Carolina Panthers: 2009 Success May Depend on the Beef Up Front, Again

David ScercyCorrespondent IJune 1, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 08:  Jeff Otah #79, Keydrick Vincent #68 and Ryan Kalil #67 of the Carolina Panthers listen in the huddle during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on December 8, 2008 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

In 2008, the Carolina Panthers dismantled franchise rushing records, dominating opponents with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Their ability to run the ball carried them to a 12-4 regular season record, tied for best in franchise history. Although Williams and Stewart enjoyed most of the accolades, the real key to success lies within the offensive line.

Up front starters Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent, and Jeff Otah all return as the O-Line in 2009, the first time in team history that the starting O-Line unit all returned the following season.

The starting five were a big part in the rushing numbers put up in 2008. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined to run for a total 2,351 yards, 5.0 yds per carry, and had 28 rushing TDs. They were also the driving force behind a 299 yard rushing effort against Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football, a win that propelled them to the NFC South Divisional championship in 2008.

The return of the five is the number one reason I chose Carolina to win the NFC South division in 2009. I expect defenses to creep up on the line and get a taste of Williams and Stewart bursting through running for big gains in ’09.

Williams goes into the fantasy season picked as high as second best RB on some mock drafts, third or fourth on most behind Adrian Peterson, Stephen Jackson, and Brandon Jacobs.

Coming into the 2009 off-season Jordan Gross was the only question mark, as he was an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers quickly resolved that by signing Gross to an extension. The deal is worth a reported 60 million dollars and will pay him a record 30.5 million in the first three seasons.

Carolina was so high on OT Jeff Otah coming out of Pitt, they traded their 2009 first round draft pick to Philadelphia to move up and draft Otah in the 2008 draft at No. 19. The trade brought much scrutiny in the Charlotte area, as fans voiced their opinions on local sports radio networks, and sounded off at their displeasure of the team giving away first round draft picks.

But the move is now looked at as an ingenious move throughout the Panther community, as Otah played brilliantly his rookie season in the NFL and is expected to become a Pro Bowl-caliber OT.

Carolina did however lose some OL depth via free agency in 2009, losing Jeremy Bridges, Geoff Hangartner, and Frank Omiyale to free agency. They answered the bell by drafting OT Duke Robinson out of Oklahoma. Duke is listed at 6’5” 329lbs and provides much needed depth for the Panthers on the offensive line.

The Panthers also signed a number of college free agent offensive linemen including Gerald Cadogan (Penn St.), Patrick Brown (Central Florida), C.J. Davis (Pitt), Keith Gray (UConn), and Gary Williams (Kentucky).

The Panthers signed Cadogan to a three year deal, making Cadogan the only college free agent lineman to land a guaranteed contract so far. Carolina also signed FA lineman Justin Geisinger from the Washington Redskins.

The Panther front will once again anchor the offense and rushing attack in 2009. I project Williams to approach the 1600 yard mark, with 15 TDs. I also predict Stewart to run for close to 1,000 yards and 10s TD in 2009. If this unit can stay healthy for the 2009 season, the rest of the NFC South could be in a lot of trouble as these maulers grind their way down field, play after play.