Carolina Panthers

What will the future hold?

CHARLOTTE -- Perhaps the main emphasis of the Carolina Panthers' front office in recent years has been stability, a quest to build a young core of players in hopes they could keep them together for a few years.

And while it's largely been successful, the coming year will force more interesting decisions than it's had to make in many years.

The Panthers will have seven starters up for unrestricted free agency at the end of this season, three of them of primary importance.

Both starting tackles, Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton, have expiring contracts, along with the possibly retiring defensive end Mike Rucker. The others (fullback Brad Hoover, wide receiver Keary Colbert, linebacker Na'il Diggs and safety Deke Cooper) aren't going to command much of a market, or leave an irreplaceable void if they leave.

Keeping at least one of the offensive linemen is a must, both would be preferred, and finding Rucker's replacement here will require the kind of investment they haven't had to make in several years.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney's always hesitant to talk about anything beyond the current week, and he offered no insight to the Panthers' plans for the current crop of free agents.

But he understated the issue when he said: "Obviously, we have quite a few guys up at the end of the year, and we'll have some big decisions to make."

Historical perspective

It's rare that the Panthers have this many questions to answer about their own free agents. The only time they had this many key players up was the year after their Super Bowl run, and none of those players reached the integral level of the current bunch.

That year, cornerback Reggie Howard and guard Jeno James were the big-ticket items, leaving for Miami's riches, though both are gone now. And while the Panthers reached extensions with kicker John Kasay and long snapper Jason Kyle, they didn't expend much effort retaining the rest.

They did get an extension done with restricted free agent Steve Smith the following spring, and kept tight end Kris Mangum, but for the most part they didn't fret over the futures of guys like Greg Favors.

And they usually avoided the market by locking up their key parts before they could hit the market. They don't like doing in-season deals, only working on them in September or late December to avoid creating distractions, though they've kept players like Rucker and Kris Jenkins with in-season deals.

Generally, if they get to the start of free agency without a deal for their own guys, they've done all they were willing to.

Their two biggest defections came after the 2005 season, when linebacker Will Witherspoon and safety Marlon McCree took advantage of a market bloated by a nearly 20 percent bump in the salary cap (form $85 million to $102 million), and the Panthers merely watched them walk away. They weren't prepared to spend beyond what they thought those players were worth, just because others were.

The tackle question

But while they've been proactive signing their own guys before they get to market in the past, there's nothing cooking at the moment on deals for either Gross or Wharton.

Like most players, Wharton said last week he tries to push business talk to the back of his mind, though he's potentially going to be doing big business somewhere.

"That's not even a topic of conversation," Wharton said. "For me, it's just about playing football. You can't lose track of what's important, and that's playing football.

"If you go out here and you can't perform, it won't matter."

Keeping either of them will be costly for the Panthers, particularly for Gross.

It's easy to imagine his value, considering the seven-year, $49 million-plus deals signed by comparable talents such as Leonard Davis, Eric Steinbach and Derrick Dockery.

Wharton might come cheaper, since he's not of the same pedigree (he was a third-round pick), and the fact he's coming off last year's knee surgery.

Either way, the Panthers can't simply let both walk. If they keep either one, they could play him at left tackle and move Jeremy Bridges back to right tackle, where he played well in 2006. But there simply aren't two potential tackles on the roster now.

So it's either pay their own, or pay somebody else's.

End of the line?

There's a chance Rucker could retire at the end of the season, but either way, the Panthers need to find a complement to Julius Peppers, whose deal runs out after 2008.

Rucker's been one of the steadiest players in franchise history, and he and Peppers have exchanged the team sack record several times. But he's also 32 years old, and doesn't have a sack this year.

The Panthers desperately wanted a chance to draft defensive end Jammal Anderson this year, but Atlanta got him six picks before they were due, and they eventually traded down. That left the Panthers with no real long-term solutions for the spot, since none from the group of Otis Grigsby, Stanley McClover and Charles Johnson have distinguished themselves.

Their defensive system relies on getting pressure from the front, and without a solid rush from their ends, they'd have to change the way they operate.

That's why it's imperative they find one there, perhaps more so than the offensive line issue.

Questions loom

The other spots they have to look at don't carry nearly the same weight.

It's easy to imagine rookie receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Ryne Robinson replacing Colbert and fellow free agent Drew Carter, at least by 2009. They'd probably like to keep interior pass-rusher Damione Lewis, particularly after letting guys like Tony Brown and Jovan Haye slide in recent years.

And backup quarterback will likely be an issue again, with Jake Delhomme coming off elbow surgery and David Carr underwhelming.

A dependable safety would be a nice add, though that's been the case for years and years.

But again, they haven't had to make the big-money calls like the three aforementioned questions in some time.

Hurney's not shedding any light on the plan, other than to say there is one.

"Our job is to always have an eye on the future," Hurney said. "But our focus also has to be on the week at hand."

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