Did Geoff Hangartner save the Panthers season in 2008?
There's an argument to be made that he did. Although he wasn't first anywhere on the depth chart, he still started eight games at right guard and center.
Along with the Hangman, Frank Omiyale got a start at tackle. Jeremy Bridges made four starts at right tackle. The offensive line missed thirteen games in all from their starting five.
Last year Jordan Gross missed one game, Travelle Wharton missed two, Ryan Kalil missed four, Keydrick Vincent missed two, and Jeff Otah missed four. Fortunately for the Panthers, quality backup play made it all but unnoticeable.
Compare that to 2006, when the team lost two starters in week one, but after that the regular starters missed seven games. A lot of people place the blame for a poor season on that unit's performance. But even with the shake-ups at the beginning of the year, they still had more stability on the line than last year's unit.
The key was having more talent in 2008. If anything there was more uncertainty from game to game than in 2006, but the depth was better.
Flash back to 2004, when the Panthers lost Steve Smith before the season started and then proceeded to get just two games out of Stephen Davis and four out of DeShaun Foster.
Nick Goings had a hell of a year, but there's a reason he was third on the depth chart when the season started.
The point is, depth is not only important, quality depth is essential to the success of a good football team. Just imagine if instead of Geoff Hangartner, the Panthers tried to make do with Evan Mathis again, or Will Montgomery. Sure, they're capable, but do you want to rely on either of them to play multiple positions at a high level over the course of the season?
Teams that stay healthy win games. If the Panthers were guaranteed 16 complete games by all of their starters, they would probably be an 11-12 win team despite the tough 2009 schedule. But any NFL fan will tell you, it just doesn't work out that way. Injuries are a part of the game.
So how does this years edition look in terms of depth? Where can the Panthers afford to rely on backups, and what positions probably keep the coaches up at night? Let's take a look.
Jake Delhomme is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and even though he can be inconsistent he still wins a lot more than he loses. Behind him the Panthers have Josh McCown and Matt Moore.
In 2007 the toll of 249 sacks taken in five years by David Carr took the Panthers by surprise, and when he went down to injury they ended up starting Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore, each of whom managed a couple wins as the Panthers limped on to finish with a 7-9 record.
Delhomme is a game manager first, and a gunslinger second. Both McCown and Moore can fill his shoes if called on, but only if the running game is still functioning on all cylinders. Each backup has demonstrated an ability to win in the NFL, and both post general stats similar to Delhomme's.
Risk: Moderate. It's hard to place a value on the leadership Delhomme brings to the table, but they have the experience on offense to help if he's lost, and either backup can manage a game effectively. His comeback ability raises the bar though.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart would each start for most teams in the league, and having both of them on the roster is a luxury for the Panthers. Rookie Mike Goodson should provide good skills for a third down back, and in the Panthers offense will be effective even if the starters stay healthy.
Rookie Tony Fiametta was widely considered as the best fullback in the draft, and what Brad Hoover lacks in accolades he makes up for in effectiveness.
This position should also have talent available on the practice squad.
Risk: Low. Unless a freak season like 2004 hits the Panthers at this position, they're loaded with skill and quality depth at this position.
Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad form a pretty good receiving tandem for a run-first team. Smitty brings big play ability and insurance against overloading the box, while Moose is a solid posession receiver with outstanding blocking skills.
Third year man Dwayne Jarrett did a decent job in limited action in 2008, gaining first downs on every catch he made. Behind him the Panthers have some quality young talent in Ryne Robinson, Kenny Moore, Larry Beavers, and Jason Carter.
Risk: Moderate-to-High. You know the old saying about how when you seem to have great talent everywhere, you really don't have any talent at all? Well behind the starters the Panthers have yet to find that receiver that can separate himself from the competition. They can't all be stars, can they? Here's a position where not a lot separates those at the bottom of the depth chart from the guys on the practice squad.
Jeff King, Dante Rosario, and Gary Barnidge form one of the more unheralded units on the Panthers.
In a John Fox offense, the Tight End is generally used as an additional offensive lineman. Run blocking is a premium, which is why Jeff King has a lock on the starting spot.
