CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Next up for the Carolina Panthers: free agency and the NFL draft.
The Panthers (8-9-1) will draft 25th after seeing their season end with a 31-17 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.
Carolina has 11 players set to become unrestricted free agents on March 10. They are: QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, LT Byron Bell, OL Fernando Velasco, OL Garry Williams, OL Kevin Matthews, DE Greg Hardy, DT Colin Cole, DT Dwan Edwards, LB Chase Blackburn, CB James Dockery.
The biggest decision, assuming the Panthers don’t plan to pursue Hardy after the completion of his domestic violence trial that sources told ESPN.com has been scheduled for Feb. 9, is whether to re-sign Bell.
Bell said after the game he wanted to return and he believes he deserves a second chance. He also understands that’s in the hands of management.
The game also was a microcosm of Bell’s up-and-down season. The botched first-quarter handoff between quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart that resulted in a fumble and ultimately Seattle’s first touchdown came because of heavy pressure from Bell’s side.
Newton was sacked for an 8-yard loss to start a drive with about 10 minutes left to play when Bruce Irvin beat Bell.
Odds are a top-notch left tackle won’t be found in the draft at No. 25. Those usually go in the top 10.
That means the Panthers can opt to seek a left tackle in free agency or re-sign Bell, or gamble on a rookie.
Other needs Carolina might address with the No. 25 pick:
A speed receiver: 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin had over 1,000 yards receiving this season. He had two touchdown catches against Seattle’s tough secondary, and almost had a third. But he doesn’t have elite speed. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown has the speed, but he’s not an elite receiver. Finding an explosive player to blow the top off of coverage should be a priority.
A return specialist: If Carolina can get a dynamic receiver who also could return kicks, that would be a bonus. Brenton Bersin isn’t that guy. The team’s inability to get anything on punt returns consistently left the Panthers in a hole at times this season. That was glaring on Saturday night.
A cover corner: Bene’ Benwikere had a solid rookie season, even though he got beat for a deep touchdown against Seattle. But he may be even a better nickelback, so a tall corner who can complement Josh Norman on the other side would be a nice fit.
Defensive linemen: As general manager Dave Gettleman said, you never can have too many “Hog Mollies.’’ Defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards are nearing the back end of their careers, but each may have a few good seasons left. Each also is a free agent. Both want to return as well, but even so the Panthers need to prepare for the future.