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Q&A: Key Carolina Panthers offseason questions, answered

Answers to the key questions about where the Carolina Panthers stand this offseason:

Q. How much money do the Panthers have to improve their roster?

A. Not much. The Panthers are about $5 million under the $133 million salary cap, and that doesn’t include the recent re-signings of offensive lineman Garry Williams and tight end Richie Brockel. Last year the Panthers needed nearly $4 million to sign their five-player draft class.

Q. So how do they create more cap space?

A. There are two moves that would each clear $5 million against the cap – restructuring defensive end Charles Johnson’s contract and cutting safety Charles Godfrey. But with Mike Mitchell signing with Pittsburgh, the Panthers might need Godfrey in the secondary. Restructuring his deal is another possibility.

Q. Who are going to be the Panthers receivers?

A. Steve Smith’s long career with the Panthers is over. No. 2 wideout Brandon LaFell visited the Patriots on Wednesday, and Ted Ginn Jr. was in Tampa Bay visiting the Bucs. Ginn remains a priority, but the Panthers might not be able to afford him.

Q. Will the Panthers sign a free agent as a receiver, and whom might they add?

A. Given Dave Gettleman’s resume, the signs point to Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. The former Independence High and UNC standout mentioned the Panthers among three teams he’d like to play for. And while he’s backed off initial talk that he might be willing to take a one-year deal, he could still be a value signing after two sub-par seasons in New York.

Q. Will they draft a receiver, and who’s available?

A. This is a deep draft for receivers, and there could still be an impact wideout available when the Panthers pick 28th. Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks has been compared to Smith (by Mel Kiper) and only improved his stock at the combine. Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, a big but unpolished prospect, has shown up as the Panthers’ pick in a lot of mock drafts.

Q. Are there any receivers on the roster who might help the Panthers in 2014?

A. Gettleman clearly likes the two young wideouts he picked up last year – Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt, who took up roster spots all season despite being inactive on Sundays. McNutt, who almost caught a touchdown in Week 17 at Atlanta when Smith was hurt, is a big target (6-2, 215) who could be a sleeper.

Q. What about other major needs, and how will they fill those needs?

A. They need someone to protect their franchise quarterback’s blind side. The Panthers made a second-round tender this week to restricted free agent Byron Bell, the right tackle who will get a shot to replace Jordan Gross on the left side. Gettleman will try to improve offensive line depth via free agency, but probably won’t find Gross’ long-term successor picking so late in the draft. Losing Mitchell to the Steelers was a blow to a secondary that must be patched together for a second consecutive season.

Q. Is Smith not returning a significant setback in the Panthers hopes to sign Cam Newton long-term?

A. Not at all. In fact, Gettleman is moving on from Smith to give Newton a bigger voice in the locker room and to start surrounding him with younger playmakers.

Q. Are there other likely major moves they’ll make?

A. Gettleman wasn’t throwing up a smokescreen when he said this year’s free agency would look like last year’s (read: short, team-friendly deals to undervalued players). The money’s just not there. Signing Nicks or former Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice would constitute a major signing given the cap situation.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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