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Jordan Gross' retirement could alter Panthers' draft, free agency strategy

Jordan Gross retires Carolina PanthersJordan Gross graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 tackle overall last season. (Tim Steadman/Icon SMI)

Three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jordan Gross, a member of the Carolina Panthers' starting lineup since his rookie season of 2003, will announce his retirement on Wednesday. Just like that, offensive tackle moved from a pressing need to a major issue for the defending NFC South champions.

Could that desperation force Carolina to move up from No. 28 in Round 1 of the draft to chase a top tackle?

The position already had to be on the Panthers' wish list given Gross' age (33) and the up-and-down 2013 season of pending restricted free agent right tackle Byron Bell. But finding someone who could challenge Bell at right tackle and landing an anchor to replace Gross on Cam Newton's blindside are different tasks altogether.

There is talent to be had in the draft, though the top three OT prospects -- Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan -- all could (and should) be off the board long before the Panthers' first selection arrives.

MORE: NFL free agency rumors2014 NFL Mock Draft | More 2014 NFL draft coverage

The list of available tackles at 28 might include Cyrus Kouandjio, Morgan Moses, Ja'Wuan James, Antonio Richardson and others. Unfortunately for the Panthers, none is considered in the same class as that upper-echelon trio, and questions surround several candidates. Kouandjio had a shoddy combine complete with medical questions; Moses' effort was unsteady at best during the season; Richardson turned in a few brutal performances at Tennessee.

Carolina figures to be active chasing a tackle or two in free agency, with Eugene Monroe, Anthony Collins and Branden Albert among the best possibilities. The most appealing approach then could have the Panthers signing an OT and drafting another. They are projected to be approximately $20 million under the 2014 salary cap right now; Gross was an unrestricted free agent.

Depth at positions like wide receiver might open the door for Carolina to leap up in Round 1, too. Should one of that Robinson-Matthews-Lewan group slide a bit (and it likely would be Lewan in that scenario), the Panthers would have to be among the teams working the phones. Miami at No. 19 and Arizona at No. 20 also have heavy needs along the offensive line, which will make any Panthers' moves more difficult to pull off.

Make no mistake about it: This is a significant blow to the Panthers' hopes of repeating as division champs. Despite nearing the end of the line on his career, Gross graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 tackle last season, and the team was primed to retain him for 2014.

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