:
Since 1999 until 2day @J2theGross and I have been in same huddle. Today its has stopped I salute JG great player better man!!! Love ya— Steve Smith (@89SteveSmith) February 25, 2014
That day came earlier than many expected -- or wanted. Gross told me last month, after finishing his career with his third Pro Bowl appearance, that Rivera wanted him back.
Gettleman said last week it was Gross' decision.
Gross, whose 167 career starts is a franchise record, ultimately decided it was time to step aside. As he said earlier in the year when his future came into question, he's done everything a player could want except win the Super Bowl.
And he came close to that, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII on a last-second field goal that gave New England a 32-29 victory at the end of his rookie season.
"I didn't want to leave until I felt the team was back in a good position for sustained success," Gross told the team's official website, Panthers.com. "The team is there now. There is good, young leadership, there are talented players, and there are guys that really want to work hard and want to win."
I assumed Gross would return because he felt the Panthers needed him for at least one more year. His comment suggests the team is in better shape on the line than many assumed.
Gross will explain in more detail his decision during Wednesday's news conference at Bank of America Stadium. The good news is this doesn't appear to be one of those situations where he was forced to retire.
He's going out on his terms, and that's a good thing.
There's still a big hole to fill.
And an even bigger heart to replace.
The latest sign came when linebacker Thomas Davis restructured his contract for the fourth time in the last three years. The new deal will save Carolina $2.25 million under the salary cap.
According to the Charlotte Observer, the Panthers also restructured the deals of center Ryan Kalil and running back Jonathan Stewart.
That puts the Panthers more than $28 million under the projected cap, which ESPN.com reported last week could be as high as $132 million.
Hardy's chances of returning increase with every increase in cap space. After leading the team in sacks with 15, he's set to become one of the most sought after free agents this year.
The Panthers also still have the option of using the franchise tag on him, which would eat up about $12 million in cap room. They have until March 3 to decide that.
Head coach Ron Rivera continues to be hopeful that general manager Dave Gettleman will find a way to keep Hardy. Asked at the NFL combine last week if he thought the team's sixth-round pick in 2010 would return, Rivera said, "I'd like to believe so."
"He's important," Rivera continued. "As I've talked to Dave about all the different things we're trying to do, one thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong. Our defensive line was very strong for us. So I'm very optimistic about what we can become as a football team."
While it may appear Gettleman is moving slow in negotiating deals to keep key players from last season's 12-4 team, in reality he is moving at a good pace to free up money while waiting on the official cap total.
He met with the agents of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, safety Mike Mitchell and others at the combine in Indianapolis. Both are expected to draw strong interest from other teams if not re-signed before free agency begins on March 11.
When Gettleman was hired last February, the Panthers were more than $16 million over the cap. He cleared much of the now available space by restructuring deals such as the one to defensive end Charles Johnson, who converted much of his 2013 salary into a pro-rated bonus to clear up $4.26 million.
Don't be surprised if Johnson's 2014 deal is restructured, too. His $16.4 million cap number is the highest on the team.
And don't be surprised if that also helps make it possible for Hardy to return.