NFC South: Jordan Gross

Former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney will appear on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" on Thursday and Friday. It will be the first time he has spoken publicly since he was fired on Oct. 22, 2012, after a 1-5 start.

Hurney, in my opinion, was the fall guy that day.

It wasn't his fault the Panthers were losing. They had many of the key players -- quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross -- that helped them to a 12-4 record and NFC South title this past season.

He was the one who hired Ron Rivera, who was the NFL coach of the year this past season.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMarty Hurney was fired after a 1-5 start to the 2012 season.
His philosophy to build through the draft and not overspend in free agency is sound.

Hurney's biggest fault was signing running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson to ridiculously high contracts that has current general manager Dave Gettleman in what he might call salary cap hell.

Oh, and there was the five-year, $42.5 million deal he gave to 34-year-old Jake Delhomme after the quarterback had six turnovers in the 2008 playoff loss to Arizona.

Aside from those things, Hurney is the same person who helped build the Panthers into a team that made it to the Super Bowl in 2003, the NFC Championship Game in 2005 and back to the playoffs in 2008.

What he said the day he was fired was more truth than anybody probably was willing to admit at the time.

"I think we need somebody to step up in the locker room and take hold," Hurney told reporters at Bank of America Stadium. "I think there are people capable of that. I think we need some players to step up and say enough is enough."

That finally happened last season when Gross, with the team 1-3 heading into Minnesota, gave a speech that many of his teammates credit for the ensuing eight-game winning streak.

That Hurney, a former sportswriter, has decided to resurface now is a good thing. That he's resurfacing at a time Gettleman is under siege for releasing Smith and letting Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers get away in free agency -- not to mention failing to sign a veteran from another team -- is merely coincidence.

Hurney likes Gettleman and believes he'll do a good job.

So do I, even though I still disagree with the release of Smith.

I'm not sure what Hurney will be asked on "Insiders" (ESPN, 3:30 p.m.). I'm not sure how much he will talk about the past because he's a high-road guy. It's why players such as Johnson came to his defense when he was fired.

"Marty wasn't the reason we are losing! ... Unbelievable!" Johnson wrote on Twitter at the time.

But there will be questions, maybe a few that are uncomfortable. I'm sure you have a few. Here are five of mine:

  • When you said somebody needed to step up and say "enough is enough,'' did you believe the locker-room environment lacked the leadership to win? Who were the bad eggs?
  • Did you think at the time you signed Williams, Stewart and Johnson to big deals that it would strap the team financially this far into the future?
  • If you had to do it all over again with the exact same scenario, would you have given Delhomme such a big deal?
  • What do you think of Gettleman's decision to fire Smith?
  • Were you really fired, or did you just refuse to let others in the organization go and basically quit?

Some of these things surely will come up on the broadcast. How Hurney addresses them isn't as important as he's finally comfortable enough to talk football publicly again.

Hurney did a lot of good things for Carolina. Even Gettleman acknowledged that in his postseason wrap-up.

It's time to move on.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonGeneral manager Dave Gettleman has made some questionable decisions in the first week of free agency.

Let's go back to January, two days after the Carolina Panthers finished a 12-4 season, to when Dave Gettleman assessed his first year as an NFL general manager.

"The gaffes I made this year didn’t hurt us too much,'' he said.

A reporter: "Gaffes?''

Gettleman responded with a laugh and a Ric Flair-like "Wooo!," followed by a moment of awkward silence, followed by "let's say I didn't make any big ones.''

Back to the present. Gettleman appears to have made several gaffes a week into his second venture into free agency. Whether one or more turn into big ones remains to be seen. Whether they'll ultimately be called gafffes also remains to be seen because we're a long way from the final snapshot of this team.

But for the sake of evaluation, let's take a look at what could be called the gaffes of the past week:

Gaffe 1: Cutting wide receiver Steve Smith. This was a gaffe on several levels, although Gettleman may disagree. First, the way it was handled. Either Gettleman never should have said he was reviewing whether Smith would have a spot on the team or he should have consulted Smith in some way. Teams part with long-time contributors all the time. But it's the way they part that most remember. Second, that Smith signed with Baltimore a day later, and had strong interest from New England, Seattle and San Diego, tells me somebody thought he has something to offer at 34.

Gaffe 2: Losing No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots), No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and No. 3 Domenik Hixon (Bears) to free agency after cutting Smith left quarterback Cam Newton without a wide receiver with an NFL catch. I'm not suggesting all three or even two should have been re-signed, but you've got to find a way to keep one for some sort of continuity going into 2014.

