INDIANAPOLIS -- Compared to what he faced when he took over as the Carolina Panthers' general manager last year, David Gettleman is sitting pretty.

That speaks to just how much the team's salary cap situation has improved considering Gettleman is facing a 2014 offseason with 21 pending unrestricted free agents.

The Panthers were about $16 million over the salary cap when Gettleman was hired last year. He pursed several costly veterans and used the draft to restock a playoff-caliber roster.

Like all postseason teams, Carolina's 2013 success will come at a cost.

Defensive end Greg Hardy is set to cash in as one of the league's premier pass rushers in the midst of his prime. The Panthers would stand a much better chance of re-signing Hardy if the salary cap increases to a reported figure of around $130 million -- which would leave Carolina with around $20 million to maneuver.

"We're cap challenged," Gettleman said in a blunt assessment at the Scouting Combine. "You're always moving your wheels. We're strategizing and getting ready."

Another major hurdle on the horizon is the future of left tackle Jordan Gross, who is spending time with family in Idaho before returning to meet with the Panthers to decide his future. The 33-year-old played well in 2013, but certainly has lost quickness after 11 NFL seasons.

"It's a huge decision. I think he's mulling it over," said Gettleman, who would not commit to Gross as his left tackle next season even if he chooses to return. "He had a solid year, he's been a great Panther."

What is clear is Gettleman will not force the issue. Be with age or salary demands, Gettleman is a realist when it comes time to turn the page with a player.

He has worked diligently to turn over the bottom of the roster, increase overall depth and prepare the Panthers to withstand injuries and free-agent losses. Gettleman knows he won't have much money to play with on the unrestricted free agent market, but he believes many of the holes Carolina will need to fill may have internal answers.

"You're always going to have holes you have to plug, that's just the way it is," he said. "Before you run around and panic, trust your evaluation process and a lot of times the answer is right there (on your roster)."

--The wide receiver position is in particular flux with Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon all set to become free agents and Steve Smith turning 35 in May.

Smith isn't the deep threat he once was, leaving Gettleman seeking a deep threat and likely in search of multiple playmakers to help provide quarterback Cam Newton with more weapons.

"Steve's had a great career," said Gettleman, when asked if he still views Smith as a No. 1 receiver. "None of us are here forever, but he's part of the evaluation process."

While he has a slew of free-agent issues to tackle, the one area Gettleman isn't concerned about is quarterback, reiterating at the combine that the Panthers have their franchise signal-caller in Newton.

"Cam's our franchise guy," Gettleman said. "We're convinced of that."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a big man's game. I don't care what anyone says. Big men win, that's just the way it is. It stands to reason that a bigger DB is going to tackle better than a littler guy." - Panthers GM David Gettleman, when asked at the Scouting Combine about whether the success of the Seattle Seahawks' physical secondary changes the way he approaches the draft.