Carolina Panthers 2008 Preview Report
By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com
2007 Record: 7-9 (2nd NFC South)
Head Coach: John Fox (7th year)
Roster Quick View
QB: Jake Delhomme Coming off Tommy John surgery that has reportedly increased his arm strength substantially.
RB: DeAngelo Williams Didn’t get enough touches in 2007. Shifty runner who is a quicker version of Emmitt Smith (in terms of style, that is).
FB: Brad Hoover Another FB who always seems to get it done. Signed a three-year contract to finish his career in his home state.
WR: Steve Smith Uninspiring ’07 season, but look who was throwing him the ball. Defenses had better not ease up on this guy.
WR Muhsin Muhammad** Brought back to fulfill the same possession receiver duties that he handled so well his first nine years here.
TE: Jeff King Caught a respectable 46 passes last season. They’ll ask him to block more in ’08.
LT: Jordan Gross Moving over from right side, but he’s played LT before. His feet are quick and his mind is sharp. He’ll be fine as always.
LG: Travelle Wharton Capable of handling the left tackle duties, but the team wanted to give him an opportunity to thrive. So, they slid him over one space.
C: Ryan Kalil Disappointing as a rookie, but coaches did not hesitate to make him the starter early in the offseason.
RG: Keydrick Vincent** Brought in to add some veteran beef to the front five.
RT: Jeff Otah* First-rounder who is too rough around the edges to play the left side. That’s fine––at 340, he’s more of a natural mauler anyway.
QB: Matt Moore One of five undrafted quarterbacks on the roster heading into training camp. Has a long-term future as a backup.
RB: Jonathan Stewart* Highly-regarded power-runner before having surgery on a turf toe injury. He’ll split carries with DeAngelo Williams.
WR: D.J. Hackett** Told he would be the starter when he signed. By “starter,” they must have meant “first guy off the bench.”
WR: Dwayne Jarrett Immaturity is a problem. Can’t you just sense that he’s fast becoming a bust?
LDE: Tyler Brayton** Never established a niche in Oakland, which is partly why he never established much of a stat line either. Not someone you want starting.
DT: Ma’ake Kemoeatu A good space filler more than anything.
DT: Damione Lewis A pass-rushing specialist, though improvements in recent years justify his promotion to starter. Still, he’s nowhere near the player Kris Jenkins was.
RDE: Julius Peppers Coming off a flat-out awful season. The hope is that a move back to the right side––his college position––will ignite him. It could. And so could his expiring contract.
SLB: Thomas Davis Not in the highest stable of linebackers, but a fearsome playmaker who can be a force in a variety of ways.
MLB: Jon Beason Will be the best inside linebacker in football before Winter Solstice.
WLB: Landon Johnson** Versatile veteran who can really thrive in an ancillary role. Agility and adeptness in coverage are a plus.
CB: Chris Gamble Doesn’t flash amazing speed or quickness––he just plays football extremely well. Receivers have a hard time shaking him.
SS: Chris Harris Solid presence––especially if he forces eight fumbles again this year.
FS: Charles Godfrey* Third-round pick who played CB at Iowa. Panthers are smitten over him.
CB: Ken Lucas Good player but highly unlikely that he’ll be able to keep his job from fast-rising Richard Marshall.
DL: Charles Johnson Has a chance to start, thanks to the dearth of talent at DE. Was only active for two games last season despite being a third-round pick.
LB: Dan Connor* Good player. But not as good Jon Beason. And probably not as good as Thomas Davis. Why exactly did Carolina pick him?
NB: Richard Marshall Crawling with talent; corrects his weaknesses on almost a weekly basis. He can be one of the really good ones.
