The Carolina Panthers seem content to keep a low profile in the early proceedings of the 2009 off-season, confident that Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers will sign his tender and suit up in the black and blue next season.
The Panthers placed the franchise tag on Peppers in February and have since been a non-factor in the free agent market. The franchise tender for Peppers is somewhere in the neighborhood of $16.7 million which locks up just about every bit of cap room the Panthers have.
The Panthers have already watched their depth on the offensive line dwindle and their special teams units take a hit. Now, it seems, the Panthers will watch the entire first round (and a good portion of the second) go by at next weekend’s NFL Draft.
Unless the Panthers work out some sort of trade—presumably including Peppers—they will not pick until the 59th pick.
After their impressive 12-4 season was promptly snuffed out by a determined Arizona Cardinals squad, it was obvious that the Panthers were just a few pieces away from solving the puzzle of how to earn a spot in the league’s upper echelon.
Without the money to go after any of the several intriguing free agents that hit the market this off-season, and without a first round pick, it remains to be seen exactly how the Panthers will go about finding these missing pieces.
The team has a strong need for some added athleticism on the defensive line, notably at the tackle spots. Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu could use some depth behind them. The make up of the defensive line will be greatly affected by the conclusion of the Peppers saga.
If Peppers stays, then Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson will likely split time on the right side, much like last season. However, if Peppers finds his way out of Carolina, defensive end becomes a weak point.
Brayton and Johnson would likely start, with Hilee Taylor behind them. In any event, the Panthers will likely look to bolster their defensive line with their first pick. A big, athletic defensive tackle like Ron Brace (Boston College) or Alex Magee (Purdue) would be the Panthers’ best bet at this point.
One of the main reasons that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were able to experience a break out season last year was the depth and ability on the offensive line. Inevitably, when you have talent that stretches past the top of the depth chart, other teams will come in looking to get a bargain.
The offensive line saw key reserves Geoff Hantgartner and Frank Omiyale whisked away in free agency, and the team cut Jeremy Bridges. While the starting line stays in tact behind Jordan Gross, who signed a six-year contract extension just before free agency began, that depth will be sorely missed, and will undoubtedly be addressed at some point next weekend.
Since the Panthers only have two picks in the top 100 at this point, it will be tough to regain the type of consistency on the offensive line that was seen last season.
There is some debate about what direction the Panthers should go in the draft after they address their key needs.
Many would like to see a wide receiver come in to challenge Mushin Muhammad for the No. 2 slot and to take some of the attention off of Steve Smith. Others believe that Dwayne Jarrett is ready to get in gear and produce on the field.
Some believe that the Panthers need to look for a quarterback, while others are content with letting Jake Delhomme continue at the reigns, with Matt Moore and Josh McCown waiting in the wings. Some would argue that we need to address a thin cornerback position before either of those things.
It is safe to say that whatever the Panthers choose to do with their five picks next weekend, it will be the most exciting news to come out of Bank of America Stadium all off-season.
While other playoff contenders from last season have made significant upgrades to their roster this spring, the Panthers have been pedestrian to say the least.
Many fans are chomping at the bit for the organization to do something that shows their willingness to do what it takes to make the final step to becoming a team that is a force to be reckoned with year in and year out, and the draft will be a good place for the front office to start garnering a little more optimism in Carolina.