Julius Peppers' return, Cam Newton's shoulder among Panthers' uncertainties

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers never came into the locker room on Monday while media were allowed to watch players clean out their lockers. The 38-year-old defensive end spent most of his time in the hall talking to teammates, flashing his big, familiar smile and avoiding reporters -- same as he did on Sunday.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said 24 hours earlier that Sunday's 33-14 victory at New Orleans to end a seven-game losing streak was "the best way to send" center Ryan Kalil and Peppers "off on their way," but he forgot one thing.

Peppers never announced he was retiring as Kalil had. And he still hasn't. According to a league source, the future Hall of Famer will take a couple of weeks to decide if he wants to return to pass Kevin Greene for third place on the NFL's all-time sack list. Peppers' decision is 50-50, the source said.

"He hasn't really left us with a final message. It's kind of weird, because I feel like he's going to come back," defensive tackle Kyle Love said of Peppers, a player he said has plenty left in his tank for one more season. "He's been smiling, kind of giving little hints."

Peppers' future is one of the many uncertainties the Panthers face after a disappointing 7-9 season following a 6-2 start.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis, 35, is among 19 players set to become unrestricted free agents. He wants to return for one more season with the team that selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft. He wants to go out on his own terms as Kalil did, whether that's at Carolina or somewhere else.

General manager Marty Hurney admittedly made some mistakes in his first go-round with the Panthers by letting the "emotional side of my brain" take over, holding on to players he drafted perhaps longer than he should. And Davis would be an emotional decision since he has been the Panthers' heart and soul for many years.

"I understand that there's a whole business side of things that has to take place," Davis said. "My whole mindset and everything I want to do is totally surrounded in coming back and playing here. Hopefully, they share that same sentiment."

Hurney already has reached out to safety Eric Reid about a potential new deal, so the Panthers obviously want him back. That's not the case for wide receiver Devin Funchess, who was inactive in the finale, a decision Rivera called his "moving forward" because he wanted to see what Mose Frazier could do.

A decision also has to be made on left tackle Matt Kalil, who spent the season on injured reserve. Cutting him would leave $14.7 million in dead money on the table. It also would clear $8 million in salary-cap space for a team that now has $3 million in cap space if done with a post-June 1 designation.

Then there's the ailing right shoulder of quarterback Cam Newton, arguably the biggest offseason uncertainty. The medical staff has been devising a rehabilitation plan for the 2015 NFL MVP, who was shut down for the final two games.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said there's a "sense of urgency" in resolving the shoulder issue and making sure the Panthers have a capable backup quarterback in place.

Undrafted rookie Kyle Allen proved on Sunday that he deserves a shot, completing 18 of 27 pass attempts for 228 yards and two touchdowns in his first NFL start. But one game against a New Orleans team with nothing to gain, even though the Saints played most of their first-team defense in the first half, isn't enough of a litmus test.

Rivera agreed on Monday that there is a sense of urgency around Newton's situation. He didn't rule out surgery, although rest appears to be the first option.

"They're going to talk to Cam eventually, and Cam will have to make decisions going forward," Rivera said. "Whatever is going to be decided, I'd like to see him do it right way. I would tend to agree with [Turner], the sooner the better."

Newton, like Peppers, didn't talk to reporters on Monday despite numerous attempts as he passed through the locker room. This could be a crossroads for him and the offense if his shoulder issue isn't resolved.

"He's a huge part of our offense, obviously," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "He's the one that makes it go. When he's healthy, we're very tough to stop. You saw that in a few games early on. Even when the shoulder was hurting, look at some of the numbers we were putting up -- we do have a lot of potential.

"I hate talking about potential because it hasn't happened yet."

One question has been answered: Rivera, multiple sources told ESPN.com on Friday, will return for a ninth season even though owner David Tepper hasn't issued a formal statement. Tepper might not feel the need to since Rivera has two years left on his contract.

While Rivera is safe, not all of his staff is. A decision has to be made on whether Rivera will continue to call defensive plays as he did the final three games or return that duty to defensive coordinator Eric Washington.

Or, Rivera could bring back Steve Wilks, who was fired one year into being the head coach at Arizona, and return Washington to a full-time defensive line coach position. Wilks was the defensive coordinator at Carolina in 2017 and had a top-10 unit.

"I don't want to speculate on any of that stuff," Rivera said.

Rivera also didn't want to speculate on the future of Peppers despite his comments on Sunday.

"Julius and I will talk and we'll go from there. ... I have no idea what the anticipation is," Rivera said. "I'll wait until I get an opportunity to visit with him."

Many of Peppers' teammates said the motivation to return would be to catch Greene for third place on the all-time sack list and to get one last chance to win the Super Bowl with the team that made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2002.

Peppers continued to play late into the fourth quarter on Sunday while most of the starters rested, needing one sack to reach 161.5 and pass

Greene (160). He missed that sack by 1 yard in the third quarter when Teddy Bridgewater just got past the line of scrimmage on a scramble.

"No one really knows what Peppers is going to do," Davis said. "People have to realize, Pep didn't have really a complete offseason. He was coming off shoulder surgery. He couldn't really work out and do the things he needed to physically.

"If he's able to go and really work the way he needs to in the offseason, man, he can come back and do whatever he wants to do. I don't know really what would keep him from coming back. But I know what would motivate him to come back. That's that sack he missed by inches."