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Thursday, January 23, 2014
The next big thing: Panthers

By David Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What's next for the Carolina Panthers in free agency and the NFL draft:

Free agency: Carolina has 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, led by defensive end Greg Hardy (second in the league in sacks with 15) and left tackle Jordan Gross. Three-fourths of the starting secondary also is on this list, as well as the team's No. 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.

The team remains somewhat strapped under the salary cap to go after a high-priced defensive back or receiver. The franchise tag may be the best solution for Hardy, who likely would break the bank with a long-term deal if allowed to test the market.

Draft: With the No. 28 pick, the Panthers are likely to go with a wide receiver or tackle. Wide receiver is the No. 1 need to give quarterback Cam Newton a weapon to work with opposite 13-year veteran Steve Smith. But general manager Dave Gettleman's theory of building from the inside out in last season's draft worked well. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, taken with the team's first two picks, were key to Carolina ranking No. 2 in the league in run defense.