Looking back at an impressive 12-4 2008 season, many players could be considered "valuable."
But, of all the men who contributed last season, the following, to me, meant the most to the team's success (well, at least those I could gather statistical data on): Julius Peppers, Jon Beason, DeAngelo Stewart (yes, I know their names), Steve Smith, and Muhsin Muhammad.
Despite the semi-bad blood that has started to simmer between Pep and the organization this offseason, last year (in the 4-3 no less--suck it up, man) was a career year for the Panthers' right end.
In 16 games, Peppers gathered a career-high 14.5 sacks and tied a career-high with five forced fumbles.
The 28-going-on-29-year-old is entering the prime of his career, and is, despite his and his agent's personal opinions, reaching the height of his potential.
The No. 2 overall pick from 2002 is set for another big season in 2009.
However, the question remains: will he or won't he play?
My gut feeling is 'yes.' The Panthers didn't trade him during the draft, and how wise would it be for Pep to sit on the sidelines and pay his fines during another contract year (a little stretch of the possible reality was used here)?
Following a rookie season in which he set a very high bar for his sophomore season, Jon Beason did not disappoint.
All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl appearance were on the young Beson's table as he collected 110 tackles and 3 INTs.
The 6'-even first-rounder is quickly establishing himself as one of the elite defensive players in the game.
His speed, athleticism, vision, and leadership make him a complete package and, as far as I can tell, the sky is the limit for the Panthers' 2007 first-rounder.
DeAngelo Stewart (or Jonathan Williams)
Without one, the other becomes simply above-average.
Can you say greatest RB tandem of all time?
Well, maybe that is premature, but 2008 served as a great stepping-stone for attaining that title.
Smash and Dash ran for 836 and 1515 yards respectively while spelling each other in the Panthers' backfield. Oh, and Williams led the league last season in rushing TDs (18) last year as well.
The Panthers once again have a tandem similar to the one (Davis and Foster) that helped them to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The need for a big passing play every drive has become a luxury, not a necessity, as Williams and Stewart have proved reliable in efficiently moving the pigskin down the field.
As long as both of these guys can maintain their upswing from last season, I can see the Panther's offense being as explosive as ever.
Steve Smith doesn't always have to make the plays now.
Speaking of Smith...
Despite sitting out the first two games for reasons we all know, Smith had another Pro Bowl season.
Sure, 2008 wasn't his '05 season, but Smith still received 78 passes (including six of a touchdown variety) and averaged a career-best 101.5 YPG (1421 rec. yards overall).
Look, there isn't that much you can say about Smitty that hasn't been said.
His explosiveness and knack for finding the football in critical situations is unmatched by any other wide-out in the game.
And with the previously mentioned RB duo, I expect 2009 to be no different.
In his return to Carolina, Muhsin had a very good season for a No. 2 WR in a run-first offense.
But, I think his presence means a lot more than his performance.
Don't get me wrong, 923 yards on 65 completions with five TDs isn't bad, but just his mental make-up and, probably my favorite part, blocking ability mean more to the team as a whole.
I love watching the guy play and perform, and that's why he's on this list.
Maybe he's on here more for sentimental reasons, but, hey, he was a leader on the champions of the NFC South.
Just Missed: Jordan Gross
There is no true way to support the efforts of an O-lineman other than watching him play.
But, if that is the best way, there may be no better tackle in the league than Jordan Gross.
His tenaciousness and ability to protect his backs and QB are impeccable.
Don't think I forgot about Gross, I just couldn't back up what I said enough to put him in the top-five.
In the NFL, it is "team, team, team."
But, when you have individual (or pair) performers like the Big Cats from Charlotte do, then you have the ability to make up for any shortcomings the rest of the roster may have.
(all statistical data from pro-football-reference.com)