PANTHERS INSIDE SLANT

The players set to become unrestricted free agents on defense include safety Deon Grant, cornerback Reggie Howard and linebacker Greg Favors. On offense, tight end Kris Mangum and guards Jeno James and Kevin Donnalley are unrestricted, as are kicker John Kasay and long-snapper Jason Kyle.

Despite a 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Carolina Panthers appear to be a team that's here to stay -- at least for a while.

The Panthers have 16 of their 22 starters under contract at least through 2004, including the large majority of their core players on defense like Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker, Brentson Buckner, Dan Morgan, Will Witherspoon, Ricky Manning and Mike Minter.

Among the players set to become unrestricted free agents on defense include safety Deon Grant, cornerback Reggie Howard and linebacker Greg Favors. On offense, tight end Kris Mangum and guards Jeno James and Kevin Donnalley are unrestricted, as are kicker John Kasay and long-snapper Jason Kyle.

Among those, Grant, James, Mangum and Kasay are likely among the team's top priorities to re-sign. Donnalley's future remains uncertain, but even if he retires the Panthers are in good shape with this year's second-round draft pick Bruce Nelson ready to step into the starting lineup.

"I'm not big on predictions, I like our football team and we have some youth and we have a good core of players," head coach John Fox said of his team's ability to continue to be competitive.

With free agency quickly creeping up, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said the team will be under the gun to get back to work this week preparing for next season.

"We'll start working on it Monday morning, probably," Hurney said before the Super Bowl. "We have lost a lot of the off-season and we have a few free agents coming up. We don't have much time, but that is how it works."

Outside of re-signing their unrestricted free agents, the Panthers most pressing concern is likely to be extending the contracts of quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith in the next few months.

The Panthers appear to have made Smith their top priority, hoping to open negotiations for a long-term contract this week.

Delhomme is signed through 2004, but the Panthers will certainly want to lock him up long term after the Cajun Kid led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first season as the team's starting quarterback.

The Panthers will also have to make a decision on wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and left tackle Todd Steussie, who combined will cost more than $11 million under next year's salary cap. Muhammad will almost certainly have to take a pay cut or restructure his contract if he wants to return. The Panthers could theoretically release Steussie to save money under the cap and then move Jordan Gross over to left tackle. Gross had a fabulous rookie season for the Panthers.

In any event, the Panthers enter this off-season in the best salary cap shape they've been in perhaps since 1995 when they came into the league as an expansion team.

Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert is finally off the team's books, and the team has very little "dead money," which is cap space taken up by players no longer on the team.

Along with Smith and Delhomme, you can also expect head coach John Fox to get a significant bump in pay this off-season after taking a over a 1-15 team and leading them to the Super Bowl in just his second season.


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