Carolina has key choices in offseason

The Panthers were aware of the odds against them becoming NFC champs this season. They are also acutely aware the odds of repeating might be stacked even more.

Because of the salary cap, teams can't stay together for long strings of Super Bowls. Evidence? Four of the past five Super Bowl losers didn't even make the playoffs the next season.

The Panthers have all the looks of a team modeled like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be a contender for several years, mainly because of their coach (John Fox) and their defense. On the flip side, they also show the classic signs of a team that could struggle to make it back to the playoffs.

Free agency, which begins on March 3, is one problem. The Panthers have 17 unrestricted free agent, second most only to the New England Patriots. General manager Marty Hurney has done as good a job managing the 2004 salary cap as he did in putting together a team that went from 1-15 to the Super Bowl.

But the price of going to the Super Bowl could inflate the value of the 17 free agents.

The biggest turnovers could come in the secondary and along the offensive line. Though the Panthers are solid on the outside with tackles Todd Steussie and Jordan Gross, their three starters in the middle of the line -- guards Jeno James and Kevin Donnalley and center Jeff Mitchell -- are unrestricted free agents.

More than likely, two of those starters might be gone. The Panthers drafted Gross in the first round and center/guard Bruce Nelson in the second last year. Mitchell turned 30 last week. Hurney and coach John Fox have to decide whether they want to put their money into James, a road-grading type of guard at 310 pounds who is 26, or Mitchell.

Hurney left the franchise roughly $12 million of cap room and that's after paying out about $3 million of incentives, mostly to Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme.

Though the secondary turned from a weakness to a strength late in the season, the Panthers have to decide how to distribute the money to keep it. Cornerback Reggie Howard and safety Deon Grant are unrestricted free agents.

Grant came on strong late in the season after learning to be more physical. He's also had the range to be a good free safety. Now, he's become a hitter with range. But at what price for the Panthers?

Howard was a 2003 restricted free agent on whom the team placed a first-round tender at $1.318 million tender to keep him around. Ricky Manning Jr., Terry Cousin and Dante Wesley are still under contract, which might affect the team's luxury of keeping Howard at a significantly higher price.

"We've talked, but basically they told me we will handle of that at the end of the season," Howard said last week. "Right now, they don't want that to distract me."

Decisions also will have to be made at linebacker. The Panthers hope that Mark Fields, their best play-making outside linebacker, will come back after missing the 2003 season because of Hodgkin's disease. It would help if he could come back because linebackers Greg Favors and Lester Towns are free agents and could leave.

Defensive end Al Wallace is also a free agent -- and he's a sleeper who could draw a lot of interest from other teams because of how well he played as the top backup on the Panthers talented defensive line.

Offensively, the team is good shape, but a lot of money must be spent on offense to reward the Super Bowl run. Quarterback Jake Delhomme probably will be rewarded with a contract extension late next summer. He signed a two-year, $4 million deal when he came to Carolina and took the team to the Super Bowl and made big play after big play in the game.

The toughest negotiation, though, will involve wide receiver Steve Smith. Though Smith is a restricted free agent and the Panthers have the right to match any offer, Smith will want big money. He is coming off an 88-catch season and is the team's best receiving play-maker.

Early in the season, he created a distraction by complaining about slow progress in extension talks. The Panthers might have to place the first- and third-round tender on him, which would eat up close to $2 million of cap room. But the bigger issue is what to pay him -- is he a $3-million, $4-million or $5-million receiver? That could lead to a long negotiation and a possible holdout.

At the receiver position, the Panthers will have to see if valuable third receiver Ricky Proehl wants to continue playing. He turns 36 in March. They signed Kevin Dyson to a one-year contract to be a potential starter, but injuries sidelined him most of the year. He's a free agent.

Tight ends Kris Mangum and Jermaine Wiggins are also free agents. Mangum is 30. Wiggins is 29. And the Panthers use a lot of two-tight end sets.

Backup offensive linemen Melvin Tuten and Matt Willig are also free agents, but they might only be brought back for the minimum.

Another question mark is backup quarterback. Rodney Peete began the season as the starter and has indicated he wants to return. Do the Panthers keep Peete, who is still under contract, as the backup or do they let Chris Weinke take over the job?

"I'd like to play next year," Peete said last week. "I'm not ready to hang it up. I feel like I can still play and enjoy playing. So, as long as I still feel that way, I'm going to continue to play as well."

Special teams could be another problem for Hurney and Fox. Kicker John Kasay and deep snapper Jason Kyle are at the end of their deals. The team has to decide if it wants to go young at those two spots. Kasay is 34. Kyle is 31.

They also have to make sure special teams coach Scott O'Brien wants to return. He said he might retire had the Panthers won the Super Bowl even though he is only 46. He has a 55-acre spread in Iron River, Wisc., where he plans to raise horses.

Keeping a Super Bowl team -- win or loss -- together isn't easy. Getting back to the playoffs the next year is even tougher. For one, the teams are five weeks behind in planning for next season. In two weeks, the personnel department and the coaching staff has to go to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine.

And the fact that the Panthers are a Super Bowl team makes them a strong candidate to go overseas for an exhibition game, which would open training camp a week earlier than every one else.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.