Key Players Acquired
DL Tyler Brayton (Oak)
OL Milford Brown (Stl)
G Toniu Fonoti (FA)
WR D.J. Hackett (Sea)
S Terrence Holt (Ari)
LB Landon Johnson (Cin)
WR Muhsin Muhammad (Chi)
DT Ian Scott (Phi)
RB LaBrandon Toefield (Jax)
G Keydrick Vincent (Ari)
DT Darwin Walker (Chi)
Key Players Lost
QB David Carr (NYG)
WR Drew Carter (Oak)
WR Keary Colbert (Den)
RB DeShaun Foster (SF)
C Justin Hartwig (Pit)
DT Kris Jenkins (NYJ)
S Marquand Manuel (Den)
DT Kindal Moorehead (Atl)
LB Dan Morgan (NO, retired)
DE Mike Rucker (retired)
QB Vinny Testaverde (retired)
G Mike Wahle (Sea)
It’s always unsettling to see a team with this much roster turnover. Carr was a disaster. Carter and Colbert both underachieved; Muhammad and Hackett are huge upgrades. Foster would have counted nearly $5 million against the cap, which he simply wasn’t worth. They traded Jenkins for mid-round picks. His negative attitude had grown old, but the Panthers will soon realize that he was their most valuable D-lineman. Rucker retired at the right time. So did Testaverde and Morgan. John Fox wasn’t happy with Wahle’s ’07 performance, and the hope is that the bigger Vincent will make the rushing attack more powerful. If he doesn’t then they’ll try Brown or Fonoti. Walker and Scott have both recently been with the Eagles and Bears, though not together. Carolina should be happy if one of them works out. Johnson was a good addition, especially for $10 million over three years.
Rd Sel #Player Positio School
1 13 Jonathan Stewart RB Oregon
1 19 Jeff Otah OT Pittsburgh
3 67 Charles Godfrey CB Iowa
3 74 Dan Connor LB Penn State
5 141 Gary Barnidge TE Louisville
6 181 Nick Hayden DT Wisconsin
7 221 Hilee Taylor DE North Carolina
7 241 Geoff Schwartz OL Oregon
7 250 Mackenzy Bernadeau G Bentley
A lot of teams were scared away by Stewart’s pre-draft foot surgery. But if he gets healthy––and there’s no reason to think he won’t––Carolina will have a first-class talent. Stewart and DeAngelo Williams can form a great duo. Otah is inexperienced but too good not to start right away at RT. Godfrey immediately became the starting FS in minicamp. There were probably about 31 other teams that Connor would have liked to have gone to. He’s a natural MLB who now must hope to crack the starting lineup on the outside. He’s too good to ride the bench for long. All three seventh-rounders face long odds at making the 53-man roster.
Carolina Panthers 2008 Preview Report
The pattern was snapped last season. When the Carolina Panthers failed to finish above .500 for the second year in a row. John Fox’s team has always followed a trend: toggle in mediocrity, then surge by winning 11 games and making some noise in the playoffs. Then, catch your breath the following season with another seven or eight-win campaign. Then, fully energized, come back and have another fruitful run. Look at Carolina’s history: 2002…7-9; 2003…11-5 (reached Super Bowl); 2004…7-9; 2005…11-5 (reached NFC Championship); 2006….8-8; 2007….7-9. Oops.
Order broken. It doesn’t take much to figure out why. The Panthers started four different quarterbacks last season. The only one capable of excelling was Jake Delhomme, and he was lost after two games. You need pitching to win in pro baseball, goaltending to win in pro hockey, a large home market to win in pro basketball and quarterbacking to win in pro football. It’s simple, really.
Delhomme is back now after Tommy John surgery (no, not another baseball reference––actual Tommy John surgery). The 33-year-old’s reconstructed elbow has looked superb thus far. Many are saying that Delhomme is actually a stronger passer now than before. Still, that wasn’t good enough for GM Marty Hurney. Mainly because it wasn’t good enough for owner Jerry Richardson. After a second-consecutive humdrum record, the powers that be in Carolina decided that the team had grown stale. (It had.)
