In 2006, the Carolina Panthers were preseason darlings.
A year later, they're an afterthought.
Such is life in the fickle NFL.
Whether the Saints can hold the top spot remains to be seen—and the Panthers will have a lot to say about the ultimate outcome.
Carolina still has what it takes to win the division. In order to do so, they'll need to be much more consistent in several areas, not the least of which is quarterback.
At times, Jake Delhomme can look like the second coming of Brett Favre. When he plays poorly, he's Kerry Collins reborn.
Delhomme doesn't need to be Favre for the Panthers to succeed, but he does need to be better late in games. Of his 11 interceptions, six came in the fourth quarter, and Carolina blew late leads in five contests.
The Panthers signed David Carr in the event that Delhomme can't get the job done.
The Carolina ground attack has to get better too. DeAngelo Williams, last year's first-round pick, has been pegged by many for a breakout season. In a new offense, he'll have a better chance to showcase his speed and agility on stretch plays and outside runs.
Williams is joined in the backfield by DeShaun Foster, a perennial candidate himself for a banner year. While Foster has yet to hold his coming-out party, he's a serviceable back—and he too should benefit from the new offensive regime in Carolina.
The change on O was sparked by the ineffectiveness of Dan Henning's system in 2006. New offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson learned the ropes from Charlie Weis in New England, and the Panthers' 2007 offense will feature a zone blocking scheme that should be a better fit for the team's athletic linemen than the aggressive power-running style used in years past.
The passing game, meanwhile, still boasts one of the league's best receivers in Steve Smith. Davidson will make every effort to maximize Smith's value while getting the tight ends more involved.
The Panthers will also be much improved in 2007 if they can simply stay healthy.
The most fragile of the bunch is MLB Dan Morgan, who has never survived a full season in a career plagued by concussions. When he's on the field, Morgan is one of the best 'backers in the league.
Injuries to OT Travelle Wharton and C Justin Hartwig also wreaked havoc along the offensive line, forcing veteran Jordan Gross to switch from right to left tackle while backup Geoff Hangartner filled in at center. With everybody healthy, the Panthers' O-line should be much more effective this season.
The defensive line, meanwhile, needs a full year from DT Kris Jenkins. The big man has a spotty history—but when healthy, he's a key piece on one of the best defensive lines in football, alongside DT Maake Kemoeatu and DEs Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker.
The good news is that the Panthers set themselves up for success with a bountiful draft. First-round pick Jon Beason may start at weakside linebacker, and will certainly provide needed depth should Morgan not make it through the season. USC WR Dwayne Jarrett, a second-round selection with first-round talent, will start opposite Smith. C Ryan Kalil and DE Charles Johnson are both quality players who should see time along the lines.
As it stands, the team no one is talking about in 2007 is no worse than the team everyone picked in 2006. In fact, this year's Panthers may be better than their predecessors: A change of style will make the offense more effective, a deep draft will fill holes, a healthy line will open running lanes, and lowered expectations will take the pressure off.
The 2007 Panthers have the talent and the motivation to stem the Saints' rising tide and fulfill the promise of a season ago.
As they say: Better late than never.
Projected finish: 11-5, 1st NFC South
Keep your eyes on: LB Thomas Davis—Former standout safety is current standout linebacker.
Take your eyes off: SS Deke Cooper—May get beat out by SS Nate Salley, but does it really matter?