Gaffe 3: Losing free agent wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to Indianapolis. Nicks said Gettleman made an offer. It apparently wasn't enough. Maybe Gettleman never really wanted Nicks that badly. Maybe he's targeted Green Bay wide receiver James Jones, who remains on the open market. Maybe he has somebody else in mind to be the veteran leader at this position. But for the moment, losing the hometown Nicks on top of gaffes 1 and 2 seems like a mistake.

Gaffe 4: Not re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell. To be fair, the Panthers probably couldn't compete with the five-year, $25 million deal Mitchell got from Pittsburgh. But to lose a 26-year-old on his way up and replace him with 31-year-old Roman Harper on his way down isn't a long-term solution.

Gaffe 5: Losing Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Collins to NFC South rival Tampa Bay. He would have been a nice replacement for recently-retired Jordan Gross protecting Newton's blindside. Unless something changes, that job will go to right tackle Byron Bell or a rookie from the draft. Stay tuned.

Again, to be fair, Gettleman didn't have the money to make 3, 4 and 5 happen. The Panthers, after saving about $2 million in cap room by cutting Smith, had only about $8 million before Saturday's signing of Harper to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million.

But had one or two of those happened the others wouldn't seem as significant.

Let's go back to Gettleman two days after the season. Perhaps the following comments he made will help put some of this in perspective that we don't all understand at the moment.

"The truth of the matter is, everybody is on the outside looking in,'' he said. "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 team it is. 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.''

Fortunately for Gettleman, he won't have to evaluate his second year as a general manager for another 10 months.

That's when we'll know if the above gaffes are big or small, or gaffes at all.

Analyzing Kiper 3.0: Panthers

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. finally has come around to my thinking on the Carolina Panthers having to take an offensive tackle with the No. 28 pick of the NFL draft.

He has, at least for the moment, given up on Carolina taking a wide receiver -- although when Steve Smith is traded or cut, the team won't have any of its top four wideouts from last season under contract.

That could make receiver more of a priority, particularly if the Panthers are sold on Byron Bell replacing Jordan Gross at left tackle.

But I'm not.

So Kiper's pick of Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio makes sense.

Maybe this will be a repeat of last year's draft in which defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was considered one of the top picks -- if not the top pick -- until a medical issue involving his heart at the NFL combine forced some teams to back off.

Carolina got him for a steal at No. 14. Lotulelei played so well he could have been defensive rookie of the year.

Kouandjio was considered one of the top players in this draft until concerns surfaced at the combine about his knee, which doctors have since said is fine. Then he didn't work out at Alabama's pro day, another negative.

If he falls to No. 28, the Panthers can't pass on him. He could be the starting left tackle for the next 10 years.

If not him, then Virginia tackle Morgan Moses.

If not one of them, then Kiper and I will agree it's a wide receiver.

Check out a complete look at Kiper's 3.0 draft Insider.
No member of the Carolina Panthers 'offensive line took more heat last season than right tackle Byron Bell. Now, it appears, he'll get a chance to prove if he can protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side.

The Panthers on Monday tendered the restricted free agent, as well as exclusive rights player Chris Scott.

This occurred shortly after Carolina re-signed offensive lineman Garry Williams to a one-year deal and fullback/tight end Richie Brockel to a two-year deal.

Coach Ron Rivera mentioned Bell as a possible candidate to replace Jordan Gross at left tackle when the 11-year veteran retired a few weeks ago.

Bell, 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, started 14 games at right tackle this past season and has started 41 of 47 career games at Carolina. He first came under fire last season after Buffalo's Mario Williams had 4.5 sacks from his side in the second game.

The heat continued most of the season. Although Bell at times played well, Pro Football Focus gave him a season rating of minus-2.8. To put that in perspective, Gross had a rating of 33.5.

That's not the kind of rating a franchise quarterback wants to hear.

Nevertheless, Rivera and Gross said Bell played much better than people gave him credit for, and both endorsed him as a possibility at left tackle.

Filling the left tackle position from within would be a huge benefit for Carolina, which had only about $7 million left under the salary cap before the day began. With a strong draft class at tackle, the Panthers also might look to fill one of the two starting spots with a first- or second-round pick.

And don't forget, Williams has started 13 games at right tackle.

Scott (6-4 and 320 pounds) gives the Panthers more depth at guard. He started the first eight games this past season -- one at left and seven at right -- before suffering a knee injury against Atlanta in October.

Monday's moves won't draw big headlines, but they could mean the Panthers won't be heavily involved in free agency for offensive linemen -- at least not a high-priced tackle.

That's big considering the needs for upgrades at cornerback and wide receiver.
The Carolina Panthers secured two of their own free agents Monday in an attempt to shore up the running game.

Offensive lineman Garry Williams, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, signed a one-year deal. Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel, a restricted free agent, got a two-year deal.

Williams could figure into Carolina's plans at guard and tackle. He was the starter at right guard entering last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Seattle.

