INDIANAPOLIS - At least the Carolina Panthers know at this juncture that Jordan Gross is retiring.
The search process may begin to replace their left tackle of the past decade, and head coach Ron Rivera is confident there are multiple avenues through which last year's NFC No. 2 seed may go about filling the void.
"It's a big hole. We've got to figure out which of our young guys are going to step up," Rivera said last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Are they the answer? Or do we have to go out into free agency to find the answer? Or do we have to go draft him? So we don't know. It'll be interesting."
When Rivera spoke, he spoke hypothetically, since Gross was vacationing in Idaho last weekend. Now that Gross informed the Panthers Tuesday he is leaving after spending his entire 11-year career in Charlotte, any scouting reports on offensive linemen at the combine become infinitely more relevant.
"Going forward, you've got to be able to put those pieces into place and know what those pieces have to be," Rivera said. "That's why as we start getting ready for free agency (which begins March 11,) it's important to know what's in the combine. Once we get through seeing what's here and we start talking about free agency, then we'll go from there and know what we've got to do with the draft. It's true for pretty much any position."
One position that's sewn up for the future is quarterback; Cam Newton has had his share of struggles living up to his No. 1 draft selection in 2011, but after a 1-3 start to the 2013 season, Newton led Carolina to an 11-1 finish, earning a playoff bye before falling to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round.
Newton was credited with just two fourth-quarter comeback victories in his first 21/2 years as a starter; he reeled off four in a seven-week stretch from Nov. 10-Dec. 22 against the 49ers, Patriots, Dolphins and Saints, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
"Those things really kind of came to the forefront; they came at the right time for us obviously," Rivera said. "Getting the first one, really more so than anything else, really kind of put him over the hump.
"Now as we go forward, I think it's really just about the fact that he's grown as a quarterback in terms of understanding our offense, what we do offensively, and even more, understanding the opponent."
Newton might be without his favorite target. Steve Smith is a free agent, and Rivera admitted he's "not quite sure" whether Smith, 34, will be back this fall.
Wide receiver reinforcements, should Carolina not retain the 5-time Pro Bowler Smith, include Brandon Lafell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon and Tavarres King.
"Those are good young guys that we look at as almost being kind of like draft picks," Rivera said. "They seem to be very competitive, but we don't know a lot about them. So as we go forward, we've got a little bit of a leap of faith that these young men develop into players and they can be the kind of guys that can help us as we go forward as a football team."
The Panthers own the 28th pick of the NFL draft on May 8, and Rivera's comfortable with what has been regarded as one of the deepest draft pools in years. Rivera indicated Carolina will target offensive linemen, wide receiver, secondary and defensive tackle.
"There is probably more positions that are deep than those that aren't," Rivera said. "You're going to see some really good players fall to the second round and everybody's gonna go, well, that's the steal of the draft. It's one of those things where some guy may fall to the second round and he may truly have deserved to be a first-rounder, but somebody just didn't need him at that time."
Last month, Rivera was signed to a three-year contract extension; this coming season would have been the last one of his initial deal, and his job security was tenuous in September before Carolina's resurgence.
"The commitment really I think was just a statement that what we've done is right," Rivera said. "We're growing and we're heading in the right direction. One of the things we've always talked about was showing improvement. When you've done that each year to culminate in this year, that's what you're looking for."
The NFC hasn't gotten any easier, with the 49ers having made back-to-back conference title games, the Seahawks coming off a Super Bowl victory, the Saints having rebounded from a nightmarish 2012 and the Falcons looking to do the same after their rough-and-tumble 2013.
"We delivered. Now we've got to go out and deliver again," Rivera said. "That really is the hard part. Like they say, it's tough to get to the top. Now it's tough to stay on top. We're not where we want to be by any stretch of the imagination."
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