Can the Panthers find a way to keep Josh Norman? Norman, who returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns, turned down an extension prior to the season that would have paid him more than $7 million a year. He likely will demand $10 million to $14 million annually with a new deal. The Panthers are expected to place their franchise tender on Norman if no deal is reached with him in the next month, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Even with the cap number for each team expected to top $150 million, the Panthers will have to make salary cap adjustments in other places to keep Norman.
Where will the next pass-rushing end come from? Is it time to move on from Charles Johnson? The defensive end had only one sack during the regular season and missed seven games with a hamstring injury. He'll be 30 in July and has a 2016 salary-cap figure of $15.020 million. The Panthers need to upgrade at end, where they haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Greg Hardy in 2013. Jared Allen, 33, the NFL's active sacks leader, isn't the answer. He has a year left on his contract, but he's only a situational player now. Kony Ealy has shown flashes but not the consistency Carolina needs. This will be a position that has to be addressed in free agency or the draft. Restructuring Johnson's contract or letting him go might be the only way Carolina can keep Norman.
Will there be changes at running back? Jonathan Stewart is set to count $9.55 million against the cap in 2016, and fullback Mike Tolbert is a free agent after counting $3.4 million against the cap this season. The Panthers got a potential glimpse of their future at running back in rookie Cameron Artis-Payne when Stewart was sidelined with a sprained foot over the final month of the regular season. They also are high on undrafted rookie Brandon Wegher. They can save $5.7 million under the cap by cutting Stewart after June 1. Remember, they let all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams go last year. Re-signing Tolbert seems unlikely unless he takes a huge cut from what he made this season. With Norman's contract up and the team looking to secure Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short to a long-term deal, running back is an area where general manager Dave Gettleman can create cap room.
What happens at wide receiver? Jerricho Cotchery has been a leader and a good example for the young receivers. But at his age, 33, and with other needs on the roster, re-signing Cotchery might be tough. Kelvin Benjamin will be back from a knee injury. Pair Benjamin with 2015 rookie Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown -- along with Stephen Hill, who will be returning from a season-ending knee injury -- and there might not be room for Cotchery.
How active will Gettleman be in free agency? The GM made shrewd moves in each of his first three years, finding players who fill key roles for a low price. He's close to solving most of the salary-cap issues he inherited in 2013, but even he admitted it's going to be a "headache" finding ways to tie up young talent that has emerged such as Norman and Short. If he finds a way to keep both, there won't be much money to spend elsewhere. The good news is there aren't a lot of big needs outside of a pass-rushing end. Gettleman likely will have to fill that need in the draft, where he has been highly successful, as well.