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Panthers’ offseason priorities should be Hardy, Ginn, Gross

So what’s next for the Carolina Panthers?

There are all sorts of decisions to be made, but Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and his staff showed a fine knack for navigating the salary cap in 2013 and will have a good chance to do so again.

They have to try hard to retain defensive end Greg Hardy, although he will be very expensive. I would keep Ted Ginn Jr. if at all possible – the fact that Cam Newton said the 49ers were paying more “attention” to Ginn than any other Carolina receiver Sunday shows how important he is. Same with Mike Mitchell – he needs to stay.

And someone needs to talk Jordan Gross into playing another year at offensive tackle. The team needs an upgrade at offensive line for sure – I’d prefer the Panthers pick an offensive lineman or wide receiver with their No. 1 draft pick – but Gross is still too valuable to lose and could play any role necessary.

•  As for wide receiver Brandon LaFell, I think he is very unsure what his future holds. He said Sunday he wants to return, but also said a few things that sounded like goodbyes just in case.

“I hope to be back,” LaFell said. “But if I don’t, I’m going to miss a lot of these guys who came in with me like Greg Hardy. ... My big brother (Steve Smith), I’m going to miss that guy if I don’t come back.”

•  No sacks for the Panthers’ defensive line this time around, and only one for the team. Colin Kaepernick was much more decisive with the ball after taking six sacks the first time the two teams played. Hardy and Charles Johnson were too often neutralized.

•  Mitchell probably bought himself another fine with his postgame comments about the officials. He complained about three separate calls that went against the Panthers in some detail, and later said of the 49ers: “I can’t wait to play them with a new set of refs in a new game.”

•  I thought the Panthers’ wide receivers actually had a good day in terms of dropped passes – they made just about every tough catch that was available. Both of Cam Newton’s interceptions were really Newton’s fault on poor throws.

But the fact remains the offense just needs more firepower. Ten points is hardly ever going to win you a playoff game. We saw these offensive struggles off and on all season, and that’s the side of the ball that must be improved substantially in 2014.

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