Mitchell, Ginn next priority for Carolina

The free-agent pieces began falling into place for the Carolina Panthers last week with the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and the franchising of defensive end Greg Hardy.

So what's next with eight days before players hit the open market?

Management is talking with representatives for free safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., so that appears to be the direction the team is heading. Both make sense.

Mitchell gave the league's No. 2 defense an invaluable attitude with his aggressive style. He led all safeties in yards allowed per reception (8.1) and tied for third in interceptions with four.

If the Panthers can't come up with the money to re-sign him, there are many teams interested. Look for a deal to get done before free agency begins March 11.

The question is whether Mitchell will remain at free safety or return to strong safety with Charles Godfrey expected back after a season-ending Achilles injury. Mitchell moved to free safety after Godfrey was injured in the second game, and the defense only got better from there.

The other part of that question is whether the Panthers will keep Godfrey. He has a big salary cap number ($7.1 million), but the team could clear $5.1 million in cap space if it cuts him after June 1.

That could be an option if the deal can't be renegotiated for a lower number.

Of Carolina's three free-agent receivers -- Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon -- Ginn makes the most sense because he is the team's leading kick returner and a deep threat for quarterback Cam Newton.

It's hard to imagine LaFell, who has been average at best as the team's No. 2 receiver, coming back unless it's at a bargain price. Look for him to hit the open market.

The Panthers also seem content with letting starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn test the market to determine his value. They did this last season and got him for a bargain.

Look for Carolina to turn its focus to free-agent upgrades from other teams once it signs Mitchell and Ginn. The picture on Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, should become clearer this week as well.

General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera have said Smith's role is under evaluation. Look for them to meet with him, his management or both in the next few days to see where things go.

Should the Panthers look into the market for an upgrade at receiver, an intriguing prospect became available Friday when Seattle released Sidney Rice to clear salary-cap room.

Rice played high school football in Gaffney, S.C., about an hour from Charlotte, and was a star at the University of South Carolina 90 minutes away.

His numbers haven't lived up to his contract in recent years, but injuries have played a role. His 2011 season was cut short by a concussion, and an ACL injury kept him from finishing last season.

He is still young at 27 and at 6-foot-4 would give quarterback Cam Newton a tall target.

But Carolina's first priority will be re-signing Mitchell and Ginn.