Rosario and Barnidge both have good hands and can stretch the field, but their run blocking isn't on the same level as Kings'. Rookie Kevin Brock may make the practice squad.
Risk: Low-to-Moderate. The Panthers just don't use this position enough to make it a critical cog in the offensive attack, but the running game depends on it more than you think.
Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent, and Jeff Otah make up one of the best lines in the NFL. Behind them the Panthers have a handful of rookies and second year players.
Guard/center Mackenzie Bernadeau has reportedly bulked up and the Panthers were fairly high on him in 2008, and rookie Duke Robinson was considered the best pure guard in his class.
The Panthers also have second year tackle Geoff Schwartz and rookie Gerald Cadogan, but at this point no backup has done anything to inspire a lot of confidence should a starter go down.
Risk: High. The Panthers really don't have any proven depth here. If they experience even the same level of injury as they did last year then things could quickly get very bad. Granted, depth could be there, but it hasn't demonstrated that it can perform yet. If the line needs to be shuffled and continuity is broken, it will have a negative impact on the entire offense.
On the ends, the Panthers are loaded with Julius Peppers, Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson, Hilee Taylor, and Everette Brown. On the inside it's another story. Tackles Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu are capable starters, but behind them the Panthers have draft choice Corey Irvin and maybe either Marlon Favorite or Lonnie Harvey will step up.
Second year man Nick Hayden is an option too, but he did a poor job playing in relief in 2008. This is another spot that merits a practice squad project or two.
Risk: High. The End position is covered, but if the Panthers lose a starting tackle the talent drop will be substantial. For a team that struggled to stop the run in 2008, that could be devastating.
The Panthers grew accustomed to injuries at linebacker during the Morgan years, but lately they've been very fortunate here. Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and Na'il Diggs stayed healthy all year in 2008, and only Diggs has any injury history at all.
Backup Dan Connor is one of the best ever to come out of Penn State, AKA Linebacker University. Landon Johnson was a starter in Cincinatti, and James Anderson has been solid in spot duty.
Risk: Low-to-Moderate. If Beason goes down the Panthers lose a star, and their defensive signal caller. But they really have the personnel to overcome an injury to any of their starters, and should be solid here even if someone gets hurt.
Richard Marshall, Chris Gamble, and rookie Sherrod Martin will probably be the teams' top three cornerbacks.
Behind them the Panthers have veterans Dante Wesley and C. J. Wilson, with rookie Captain Munnerlyn available for more depth. The Panthers will carry five cornerbacks, and should be fine at this position.
Risk: Low. Gamble would be hard to replace, but the Panthers have plenty of depth and experience here.
Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey are able starters, and Nate Salley's a veteran who's got starting experience.
Cornerback Dante Wesley has also lined up at safety, so this position is set with experience in case something bad happens.
Third year man Quinton Teal isn't a lock to make the roster, but he does provide depth here. The same goes for rookie Anthony Scirrotto. A player with an outside shot at a roster spot also plays safety, rookie D. J. Clark.
Risk: Low. Harris is a good leader, but the Panthers have plenty of leadership on the defensive side of the ball and enough defensive backs to overcome the loss of any individual player.
John Kasay and Rhyss Lloyd each have a specific role to play, and both of them are very good at what they do. Punter Jason Baker is also reliable and talented. The Gunners this year will once again come from the defensive backs unit, which is loaded.
Risk: Low. Lloyd would be the hardest to replace in terms of what he can do, and if he went down he probably wouldn't be. The others could be replaced with players off the street. Long-time Panther fans know to worry about the long snapper, but as that position's unknown at this time anyway there's no greater risk to that position brought on by injury. The same applies to the return game, last year's return man is gone and that position is uncertain.
This year the Panthers are pretty happy with their talent at every starting position. But they're thin in some pretty critical spots--notably along both lines. On a John Fox team, line play is crucial on both sides of the ball.
Don't be surprised if there's a repeat of 2008, where several veteran cast-offs are invited to camp to compete. The Panthers seem solid on the surface, but they still have needs.
With any luck, they won't be serious ones.