Carolina Panthers 2009 Preview
Your view of the Carolina Panthers depends on your interpretation of their disastrous 33-13 home Divisional Round loss to the Arizona Cardinals last January. If you are in the camp that believes America witnessed merely a 12-4 team being struck down by quarterback Jake Delhomme’s ill-timed career lowlight (in which he completed 22 of 34 passes, but five of them to the wrong team), then you see this club as the favorite in the NFC South. After all, the Panthers return all 11 starters from their seventh-ranked scoring offense, and 10 starters on a defense that, if not for a late-season meltdown, would have finished in the league’s Top 10.
But if you’re in the camp that believes what happened in the playoffs was not an aberration but, rather, a culmination of that second half letdown, then you think John Fox’s club will continue its trend of mediocrity between postseason appearances. (The Panthers, under Fox, have never won more than eight games the season after reaching the playoffs.)
Clearly, GM Marty Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson (who, thankfully, is recovering well from a February heart transplant) are in the first camp. They are pleased with how the team’s powerful, ascending offensive line enables young star running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to employ the tempo-controlling rushing attack that Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson prefer. They like how the defense is headlined by a shimmering star middle linebacker in Jon Beason, and supported by a solid, underrated secondary. They’re excited about new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, a Cover 2 connoisseur who was hired after Mike Trgovac chose to leave.
Wanting to keep the skeleton intact, the Panthers eschewed the free agent market in favor of retaining their own bones. Much to his chagrin, super athlete Julius Peppers was slapped with a $16.683 million franchise tag. Top-echelon left tackle Jordan Gross received a new six-year, $60 million contract. The man Gross protects, Delhomme, was extended for five years and $20 million guaranteed.
It’s this last move that leaves the second campers even more incredulous. Never mind that Delhomme is 34. The issue here is that Carolina invested in someone who is not a Super Bowl quality quarterback. Delhomme’s charismatic mojo too often tailspins into demoralizing panic when the going gets tough (like in that playoff loss). His solid accuracy can often be trumped by a weak arm that becomes exposed when defenses get inside his head.
But the ultra conservative Fox has never thought his team needed a star quarterback in order to succeed. Fox views quarterbacks as only a moderately significant piece to his power-oriented offensive puzzle. But critics can lament that the Panthers really aren’t that powerful on the ground. Yes, Williams and Stewart headlined a rushing attack that set a franchise record with 2,437 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. But their numbers were inflated by 60 runs of 10 yards or more. When it came to consistently moving the chains and controlling the tempo, Carolina was average (evidenced in their 18th-ranked third down offense).
This criticism of smoke and mirrors has also been applied to the defense. If not for the insane athleticism of Peppers, the pass-rush wouldn’t exist. Even with Peppers, the Panthers enjoy only outbursts of dominance up front. The hope is that second-round rookie Everette Brown (defensive end) and third-rounder Corvey Irvin (defensive tackle) can change that. (Hurney sacrificed the team’s 2010 first-round pick just to move up to the middle of the second round and nab Brown.) Some experts grumble that these Panther linebackers and defensive backs are young and gifted but also alarmingly reactionary (which is why this unit ranked in the low teens in just about every major statistical category last season).
The issue is not whether the Panthers can change in 2009, but whether their formula can work. As long as Fox is calling the shots, Carolina will be a conservative team. Is conservativeness compatible with today’s NFL?
Erratic as Jake Delhomme can be, let it be clear that the Panthers absolutely need him. Backups Josh McCown and Matt Moore are little more than intriguing practice players with short resumes. If this team is to get anywhere in 2009, it will be on the shoulders of its 11th-year signalcaller.
As dependent as the Panthers are on Delhomme, Delhomme might be equally as dependent on superstar receiver Steve Smith. The 5’9”, 185-pound human highlight reel is arguably a cornerback’s toughest challenge. Smith’s speed and leaping prowess make him lethal downfield, while his strength and razor-sharp footwork make him a killer underneath. His commanding of double-and even triple-teams is a big reason why possession receiver Muhsin Muhammad remains viable at 36. Muhammad had 923 yards receiving last season and should easily keep his successor, third-year pro Dwayne Jarrett, on the second string for another season.
Because the Panthers often relegate tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario to blocking assignments, Jarrett still has a chance to become the poignant tertiary receiving option that has long been missing from this offense. He has impressive hands and 6’4” size to exploit defenders in the slot. Carolina needs his services, as the only other wideout options are Jason Carter and Ryne Robinson, both of whom missed all of ’08 with injuries. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Panthers ignore their wideouts and look to fourth-round rookie running back Mike Goodson to fill the hole at slot receiver.
No matter how well these receivers perform in 2009, Jeff Davidson will still be a run-first play-caller. Who can blame him? DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart operate behind a vociferous legion of blockers, yet both young running backs are also capable of manufacturing yards out of nothing. Williams has remarkably fluid hips that allow him to change direction and still run downhill. He’s always eager to bounce his speed to the outside. Stewart is more of a pounder, though as defenses will continue to learn, his elusiveness and acceleration are well above average.
Both runners are superb in the red-zone, thanks in part to the lead-blocking prowess of Brad Hoover (who should keep his job from fourth-round rookie Tony Fiammetta for at least one more season) and the formidability of a front five whose powerful members weigh an average of 313 pounds. All-World left tackle Jordan Gross headlines the group. The former right tackle has amazing dexterity as a run-blocker in space and has done a remarkable job adjusting his footwork to handle elite edge-rushers.