So, Richardson put his front office and coaching staff to work and on notice. The objective was to rid the franchise of toxic energy coming from anyone deemed an underachiever. Or malcontent (i.e. Kris Jenkins). Quarterback David Carr was let go––that was an easy call. Wide receivers Keary Colbert and Drew Carter followed. So did running back DeShaun Foster (not so much an underachiever until you consider that his ’08 cap number was close to $5 million). Guard Mike Wahle, a year removed from the Pro Bowl, disappointed coaches in ’07 and was cut. Sadly but wisely, concussion-riddled linebacker Dan Morgan was released. (Morgan signed with New Orleans before deciding to retire.) Center Justin Hartwig was also dismissed.
The roster mini-purge made room for the new personnel that would fit Carolina’s updated mantra of a power offense (an identity they had drifted away from). Defensively, the Panthers just wanted to tighten the screws.
Everything commenced as planned. Hurney went out and signed 325-pound guard Keydrick Vincent, 330-pound guard Milford Brown and “340-pound” guard Toniu Fonoti (last seen eating a Golden Corral out of business somewhere in his home state of Hawaii). The Carolina coaching staff also told the returning linemen to put on weight and get up to 320 (which Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner did).
Having a meaty offensive line to block only for slashing tailback DeAngelo Williams would not have made much sense. That’s why the Panthers used the 13th-overall pick in the draft on 230-pound Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart. And just to show people they weren’t messing around, they mortgaged seemingly half of their ’09 draft to move back into the first round and take 340-pound right tackle Jeff Otah at No. 19. (Warning to Rosie O’Donnell: watch your back––they’ll want you next.)
Needing to solidify the passing attack and force defenses to think about more than just Steve Smith, Hurney brought back longtime Panther Muhsin Muhammad, a superlative possession receiver. Before signing Muhammad, Hurney––or someone in the organization––had told 6’2”, 208-pound free agent receiver D.J. Hackett that he would be a starter if he joined the team. So Hackett signed. Now, the Panthers have Muhammad and a 6’2”, 208-pound No. 3 receiver who is probably a little bit miffed. They’ll take it.
So the offense is rebuilt, and there’s little question about its identity. Defensively, the losses of tackle Kris Jenkins and end Mike Rucker hurt Carolina (Jenkins’s absence especially). But the anticipated improvements of rising stars Jon Beason (middle linebacker), Thomas Davis (strongside linebacker) and Richard Marshall (cornerback) have the front office and coaching staff giddy. Or are they nervous?
Head coach John Fox has been on what they call the “hot seat” before. So has Hurney. No one has come right out and said it, but 2008 could prove to be the final chance for the leaders in Carolina. Another mediocre season and the Panthers will officially be in a stupor. This franchise can’t afford that. The Tar Heel and Palmetto States create a lower-mid-level sized market that would not respond well to indolence from its football team. Sure, Bank of America Stadium would still sell out––maybe––but Football America would tune out. Carolina can ask their old expansion buddy in Jacksonville about that. Not to mention, business aside, this is football, dammit. Richardson and everyone else in Carolina want to win because winning is just more fun.
Can they? You might be surprised. If everybody stays healthy, this is a solid core group of players here. It’s a group with a nice distribution of veteran experience and youth. With a strong identity in place, the Panthers at least have clear intentions. How will things pan out?
From all accounts, quarterback Jake Delhomme is healthy. Thus, so is Carolina’s passing attack. Delhomme has never been one to throw lasers, and his athleticism is about as average as a Tuesday. But, over his five years starting, the Louisiana-Lafayette alum has consistently found ways to be effective. Delhomme leads with exuberant passion––something a player can get away with when he understands the offense inside and out. Should Delhomme’s health fail him again, the Panthers would be in trouble. The only other remotely experienced quarterback on the roster is Matt Moore, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent three years ago.
The return of Delhomme means the return of Steve Smith. Perhaps the toughest cover in football outside of Randy Moss, Smith’s impact last season was mitigated by Carolina’s quarterbacking woes. (He was still able to catch 87 passes for 1,002 yards.) Smith and Delhomme have an innate chemistry––the kind where eye contact can lead to the quick-hit completions that give Smith the ball in space. Or, the kind of chemistry that allows the quarterback to force attempts to the 5’9” receiver despite double coverage.
