Panthers must deal with Rivera, cap issues

Hiring a general manager and making a decision on whether to keep head coach Ron Rivera are the two most pressing issues facing the Carolina Panthers, as the franchise shifts into offseason mode.

But it can’t go too far until the vacant GM position is filled and a decision gets made with Rivera. Once owner Jerry Richardson settles on who will run his team on and off the field, the organization must move quickly toward the 2013 season.

The next GM will face several immediate questions, the first regarding Rivera’s future. It’s possible Richardson may select a GM who shares his view of the second-year coach. The general belief: If interim GM Brandon Beane gets the job, Rivera is safe for another year.

Rivera wants to return for a third season. In fairness, he had just one offseason to work with his team, as he was hired before the lockout-ridden 2011 offseason. His 13-19 overall record isn’t impressive, but he arguably deseves another season with the club — based on the state of the Carolina roster after its 2-14 season in 2010 (John Fox’s final year with the Panthers) and that his 2011 and ’12 teams combined for a 9-3 mark in their final six games, respectively.

“As I’ve said, I’d like to have the opportunity to have the job,” Rivera said Monday at his final weekly press conference of the season. “And that’s pretty much it.”

More aspects in Rivera’s favor: The Panthers went 6-4 after general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October. Richardson said he wanted to see progress; well, that mark represents progress. And then there’s the continued development of the Panthers’ stars — Cam Newton (7,920 career passing yards, 62 total touchdowns) and rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly (NFL leader in tackles last year — 164).

Once Rivera’s status gets cleared up, the next order of business will be dealing with an overflowing salary cap. Carolina will be $16 million over the cap if it doesn’t make any moves, so the team must cut some salaries, likely jettisoning some veterans who have become synonymous with the franchise.

One cap casualty may be running back DeAngelo Williams, who signed a five-year, $43 million contract prior to the 2011 campaign and is slated to earn around $6 million next season. But since the team already has Jonathan Stewart (six-year, $37 million extension last summer) in the backfield, it stands to reason that Williams (four years older than Stewart) could be the odd man out. The Panthers simply can’t afford to spend that much cash on their backfield, which includes Mike Tolbert, who inked a four-year, $10 million deal last summer.

Stewart, however, missed seven games this season with an ankle injury, and Williams finished strong in December, running for 210 yards in the season finale, a 44-38 win at New Orleans. For the year, Williams rushed for 737 yards, averaging 4.3 per carry.

Another option might be cutting veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who will turn 33 in July and is scheduled to earn $8.7 million next season. Gross struggled at times this fall and freeing up that much cash — along with Williams’ salary — would help the franchise get close to the cap line.

Another issue facing the next GM includes finding a placekicker. Carolina attempted a franchise-low 21 field goals this season, with 11 coming after Graham Gano came in to replace Justin Medlock in late November. Gano converted nine of the kicks. The team has used three kickers since waiving veteran John Kasay just prior to the start of 2011 training camp. Kasay was Carolina’s kicker during its first 16 seasons of existence.

Carolina has the 14th overall pick in April’s NFL draft, and its needs are considerable. Wide receiver, defensive tackle and offensive line should be high priorities.

If Rivera returns, the team will have a leader that can talk about achievement and building on some late success. If there’s a change at the top, the number of questions facing the franchise will surely multiply. And until Richardson makes some moves, everything will remain in limbo.