CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — General manager Dave Gettleman said the Carolina Panthers are finally emerging from two years of being strapped under the NFL salary cap, and could be bigger players in free agency this offseason.
"Last year we were shopping at the Dollar Store," Gettleman said Tuesday. "This year we might be able to move up in class a little."
Just how that affects quarterback Cam Newton's long-term future with the team remains unclear.
Gettleman reiterated at a postseason news conference that he believes Newton is Carolina's "franchise quarterback," but declined to discuss if he plans to sign the two two-time Pro Bowler to a long-term contract extension.
Newton has one year remaining on his contract and is set to make $14.6 million next season.
"I love who he is for us and what he's done for us," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "I do envision him continuing to grow for us. I think he can be a really special, special, special player."
Newton endured a rough fourth season — on and off the field.
He had ankle surgery last March, fractured his ribs in the preseason and fractured two small bones in his lower back following a car accident on Dec. 9.
The Panthers rallied to win the NFC South at 7-8-1 and a playoff game against Arizona, but Newton finished with career lows in yards passing (3,127) and touchdowns (18). He had 12 interceptions and a career-low five touchdowns rushing.
It didn't help that he played behind a young offensive line that struggled early in the season and with an entirely new group of wide receivers following an offseason of change.
"Just like our team, we need him to be more consistent and the players around him to be more consistent," Gettleman said.
Poor mechanics continue to plague Newton, but Gettleman said it is a building process.
"Everybody wants a player to be great yesterday," Gettleman said. "It just doesn't work that way with everybody. It takes time."
Gettleman inherited a team in 2013 that was $16 million over the NFL salary cap.
The Panthers currently stand about $14 million under the projected 2015 salary cap.
He's encouraged the team only has 11 unrestricted free agents this offseason, as opposed to 22 last year.
"We're in a better place," Gettleman said. "We have younger talent under contract. So we're in a better place."
The team's biggest unrestricted free agent is Greg Hardy, who was limited to one game last season following a domestic violence conviction. Hardy is appealing the ruling and a jury trial is set to begin Feb. 9 in Charlotte.
Gettleman said the Panthers will take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Hardy's future with the team.
"Until his situation changes, there is nothing to talk about," Gettleman said.
Rivera has repeatedly put his support behind Hardy and didn't waver from that on Tuesday, saying "you guys know how I feel about him."
Rivera said the Panthers' biggest needs are the same as last season — wide receiver, offensive line and the secondary.
Left tackle is a glaring area of need.
Byron Bell struggled there this season after spending three seasons at right tackle. Like Hardy, he's set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Gettleman said while Bell showed flashes this season, he lacked consistency and "I think we've shown that if a player shows up that we think will make us better, we're going to go get him."
Rivera said he doesn't anticipate any changes to his coaching staff this season after the Panthers won the NFC South championship for the second straight season.
However, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is expected to be a hot commodity and will interview this week for the New York Jets head coaching job.
"If you only look at the first 12 games, there were a lot of us that should have been thrown out on our ear," Rivera said of his staff. "But if you break down the last six, all of a sudden it looks a lot better."
Rivera said he believes the Panthers aren't that far from winning a Super Bowl after two straight playoff appearances.
"I think we are close, and I think we can get even closer," Rivera said. "But we have to be right on, we have to make good decisions and bring in the right kind of guys, coach them up and put them in position to have success."
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