2014 DRAFT GUIDE
Panthers turning attention to bright future

By STEVE REED - AP Sports Writer
    2014-01-13 14:29

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - One day after the getting bounced from the NFL playoffs the Carolina Panthers turned their attention to doing something no other team in franchise history has done: reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

The Panthers have been to the playoffs five times in 18 seasons, but never in consecutive years.

All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert says the Panthers are out to change that.

''I think we're on the verge of something special, so I'm excited about the future,'' Tolbert said.

The Panthers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 going 12-4, winning the NFC South and capturing the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. It all came to an abrupt end Sunday with a 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but coach Ron Rivera still called it a successful season.

''We learned a lot about who we are as a football team, a lot about our football players,'' said Rivera, who was 13-19 in his first two seasons as Panthers coach. ''... I'm pretty fired up about that. I think going forward it means a lot of good things.''

But Rivera cautioned that ''if we don't learn from the games we played this year then we wasted this season. We are not going to do that.''

Like every other NFL team, the Panthers have holes to fill and free agents to re-sign.

The most pressing need is getting defensive end Greg Hardy under contract. The 25-year-old Hardy is due to become an unrestricted free agent and is expected to command a huge payday after collecting 15 sacks this season and 26 over the past two years.

''He's an explosive guy, a playmaker who causes problems up front,'' Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. ''He rushes the passer and if you have a disruptive passer who can bump inside and rush like Greg does, that is really helpful.''

Hardy is one of eight starters set to hit the free agent market.

Other key players with expiring contracts include longtime left tackle Jordan Gross, wide receiver Brandon LaFell, safety Mike Mitchell, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and kicker Graham Gano.

Carolina also must decide if now is the right time to extend quarterback Cam Newton's contract. Newton is technically under contract through 2015 providing the team picks up his fifth year option on his rookie deal, but they're now allowed to extend his contract.

Carolina's could use some help blocking up front for Newton and more weapons in the passing game after finishing 29th in the league in that category.

Adding help in the secondary is also an area they'll need to address.

So while the loss to the 49ers still lingered in the air Monday inside a somber locker room, there was overriding sense of optimism that better things are just around the corner.

Gross, who has been with the Panthers since there only Super Bowl season in 2003, believes the core of the team is firmly in place - built around a franchise quarterback in Newton and a strong, young defense led by Kuechly. Carolina's defense finished second in the league this season in points allowed and yards allowed.

''This team is definitely set up for long-term success,'' Gross said. ''I think that this is just the beginning, I really do. It's great to know that the team is in a healthy position now. ... This team has as good of a chance as anybody of being successful for a long time.''

As he cleaned out his locker, Kuechly said he hates to see the season end because the team had developed such good cohesiveness.

The Panthers were 3 1-2 games behind the Saints in the NFC South five games into the season before storming back to win eight straight games and 11 of their last 12 to take home the division title.

''We accomplished a lot and did some things we wanted to do this year,'' Kuechly said. ''We got the division, we made the playoffs. Now we just have to build to next season.

''I think we're trending up. We have a good mix of guys feeding off each other. We have a good set of building blocks.''

---

Online: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Fantasy Football Player Notes RSS FeedPLAYER NOTES

Ahmad DixonDec 21 11:52a

The Minnesota Vikings have declared SS Ahmad Dixon, LB Anthony Barr, OT Carter Bykowski, OG Charlie Johnson, TE Kyle Rudolph, CB Shaun Prater, FB Zach Line inactive for Week 16.

Devier PoseyDec 21 11:52a

The Houston Texans have declared WR DeVier Posey, TE Garrett Graham, LB Jason Ankrah, S Josh Aubrey, LB Mike Mohamed, QB Tom Savage, OG Xavier Su'a-Filo inactive for Week 16.

A.J. KleinDec 21 11:52a

The Carolina Panthers have declared LB A.J. Klein, OG Amini Silatolu, CB Carrington Byndom, OT David Foucault, RB DeAngelo Williams, DL Kyle Love, SS Robert Lester inactive for Week 16.

