For all the uncertainty surrounding this Carolina Panthers offseason — what with the franchise being for sale, the team needing to solidify a general manager, potential coaching departures by defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and others — it's almost easy to forget the actual football team and its players.
And in that regard, there is just as much uncertainty, especially for some of the team's big-name players. Julius Peppers, Jonathan Stewart, and Charles Johnson could all have played their final games in a Panthers uniform. The same goes for Peppers' fellow soon-to-be free agents Star Lotulelei and Andrew Norwell.
Start with Peppers, whose return to Charlotte proved to be a perfect pairing this season. Peppers, 37, finished with 11 sacks, which tied Mario Addison for most on the team, despite Peppers' limited snaps. His contract was a one-year deal laden with incentives (all of which he hit), so he will have to decide whether he wants to return on a similar basis.
"I don't have any thoughts on that, yet," Peppers said Sunday. "I just want to have some time to reflect, think about everything that's going on, spend some time with my kids and just see where my heart takes me."
As for his teammates? At least one thinks Peppers still has enough in the tank to return should he so desire.
"The way he played this year, it's up to him if he wants to come back or not," Johnson said. "He can play as long as he wants, clearly, it shows, so it'll be up to him."
As for Johnson and Stewart, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, it may be less a matter of performance and more a financial decision as to whether they're back or not.
Johnson is slated to count $3.5 million against the salary cap for 2018, and if the team releases him, it can save the entire amount with no dead money. Johnson was a healthy inactive Sunday against the Saints, and he finished the season with no sacks. He was also suspended four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Stewart will count for $5.25 million against the 2018 cap, and by releasing him, the team can save $3.75 million. Stewart finished the year with 680 yards rushing and six touchdowns, three of which came in a single game.
"I'm definitely still ticking, especially after last night," Stewart said Monday. "You just want to get back out there as soon as possible ... so not done yet."
Meanwhile, both Johnson and Stewart's backups, Wes Horton and Christian McCaffrey, performed well this season and carry significantly lower price tags than their counterparts.
Then there's the looming free agents on both the offensive and defensive lines. Defensively, Lotulelei has manned the middle of the Panthers' front since he was drafted in the first round in 2013.
Lotulelei said that while he has enjoyed his time in Carolina, he understands that other teams may make him more lucrative offers he can't refuse. The Panthers already have Kawann Short locked up to an $80 million deal, so there may not be cap space for another high-priced interior defender such as Lotulelei.
"I'd like to stay, I love this locker room," Lotulelei said, "but whatever works, whatever happens, whatever's the best situation for me and my family, that's what we're gonna do."
It's a similar situation for guard Andrew Norwell, who was named an All-Pro in 2017 but now is a free agent. Carolina already has invested heavily in its offensive line, signing guard Trai Turner and both Kalil brothers to longer deals, but tight end Greg Olsen said re-signing Norwell should be among the team's top priorities in free agency.
"He's been as big a part of that line and as big a part of our improvement the past couple of years as anyone," Olsen said. "We've got the makings of a pretty unique, special offensive line, and we'd like to see that stay together."
Unfortunately for the Panthers' front office, Norwell's exceptional play may have priced him out of Charlotte. The Panthers will already be facing a tight cap situation, and it's unlikely the team is able to re-sign every key contributor from this season.
Instead, the Panthers will look to free agency and the draft to try and replace some of those departing veterans. The question now, and for the immediate future, is exactly how many of them will need replacing.