Changes are coming for Panthers

The Carolina Panthers won 15 of 16 regular-season games to run away with the NFC South before trouncing the Seahawks and Cardinals to make it to Super Bowl 50.

Now comes the hard part: keeping the players they want. It's an inevitable byproduct of success but it's a process that Panthers GM Dave Gettleman admitted gives him a headache. It's a good problem but still a problem, and their losses could end up being the Falcons' gains.

Teams that make the Super Bowl tend to have lots of good players. Some of those players tend to be free agents. Other teams tend to want to sign those good free agents from Super Bowl teams and/or wait to pounce on the the veterans who are cut loose because of salary-cap demands.

And so it goes with the Panthers. There are some key contributors among the 16 players who can become free agents next month. The Panthers also have some big-money vets who likely won’t be back unless they take big pay cuts. They also have some young players they'd like to sign to extensions.

One of their best players, cornerback Josh Norman, is eligible to become a free agent. After Norman rejected an extension offer before the season the Panthers must decide if they want to give him a richer deal now or place the franchise tag on him. The latter option means tying up cap space that will make it harder to keep some other key pieces.

And the Panthers are going to need new pieces because they are an old team. They cobbled together an effective pass rush without an elite end and now Charles Johnson is turning 30 with a cap figure of $15 million and 33-year old Jared Allen is washed up. Their middling wide receiver corps included 33-year old Jerricho Cotchery as the No. 2, though the return of Kelvin Benjamin from injury will help. The secondary has a lot of old guys, too.

A power running game offset Carolina’s mediocre receiving corps but two important pieces of that formula may be on the way out. Jonathan Stewart is set to count nearly $10 million against the salary-cap in 2016. Fullback Mike Tolbert is set to become a free agent.

The Panthers have to make calls on those players now while also trying to decide which players to lock up for the future. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawaan Short (26-years old) is eligible for free agency after next season. So is Star Lotulelei, who regressed this season in part because of a foot injury but still is a good piece. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil can be a free agent after next season, too--he’s 30-years old but ask the Falcons about the potential perils of letting go of an older-but-effective center.

The Panthers are going to come back to the NFC South pack in 2016. They’ll probably be favored to win the division for the fourth consecutive year because, after all, they’ve won 20 of their past 23 games and still have the best quarterback in the division.

Early 2016 predictions already are high on the Panthers but that's before they make some inevitable changes. That's what happens to teams that make the Super Bowl.