Gross' leadership will be tough to replace

Jordan Gross is listed at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, so to say the Carolina Panthers have a big hole at left tackle now that he's retiring is an understatement.

But the bigger hole will be in the locker room.

Gross' heart is his biggest asset.

Beyond what the eighth pick of the 2003 NFL draft brought to the team in terms of protecting the quarterback and run blocking, Gross has been a stabilizing factor off the field.

If there was a potentially disruptive issue brewing, he usually was the first to nip it in the bud. If the team needed an inspirational speech, he was the one you could count on to give it.

Many credited his Highlanders speech when Carolina was 1-3 as the catalyst for this past season's 12-4 record.

Gross' contributions off the field were why I rated him the top priority among Carolina's 21 unrestricted free agents, including defensive end Greg Hardy.

Gross epitomizes class.

His retirement, which will be made official on Wednesday, means Carolina's focus with the 28th pick of the draft has to lean heavily toward a tackle -- unless one can be found in free agency.

In all likelihood, the team will try to find one both ways.

There's really nobody on the roster capable of replacing Gross, who has been with the Panthers since they selected him 11 years ago.

"It's that old adage: There are guys that play professional football and then there's professional football players," Carolina center Ryan Kalil told me this past season. "As long as I've known Jordan, he's always been the epitome of a true professional."

Kalil understands and appreciates Gross' value to the team as a leader as well as anyone.

"He's easy to talk to," he said. "Jordan is one of those guys who has a relationship with almost everybody on the team. It's important for him to know his teammates. He doesn't just stay in his little bubble.

"Because of that, he has a good pulse on what the personality of the team is like. That's important, because when you have a guy who is a true leader, who understands everybody and then gets up to speak or make a point about something, he's somebody you care to hear what he has to say."

Gross, 33, came to Carolina from the University of Utah two years after the Panthers drafted college teammate Steve Smith. Gross' retirement leaves the team's all-time leading receiver without what some consider his stabilizing force.

Quarterback Cam Newton told me that Gross was the person behind the scenes "controlling that inner animal" in Smith.

"It will never probably come out the way people will want to say it, and maybe I'm giving Jordan too much credit, but he doesn't get a lot of credit at all," Newton said.

Smith may have a different opinion on how Gross impacts his "inner animal." Smith made a point to bring up Newton's comment after the team saw its eight-game winning streak end at New Orleans.

But there's no denying Smith will miss Gross -- if the receiver is still playing. That came into question last week when general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera were unusually vague on their receiver's future.

"For me, it'll be a sad day when I look in the huddle and he's not that left tackle," Smith said in December. And Smith tweeted on Tuesday:

That day came earlier than many expected -- or wanted. Gross told me last month, after finishing his career with his third Pro Bowl appearance, that Rivera wanted him back.

Gettleman said last week it was Gross' decision.

Gross, whose 167 career starts is a franchise record, ultimately decided it was time to step aside. As he said earlier in the year when his future came into question, he's done everything a player could want except win the Super Bowl.

And he came close to that, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII on a last-second field goal that gave New England a 32-29 victory at the end of his rookie season.

"I didn't want to leave until I felt the team was back in a good position for sustained success," Gross told the team's official website, Panthers.com. "The team is there now. There is good, young leadership, there are talented players, and there are guys that really want to work hard and want to win."

I assumed Gross would return because he felt the Panthers needed him for at least one more year. His comment suggests the team is in better shape on the line than many assumed.

Gross will explain in more detail his decision during Wednesday's news conference at Bank of America Stadium. The good news is this doesn't appear to be one of those situations where he was forced to retire.

He's going out on his terms, and that's a good thing.

There's still a big hole to fill.

And an even bigger heart to replace.