He has 21 starts since signing as an undrafted free agent from Kentucky in 2009. His presence at right guard gives Carolina more flexibility if it chooses to give Nate Chandler, who was working at tackle before becoming the regular at right guard due to injuries, a shot at replacing left tackle Jordan Gross.

Williams also has started 13 games at right tackle, so he could figure into the mix there if the Panthers choose to move starter Byron Bell into Gross' spot.

Coach Ron Rivera said at Gross' recent retirement news conference that Bell and Chandler could be in the mix.

Bell also is a restricted free agent, so look for an announcement on him before free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Brockel is a big contributor on special teams as well as a factor in the running game when Carolina brings in a second tight end or fullback for blocking.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
Free agency begins on Tuesday, and the Carolina Panthers have a lot of holes to fill.

That means you have a lot of questions.

So let’s get right to my Saturday mailbag:
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay may be right in his latest mock draft Insider. The Carolina Panthers may take a wide receiver with the 28th pick. They may even take Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, as he projects. Benjamin is a tall, talented player at a position that is in need of an upgrade.

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.
The free-agent pieces began falling into place for the Carolina Panthers last week with the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and the franchising of defensive end Greg Hardy.

So what's next with eight days before players hit the open market?

Management is talking with representatives for free safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., so that appears to be the direction the team is heading. Both make sense.

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.
The NFL will announce the 2014 salary cap within the next few days, possibly as early as today, and the reported available cap space for the Carolina Panthers has been all over the place.

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.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was fitting that construction at Bank of America Stadium forced the Carolina Panthers to hold Wednesday's retirement news conference for left tackle Jordan Gross in the visitor's locker room.

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. -- The news conference began with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson saying the guest of honor was not perfect, "borderline disrespectful.'' It ended with a slapstick rendition of "Happy Trails'' from a barbershop quartet named Zero Hour.

It was sad. It was funny.

It was tearful. It was laughable.

It was Jordan Gross.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneJordan Gross, No. 69, wasn't just a Pro Bowl player for the Panthers. He was a leader, too.
Not all professional athletes get to go out on their own terms in this age of salary-cap casualties. Not all athletes get to spend their entire career with one team.

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.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has to be the most nervous that left tackle Jordan Gross has retired.

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.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers must find a way to replace Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.
Unless somebody unexpectedly steps up, the Panthers don't have that player on their roster. That means Newton will be relying on somebody acquired in free agency or through the draft.

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."

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:

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, "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 future of the Carolina Panthers' two most high-profile free agents remains a mystery, according to what general manager Dave Gettleman told reporters at the NFL combine on Thursday.

Gettleman said left tackle Jordan Gross continues to think about whether he wants to return for a 12th season or retire.

He said defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks with 15, remains a part of the puzzle for the cap-strapped Panthers.

In other words, little has changed since Gettleman addressed the media two days after Carolina completed the season with a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC playoffs.

"I've had two conversations with Jordan . . . lengthy," Gettleman said. "A week ago Tuesday was the last time we spoke. Jordan is taking his family and going to Idaho and will be back late this week or early next week. And we'll sit and talk."

Asked if he sensed that Gross still wants to play, Gettleman said: "He's mulling over in his mind. It's a huge decision. Any of us, and of you, when it comes time for you to lay it down, it's a big decision. And I think he's mulling it over."

Asked if he wanted Gross to return as the left tackle or possibly move to right tackle, Gettleman said: "You know we're cap challenged. Obviously, he had a solid year. He's been a great Panther. And we'll talk to him and move forward."

Gettleman was just as vague on where things stand with Hardy, who has said his first choice would be to return to Carolina.

"Right now, we're talking to agents," Gettleman said. "He's part of the puzzle. We're cap challenged. Last year, we were quite a bit over. We had do some maneuvering to just get under for the first day of the league year. The progress we made this year is we don't have to do any of that. But that doesn't mean we're sitting here with $35 million.

"If you always go for the immediate instant gratification, you're going to get burned. So what we have to do is be very thoughtful in planning our cap, playing our strategy, planning our budget. What you're looking for is sustained success. You don't want to jump up and have a great year then the next two years, you're floundering around."

Gettleman added that just because there were reports the salary cap would be $130 million instead of the expected $126 million to $128 million doesn't mean the Panthers will spend to the cap.

"There are only two teams in this league right now that have had winning seasons four years in a row: New England and Green Bay," he said. "That's what our goal is. Our organizational goal is to have sustained success. We have to be thoughtful about what we do with every player, with every dollar."

I still believe the Panthers will find a way to get Gross back and draft a tackle to groom as his replacement, maybe even start on the left side and allow Gross to move to the right side for a lower salary.

I'm not so convinced the Panthers will be able to sign Hardy to a long-term deal or are willing to commit about $12 million to franchise him.

Stay tuned.