Assuming Smith stays close to 100 percent––and, given his history of broken bones and pulled hamstrings, that’s no minor assumption––the Panther offense will have a perfect big-play weapon to balance the half-court style of Muhsin Muhammad. Carolina’s familiarity with Muhammad is what will relegate D.J. Hackett to the slot. The fifth-year pro was scheduled for a breakout campaign with Seattle in ’07, but a high ankle sprain threw a wrench in the plans. If Hackett stays healthy, he gives the Panthers a dangerous, versatile third receiving option (something they’ve never really had).
Last season’s second-round pick, Dwayne Jarrett, was supposed to evolve into a starter at some point. However, doing so requires maturity, which is why John Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson are tacitly losing faith in the 22-year-old. They’ll try to work Jarrett into the offensive rotation, though they may wind up settling for the unrefined speed of return specialist Ryne Robinson instead.
Jeff King is a decent tight end, capable of blocking in the run game or catching short passes in the flats (he had 46 receptions in ’07). Because of fullback Brad Hoover’s prominence in this offense, backup tight ends Dante Rosario and fifth-round rookie Gary Barnidge aren’t likely to have significant roles in 2008.
Hoover offers excellent north-south lead-blocking, which fits the brawny approach that the Panthers front line will be taking. All five slots across the offensive line have new bodies in them.
The left side features tackle Jordan Gross (formerly the right tackle) and guard Travelle Wharton (formerly the left tackle). Gross is one of the few Panthers who demurred when asked to bulk up over the offseason. He thought added pounds would hinder his play. At 6’4’, 300, Gross’s game is predicated on mobility. Moving with dexterity amplifies his quickness and strength, plus it allows him to create excellent angles in run-blocking.
Wharton got bigger, raising his weight from 310 to 320. The added size is a gamble considering he blew out his knee in 2006. Shifting Wharton inside had more to do with Carolina’s situation at guard than the fifth-year veteran’s performance at left tackle (though speed rushers sometimes gave him problems). Wharton is a well-schooled player who should prosper in his new position.
Center Ryan Kalil was awful in limited action as a rookie last September. The Panthers, however, like the knowledge and poise he’s shown in practice. Considering he came at a second-round price, they’re willing to try him out. They know they have an excellent insurance policy in backup Geoff Hangartner, a fourth-year veteran with 19 starts under his belt.
Right guard is said to be an open competition between Keydrick Vincent, Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti. Anyone with at least one good eye and a half-functioning thalamus can see that Vincent is the class of the group. He is powerful at the point of attack and, unlike the men behind him, able to slide his feet in pass protection. It should always raise eyebrows when you see Fonoti’s name in the mix. Once thought to be the next Larry Allen, the ex-Cornhusker stunted his development by eating like the Nutty Professor. Fonoti is reportedly down to his college weight of 340. However, since 2005 the Vikings, Bucs, Dolphins and Falcons have all bought into his act. And all came to regret it.
Right tackle Jeff Otah will be given a crash course in pass-blocking as a rookie. Otah’s potential is unquestioned, but it’s a little surprising that the Panthers would impetuously start him ahead of proven veteran Jeremy Bridges.
Running behind the nearly one-ton worth of offensive linemen will be DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams, a first-round pick in 2006, has proven to be effective, averaging 5.0 yards per carry last season. But he doesn’t run with a resounding burst. His greatest strength is using his vision and shiftiness to maximize the blocks in front of him. Stewart will be expected to pack the punch. He’s a bruising runner, but he also has the speed to turn the corner.
Carolina’s depth in the backfield is tremendous. Thirty-year-old Nick Goings is a fullback-tailback tweener who runs well and catches passes out of the backfield. Despite the presence of the first-rounders, Goings may still find a role as a third-down back (he’s excellent in blitz pickup). Additionally, Hoover and ex-Jaguar LaBrandon Toefield can both handle carries in an emergency situation.