Charles GodfreyDec 21 11:52a

The Atlanta Falcons have declared CB Charles Godfrey, LB James Anderson, OG Jon Asamoah, CB Ricardo Allen, QB Sean Renfree, DL Stansly Maponga, LB Tyler Starr inactive for Week 16.

Jamarca SanfordDec 21 11:52a

The New Orleans Saints have declared SS Jamarca Sanford, DL Lawrence Virgil, LB Moise Fokou, WR Seantavius Jones, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, OT Terron Armstead, RB Travaris Cadet inactive for Week 16.

Justin BrownDec 21 11:52a

The Pittsburgh Steelers have declared OG Chris Hubbard, DL Clifton Geathers, CB Ike Taylor, WR Justin Brown, QB Landry Jones, TE Matt Spaeth, SS Troy Polamalu inactive for Week 16.

Clifton GeathersDec 21 11:52a

The Pittsburgh Steelers have declared OG Chris Hubbard, DL Clifton Geathers, CB Ike Taylor, WR Justin Brown, QB Landry Jones, TE Matt Spaeth, SS Troy Polamalu inactive for Week 16.

Carl BradfordDec 21 11:42a

The Green Bay Packers have declared DL Bruce Gaston, LB Carl Bradford, CB Davon House, C Garth Gerhart, WR Jeff Janis, TE Justin Perillo, QB Scott Tolzien inactive for Week 16.

Chris McCainDec 21 11:42a

The Miami Dolphins have declared LB Chris McCain, OT Dallas Thomas, RB Daniel Thomas, CB Don Jones, WR Matt Hazel, OG Nate Garner, WR Rishard Matthews inactive for Week 16.

Arthur BrownDec 21 11:42a

The Baltimore Ravens have declared LB Arthur Brown, DL Casey Walker, CB Chris Greenwood, C Gino Gradkowski, WR Michael Campanaro, OG Ryan Jensen, DL Terrence Cody inactive for Week 16.

Aaron MurrayDec 21 11:42a

The Kansas City Chiefs have declared QB Aaron Murray, RB Charcandrick West, WR Donnie Avery, C Eric Kush, OT Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, CB Marcus Cooper, DL Nick X. Williams inactive for Week 16.

Gary BarnidgeDec 21 11:42a

The Cleveland Browns have declared OT Andrew McDonald, TE Gary Barnidge, RB Glenn Winston, CB Joe Haden, DB K'Waun Williams, WR Rodney Smith, OT Vinston Painter inactive for Week 16.

Chris ConteDec 21 11:42a

The Chicago Bears have declared FS Chris Conte, QB David Fales, OG Kyle Long, PK Robbie Gould, CB Terrance Mitchell, DL Trevor Scott, DL Will Sutton inactive for Week 16.

Dakota DozierDec 21 11:33a

The New York Jets have declared OL Dakota Dozier, SS Jaiquawn Jarrett, QB Matt Simms, FS Rontez Miles, DL T.J. Barnes, WR Walter Powell, OG Wesley Johnson inactive for Week 16.

Alfonzo DennardDec 21 11:33a

The New England Patriots have declared CB Alfonzo Dennard, OG Dan Connolly, RB James White, OT Jordan Devey, WR Julian Edelman, CB Kyle Arrington, RB LeGarrette Blount inactive for Week 16.

Anthony CollinsDec 21 11:32a

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have declared OT Anthony Collins, FB Evan Rodriguez, CB Isaiah Frey, DL Lawrence Sidbury, RB Mike James, WR Robert Herron, WR Solomon Patton inactive for Week 16.

Kelvin BenjaminDec 21 11:22a

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Julio JonesDec 21 11:22a

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Jay CutlerDec 21 10:22a

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Philip RiversDec 20 07:22p

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Ryan MathewsDec 20 07:22p

San Diego Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) is inactive Saturday, Dec. 20, for Week 16.

Ryan MathewsDec 20 07:12p

The San Diego Chargers have declared LB Cordarro Law, DL Damion Square, CB Greg Ducre, WR Keenan Allen, P Mike Scifres, DL Ryan Carrethers, RB Ryan Mathews inactive for Week 16.

Carlos HydeDec 20 07:12p

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DeAndre HopkinsDec 20 06:42p

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