Former left tackle Travelle Wharton plays inside next to Gross, where he’s proven to be savvy if not spectacular. Wharton’s reign as this line’s second best player likely won’t last past this season, however, as third-year center Ryan Kalil and second-year right tackle Jeff Otah both continue to progress. Kalil shows flashes of brilliances on the ground and blends in well in pass protection; Otah is a monster when he’s healthy and recognizing the NFL’s speed.
Between Kalil and Otah is right guard Keydrick Vincent, a respectable veteran looking to prove that injuries haven’t derailed his career. The Panthers aren’t taking any chances: they drafted Oklahoma guard Duke Robinson in Round Five, likely with the intent of starting him once Vincent’s contract expires after the season.
The steadiness of this line’s first unit is matched by the frailty of the second unit. The only backup offensive linemen familiar with this scheme are Mackenzie Bernadeau and Geoff Schwartz, two seventh-round picks of a year ago who are yet to see the field.
Ron Meeks is taking over Mike Trgovac’s defensive coordinator position and installing a conventional Cover 2 scheme. Don’t expect it to be much different from Carolina’s previous approach. This is a club that has traditionally relied on a straight four-man pass-rush, read-and-react linebackers and zone defending defensive backs.
As anyone familiar with the Cover 2 knows, dominant edge-rushers are mandatory. This is why the Panthers refused to let go of expensive defensive end Julius Peppers, even though the disenchanted eighth-year pro claimed he’s “maxed out (his) potential” as a 4-3 end. (Peppers wants to become an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme). The North Carolina product is a world-class athlete with only decent football skills, making him slightly less disruptive to opponents’ blocking schemes. But still, Peppers’s speed and strength can make him domineering in all facets, and without him in the lineup, this front four might be the worst in football.
The underwhelming Tyler Brayton starts opposite Peppers, though that should soon change with second-round rookie Everette Brown in the picture. Brown weighs only 256 but, like a Trent Cole in Philadelphia, plays with enough leverage to contribute against the run. He played mostly on the right side in college; while Panthers coaches are preaching versatility, they’re grooming the energetic Charlotte native primarily to play left end. Third-year pro Charles Johnson, who’s built like a base end but functions like a speed-rusher, rounds out the rotation.
A rotation is what’s needed at defensive tackle. Ma’ake Kemoeatu is a blocker-eater who occasionally wears down, while Damione Lewis is a large but finesse-oriented three technique who struggles in a phone booth. Third-round rookie Corvey Irvin will see plenty of snaps in 2009, but the Panthers could use one more body inside. Perhaps last year’s sixth-round pick, Nick Hayden, can step up.
Kemoeatu and Lewis don’t make a substantial amount of individual plays, but to their credit, opposing blockers rarely reach the Carolina linebackers. Offensive linemen could actually reach middle man Jon Beason all day and it wouldn’t matter. Beason is arguably the best in the business when it comes to shedding blocks. In fact, he might be the best in the business period. Entering just his third season, the 24-year-old’s instincts should sharpen enough for him to engrain himself amongst the game’s elite forces in 2009.
Flanking Beason is strongside linebacker Na’il Diggs and weakside man Thomas Davis. Diggs, 31, is somewhat creaky but still too good on playside to dismiss. If Carolina feels the need to infuse more athleticism at this spot, they can turn to last year’s third-round pick Dan Connor (a future NFL starter, in the very least) or versatile veteran Landon Johnson. Davis has found a home next to Beason after being shuffled around at safety early in his career. He’s one tier below star status.
A name you don’t hear often enough is Chris Gamble. The sixth-year veteran’s ability to shadow receivers in a prolonged backpedal, diagnose routes and take crafty angles to the ball makes him one of the best corners in the game. Gamble’s deep-ball coverage is close to flawless. Don’t expect many quarterbacks to challenge him in 2009.
Cornerback Ken Lucas was a salary cap casualty. His replacement, Richard Marshall, is actually a better player, but opposing coaches will want to test whether the confident fourth-year pro can adjust to the outside. Hoping to reenact Marshall’s playmaking prowess as an underneath slot defender will be second-round rookie Sherrod Martin, a supposedly ideal fit for the Cover 2. If Martin finds the transition from Troy to the NFL too arduous, eighth-year veteran Dante Wesley can hold down nickel duties.
Free safety Charles Godfrey progressed okay as a rookie but still must play the game at a faster clip. Strong safety Chris Harris loves to play fast, though only against the run. The fumble-forcing headhunter could be one of the game’s heralded weapons if he develops more in coverage. Safeties Quinton Teal and Nate Salley provide average depth.
Carolina’s coverage units were superb in 2008, though with Richard Marshall becoming a starter and Nick Goings, Donte Curry and long snapper Jason Kyle all being too pricey to keep, special teams coordinator Danny Crossman can expect a noticeable drop-off with his group.
At least the kicking game remains strong. The last original Panther, kicker John Kasay, is as good as ever. Punter Jason Baker is consistent. Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd led the league with 30 touchbacks last season, the most since the “K-Ball” was introduced. Ryne Robinson was drafted in ’07 as a return specialist. He struggled as a rookie and then sat out last season with a bad MCL. Still, he’ll be given the first crack at the return duties.
Carolina has the same solid lineup that won 12 games last season, but their cautious style may not be enough in today’s NFL. Emotional roller coaster Jake Delhomme sets a tone of inconsistency that rubs off on the entire offense. On the other side of the ball, this defense’s big plays aren’t commensurate with its commendable level of talent. With weaker depth and special teams in 2009, expect the Panthers to continue their trend of following good seasons with mediocre ones.
Predicted: 3rd NFC South
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