Even with the soaring food costs, $14.5 million for a little over two sacks seems like an awfully hefty price. But that’s what the Panthers are paying defensive end Julius Peppers. The $14.5 million is the cap number for the final year of Peppers’s contract. The sack total (2.5) is what the three-time Pro Bowler produced in a forgettable 2007 season. It’s even harder to fathom an athlete as gifted as Peppers having such a bad year. It’s impossible to fathom him doing it twice.
To help prevent the unfathomable, Carolina moved Peppers from the left side back to his collegiate position on the right. His natural left-handedness will make his new stance feel a bit awkward, but not having to deal with so many tight end chip-blocks will easily offset any discomfort.
Two-and-a-half sacks would feel like a monsoon of pass-rushing production for newly acquired defensive end Tyler Brayton. In five seasons with the Raiders, the former first-rounder registered six sacks total. Just one of those sacks came in the last three years, despite Brayton having suited up for 48 games (16 of which he started). Such hollow productivity makes Brayton the George Costanza of defensive ends. Part of his problem was that the Raiders constantly moved him around (end, defensive tackle, outside linebacker). But an honest football scholar would call this an excuse.
If Brayton doesn’t rise from the dead, he’ll quickly be buried behind second-year pro Charles Johnson. This would speak volumes about Brayton, considering Johnson was only activated for two games last season. It’s like a duel with no guns at left defensive end. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers just say forget it and go with Stanley McClover.
Fox’s relationship with Kris Jenkins must have been strained beyond repair because it’s not often you see a player that good get dealt for third-and fifth-round draft picks. Marty Hurney touted the value of draft picks after the trade, but the fact of the matter is, the whole reason you use draft picks is to find players like Jenkins. And there aren’t many.
Filling his shoes will be Damione Lewis, another former first-rounder who underachieved in St. Louis but has found his niche as a pass-rusher off the bench in Carolina. Lewis was given a three-year, $14 million contract over the offseason, which the Panthers hope can buy improvements in his run defense. Lewis shouldn’t see too many double teams playing next to 345-pound Ma’ake Kemoeatu, and he won’t have to be an everydown force with veterans Ian Scott and Darwin Walker behind him. Walker, in fact, is good enough to take Lewis’s job if he plays up to his par for the first time in three years.
You’re going to be hearing more and more about middle linebacker Jon Beason. The second-year star is the centerpiece of an excellent Carolina linebacking core. Blessed with a host of five-star attributes––including speed, strength, instincts and fire––Beason may already be the best middle linebacker in football. He is a man of integrity and, at 23, already the leader of coordinator Mike Trgovac’s defense.
Beason’s not the only stallion. Strongside linebacker Thomas Davis can be downright terrifying at the point of attack. Davis closes on tackles with uncanny quickness. And being a former safety, he moves remarkably well in space. Former Bengal Landon Johnson borders on stardom as well, though his tertiary role as the weakside linebacker will prevent his name from infiltrating American living rooms in 2008. Johnson is willowy and versatile. If not for Davis’s and Beason’s prowess in pass defense, he’d be an everydown player.
Carolina’s depth at linebacker is tremendous. Rookie Dan Connor is the newest legacy in Penn State’s illustrious linebacking tradition. Carolina had absolutely no immediate need for Connor, but Hurney couldn’t believe that the first-round prospect was still available at pick No. 74. Considering Na’il Diggs is a dependable veteran with 99 starts to his name, it’s possible that Connor won’t even be Carolina’s first linebacker off the bench in ’08. That means he’ll join talented backups James Anderson, Adam Seward and Tim Shaw on special teams.
The secondary is like a burrito: appealing on the outside but qualmish in the middle. Carolina knows they have three good cornerbacks in Chris Gamble, Ken Lucas and Richard Marshall. They think they have two pretty good safeties in Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey.
A snapshot of the secondary can be illustrated through Marshall. In his third season out of Fresno State, Marshall exudes the type of confidence and athleticism of a playmaking star. He intercepted three passes last season, averaging 35.7 yards per runback. He also broke up 11 more.
