CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jerricho Cotchery looked around the Carolina Panthers’ locker room late last week and wondered if these will be his last, parting moments with the team leading up to the Super Bowl.
The veteran wide receiver will be 34 in June. The two-year contract he signed before the 2014 season will expire after Sunday’s title game against the Denver Broncos.
There are no guarantees the Panthers will bring Cotchery back. He simply could ride off into the sunset, as many speculate Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will do.
“I’m probably not thinking about it like he is thinking about it," Cotchery said of Manning. “What, he's 39? I just try to focus on enjoying every moment I have with this group and see what happens after that."
The Panthers have been a special team this season. They won their first 14 games and finished the regular season with an NFL-best 15-1 record.
They stormed through the NFC playoffs against Seattle and Arizona. Now they have a chance to win the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy.
But in all likelihood, several of the key contributors won’t be back because of age, retirement or free agency. Here’s a look at eight who could be playing their final game for the Panthers in Super Bowl 50:
CB Josh Norman, 28 -- He’ll likely be the most hotly pursued player in free agency. The Panthers would love to have him back, but he’s likely to demand between $12 million and $14 million a year. The Panthers remain tight under the salary cap, so re-signing Norman might be difficult. This could be Norman’s last chance at a big contract and he has to take it.
FB Mike Tolbert, 30 -- The Panthers are one of the few teams in the league to use the fullback position. Tolbert will become a free agent after the season, and there were indications before the season that Carolina wouldn’t bring him back in 2016. If the Panthers do bring him back, it’ll be for far less than the $3.45 million Tolbert counted under the salary cap this year.
WR Jerricho Cotchery, 33 -- Cotchery’s veteran presence has been key in the development of Carolina’s young receiving corps. But with Kelvin Benjamin returning from a season-ending knee injury in training camp, along with 2015 first-round draft pick Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown and even Stephen Hill, there might not be enough room to bring Cotchery back.
SS Roman Harper, 33 -- Harper said when he signed before the 2014 season that he wanted to play through his two-year deal. He has since hinted he might like to play another year after this one. But if the Panthers beat the Broncos, Harper may be tempted to make this his swan song.
DE Jared Allen, 33 -- The NFL’s active sack leader has another year left on his contract, but he would be an $8.5 million cap hit if the Panthers kept him. At his age, and with offseason surgery required to fix the broken foot he will play with in the Super Bowl, Carolina likely will move on with younger players.
DT Dwan Edwards, 34 -- He has another year left on his deal, as well. If he’s feeling good, he says he’ll come back. He has also thought about stepping away if he gets a Super Bowl ring. He has thought about that for the past several seasons, but he keeps coming back.
DT Kyle Love, 29 -- It might make sense to keep Love, particularly if Edwards walks away. He probably could be re-signed at a relatively low cap number and he has been a valuable part of the four-man rotation. The Panthers need a low-priced player with experience behind Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.
CB Charles Tillman, 34 -- The Panthers signed him to a one-year deal before the season to give the secondary much-needed experience. He’ll miss the Super Bowl with a knee injury, so the rehab of that will factor into whether he or the team wants to do another deal.
Whatever happens with any of these players, they all feel like Cotchery.
“It’s just a wonderful group," Cotchery said. “Everything I was taught when I first laced up the cleats -- that it’s about the team, enjoy your teammates, have fun doing this -- this group embodies that.
“That’s been very rewarding."