CHARLOTTE -- Neither team honestly cares what happens today.
They both want to win, but Tampa Bay is preparing for the playoffs while Carolina is working on 2008.
The Panthers have a number of big decisions to make, and scads of smaller ones in order to prevent a repeat of this year's 6-9-and-counting disaster.
Ten things they have to do:
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• 1. Gather yourselves
They must resist the urge to slash and burn. There are many good, young parts (i.e. cheap labor), and it would be a mistake to consider this a tear-down. It's more of a renovation, and not of the extreme variety.
The good news is, neither general manager Marty Hurney nor coach John Fox are wont to rash decisions.
They don't need the huge splashes they've made at times, but some of the more strategic strikes. Remember signing Mark Fields on the cheap in 2002, and getting two near-Pro Bowl seasons out of him?
Instead of linebackers, they'll be shopping for linemen, running backs, probably a few receivers and tight ends and several safeties.
Those are spots where help can be found without breaking the bank. It won't be cheap finding a starting defensive end in free agency, but there are enough that young guys who will help (or at least offer more than Mike Rucker did) can be found.
• 2. Take care of the big stuff
They have to do an extension for defensive end Julius Peppers and retain right tackle Jordan Gross before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 1.
It's not that Peppers played his way into more money this year, posting a career-worst campaign. It's more that he's suffocating their ability to fix other problems because he makes up such a large portion of the salary cap. He'll count over $16 million -- or roughly 14 percent of the $116 million limit for 2008 -- in the final year of his rookie deal if nothing changes. They can probably lop about $10 million or more off that number with a long-term extension.
Gross presents a more straightforward problem, since he's walking into a big payday somewhere, and everyone involved wants it to be in Charlotte. Gross said recently that having Fox and Hurney expected back gives the Panthers a significant edge, since he believes in the direction.
To sign him, it's still going to take more than $7 million per year to start.
• 3. Swallow hard
The Panthers have 37 players under contract next year, and right around $6 million in salary cap room. That second number is largely irrelevant.
Assuming they do something with Peppers, they'll create the cap room needed to make a few significant signings. Throw in the savings from a few players with big numbers who could be cut (DeShaun Foster, Dan Morgan, Mike Wahle, David Carr), and the Panthers won't be in nearly the dire position some imagine. They'll have holes, and others will have more to spend, but it's not as if they're forced to sign nothing but minimum-wagers.
There's also the possibility that some of those parts could be traded, with Kris Jenkins remaining the elephant in the room. He's yet to become a big-enough distraction to make them eager to get rid of him.
Foster would have some value to others, but given the fungible nature of his position, they wouldn't get a lot for him. While the world was in an uproar over the Jenkins situation last offseason, there were several versions of that conversation going on with different players, Foster one of them.
• 4. Fix your fronts
Signing Gross would lend some degree of stability to the offensive line, regardless what else happens.
If he comes back and Travelle Wharton doesn't (perhaps the most likely possibility), the Panthers have an acceptable plan. They could move Gross back to left tackle -- not his best spot, but he's not a dog -- and use Jeremy Bridges at right tackle, as they did with decent success in 2006.
They'd probably be best-served convincing Justin Hartwig to play guard so they could start Ryan Kalil at center, and if Wahle's no longer around, Hartwig has the physical tools to replace him. Right guards are cheap, and they could get by with restricted free agents Geoff Hangartner and Evan Mathis, or some middle-of -the-road free agent.
The defensive line has to be addressed. While Rucker wasn't the reason this season went bad, he wasn't physically ready to take up the slack for Peppers. Youngsters Charles Johnson and Stanley McClover have promise, but they need a proven starter on the left side before they go to camp. They could probably stand another starting-caliber player inside, particularly if they move Jenkins. They could sign backups Damione Lewis and Kindal Moorehead easily enough, and should, but that group needs someone with some push inside to complement Maake Kemoeatu.
Bottom line, they have to fix the part of the defense they count on the most, because the back seven, not the front four, carried them this year.
n 5. Settle on your staff
Fox is apparently fine, but the same can't be true for all his assistants.
Special teams coach Danny Crossman's the most obvious candidate to leave, but hardly the only one.
Fox took over the defensive meetings, which coordinator Mike Trgovac presides over, early this year. As loyal as he is, it could be an even-money bet on Trgovac's future. That there's a ready-made replacement in secondary coach Tim Lewis (who was a coordinator in Pittsburgh and with the Giants) makes it a legitimate query.
You can make more of a case for Trgovac's return than Crossman's. Even with a rock-bottom year from the entire line, the defense ranks 16th in the league. Trgovac's much smarter than a lot of folks realize, and he'd find work in the league quickly if let go.
There are also the annual questions as to whether 66-year-old receivers coach Richard Williamson wants to continue.
n 6. Decide if they're ready for Moore
The scenario is one big question mark, but there are no sure things at quarterback.
They think Jake Delhomme's going to be fine after elbow surgery, and they think they have legitimate prospects behind him in Matt Moore and Brett Basanez.
The curious thing will be to see if they've gained enough faith in Moore to make him the No. 2, or whether they'll go find a veteran to stand between Jake and the kids.
They might choose to spend elsewhere and trust what's on hand.
n 7. Don't miss in April
Criticism of the Panthers' drafts is easy, but they've at least hit on their first-rounders. You also have to draw a line after the 2005 draft, when they changed decision-making structure, marginalizing former college scouting boss Tony Softli prior to his departure for St. Louis. Now that Hurney and college scouting director Don Gregory (who are of like mind) are running things, they have to make sure to get at least two or three instant contributors.
Their first pick would be 10th overall as it stands today, probably not high enough to get the premier offensive tackle or defensive end, but high enough to get a guy who'll start.
They won't have the luxury of redshirting an entire draft class as they've done much of the last two years, which will make getting the second and third picks right more important. Perhaps shifting the third round to Sunday will make them better, because they haven't gotten much help in that round.
n 8. Fine-tune
The competitive spots in training camp will be some of the less-heralded spots, like guard, fullback and tight end.
Because of the multiple ways Jeff Davidson wants to use them, expect to see several fullbacks and tight ends come this way, perhaps Brad Hoover and perhaps not. Although it would be hard, there's a chance the Panthers might prefer to go young and cheap with a fleet of Billy Latskos, than bring Hoover back for a ninth season.
They need another quality starter at safety, an upgrade over Deke Cooper to go with revelation Chris Harris.
They brought back free agent Na'il Diggs on Saturday with a three year extension, and are now fine for starting linebackers. They could use a few young bodies there for depth.
n 9. Build from the bottom up
The Panthers have sufficient front-line stars to succeed.
When the injuries hit this year and the shuffle began, they suffered most in special teams, where backups make their money.
Whether it's bringing back Dante Wesley or some other such player, they need a new touchstone on special teams since there's no guarantee Nick Goings is coming back. It looks like return man Ryne Robinson's starting to get it, but needs a few trusty guys around him.
Also interesting will be the way they handle the kicking. Bringing in big-legged Rhys Lloyd this week to kick off is the first step to see if they can stomach carrying three specialists on the 45-man gameday roster.
n 10. Follow the plan
The Panthers started skewing younger two years ago. They'll have to continue that pattern.
Hitting on the draft class is imperative, but so is the need for finding "young veterans" in free agency to maintain stability while the rookies develop.
If they make the right moves, they're close to being relevant again, but this will be more of a finesse offseason than a swing-for-the-fences spending spree.