Simply put, Marshall is too good to be coming off the bench––even as a nickel back. Fox privately toyed with the idea of moving him to free safety, but the Panthers learned the consequences of playing a promising talent out of position too early when they hampered Thomas Davis’s development during his peripatetic rookie year. Carolina’s weakness at free safety was an issue early in the spring––actually it was an issue years before that––but that maybe changed on Draft Day. Fox and company have been enamored with third-round rookie Charles Godfrey. A cornerback at Iowa, Godfrey showed an immediate understanding of his new position and the defensive scheme during minicamp.
His performance relegated Terrence Holt to the bench and probably closed the door on Nate Salley (who has battled injury over his first two years, including a chronically sore knee that landed him on IR in ’07).
Considering Gamble is rock-solid in all realms, Carolina’s best bet might be to start Marshall at right corner and demote Ken Lucas to nickel. This actually happened for a brief period last season. Lucas is considered to be a mid-upper-echelon cornerback––playing in a six-year, $36.5 million contract, he’s certainly compensated like one––but his slow-swiveling hips prevent him from stopping passes that arrive at the point of a receiver’s break.
Chris Harris’s strong safety job is safe. While not always the most efficient traveler in help coverage, Harris is a physical presence who can light people up. He forced a staggering eight fumbles in his first season as a Panther last year.
Although reliable kicker John Kasay was 2/2 from 50-yards-out last season, the Panthers may save his soon-to-be 39-year-old foot by keeping kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd on the roster. Punter Jason Baker has long been among the elite, though 54 of his 90 boots were returned last season, which is too many. Ryne Robinson was drafted for his return abilities. He had an up-and-down rookie year that the team hopes settled him down for the long haul.
If all goes well, the Panthers are capable of making a push in the NFC. The only true weak area on the roster is defensive line––and a monster year from Julius Peppers can fix that. Carolina’s front office and coaching staff is executing a specific plan, something that injuries and roster ambiguity have prevented as of late. The NFC South has had a different division champion in all six years of its existence. It could be Carolina’s turn once again.
Julius Peppers laid down last season.
A taciturn player with a nonchalant demeanor and uncapped athleticism is always going to be accused of dogging it when things don’t go well. The fact of the matter is, Peppers played hard in 2007––he just didn’t play well. His 2.5 sacks were not misleading. They were reflective of the amount of pressure (or lack thereof) he put on the passer each week. Even worse was Peppers’s defense against the run. Offenses had a field day rushing to the 6’7” ex-Tar Heel’s side.
But where Peppers did not vanish was in backside run defense (his speed and length continued to make him a monster in pursuit). No matter how skilled a player is, it still takes a motor to chase the ball. Peppers did that in 2007.
How many famous Steve Smith’s are there? Lots. There are two who play wide receiver in the NFL (the one with the Panthers and the younger one with the Giants). Search Wikipedia and you find 40 different Steve Smiths. Some are Stephen, like the current foreign minister of Australia. Some are Stephen A., like the haughty NBA analyst for ESPN. Some are Stephen (choose a middle name) Smith, like Stephen Edwards Smith, brother-in-law and campaign manager for JFK. Some are Stephen (choose a middle name) (choose the first part of a hyphenated last name) Smith, like Stephen Hector Taylor-Smith, early 1900s pioneer of rocket mail in India (which is exactly what it sounds like….mail delivery by rockets).
And, of course, there are plenty of plain old Steve Smiths––most of them being in sports. Besides the receivers, there’s the former NBA sharp-shooter and ’96 Dream Teamer. There’s the British high jumper, Philadelphia Phillies first base coach and Irish rugby player. There’s even the American pool player, if that counts. The list goes on.
There are plenty of famous Steve Smiths outside of sports, too. The professor at Yale. The jazz/rock drummer. Steve Smith is even the real name of the renowned clown, T.J. Tatters.
Anyway, are you still reading this? You must know a Steve Smith.
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