Futures of Gross, Hardy remains a mystery

The future of the Carolina Panthers' two most high-profile free agents remains a mystery, according to what general manager Dave Gettleman told reporters at the NFL combine on Thursday.

Gettleman said left tackle Jordan Gross continues to think about whether he wants to return for a 12th season or retire.

He said defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks with 15, remains a part of the puzzle for the cap-strapped Panthers.

In other words, little has changed since Gettleman addressed the media two days after Carolina completed the season with a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC playoffs.

"I've had two conversations with Jordan . . . lengthy," Gettleman said. "A week ago Tuesday was the last time we spoke. Jordan is taking his family and going to Idaho and will be back late this week or early next week. And we'll sit and talk."

Asked if he sensed that Gross still wants to play, Gettleman said: "He's mulling over in his mind. It's a huge decision. Any of us, and of you, when it comes time for you to lay it down, it's a big decision. And I think he's mulling it over."

Asked if he wanted Gross to return as the left tackle or possibly move to right tackle, Gettleman said: "You know we're cap challenged. Obviously, he had a solid year. He's been a great Panther. And we'll talk to him and move forward."

Gettleman was just as vague on where things stand with Hardy, who has said his first choice would be to return to Carolina.

"Right now, we're talking to agents," Gettleman said. "He's part of the puzzle. We're cap challenged. Last year, we were quite a bit over. We had do some maneuvering to just get under for the first day of the league year. The progress we made this year is we don't have to do any of that. But that doesn't mean we're sitting here with $35 million.

"If you always go for the immediate instant gratification, you're going to get burned. So what we have to do is be very thoughtful in planning our cap, playing our strategy, planning our budget. What you're looking for is sustained success. You don't want to jump up and have a great year then the next two years, you're floundering around."

Gettleman added that just because there were reports the salary cap would be $130 million instead of the expected $126 million to $128 million doesn't mean the Panthers will spend to the cap.

"There are only two teams in this league right now that have had winning seasons four years in a row: New England and Green Bay," he said. "That's what our goal is. Our organizational goal is to have sustained success. We have to be thoughtful about what we do with every player, with every dollar."

I still believe the Panthers will find a way to get Gross back and draft a tackle to groom as his replacement, maybe even start on the left side and allow Gross to move to the right side for a lower salary.

I'm not so convinced the Panthers will be able to sign Hardy to a long-term deal or are willing to commit about $12 million to franchise him.

Stay tuned.