The Carolina Panthers head into the 2009 season carrying some stiff expectations with them. After a 12-4 season that was abruptly ended by a shameful home playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl runner-up Cardinals, the Cats will have a tough road to another playoff berth.
Here's a look at a few things to watch for as the Panthers go camping.
Turns out this photo won't serve as the last picture of Pep leaving the field at Bank Of America Stadium.
The Panthers will have at least one more year with Peppers, although an extension is unlikely at this point following the 2009 season.
Peppers has made it clear that he does not want to be in Carolina and unless something causes a major change of heart, he won't be next year.
Peppers will need to get up to speed on new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' scheme that was introduced in small doses during OTA's. He will also need to serve as a mentor to young Everette Brown, who will likely take his place after his departure.
It is possible we could see the two on the field at the same time in 09, and chemistry between them will cause nightmares for opposing offenses.
It will also be interesting to see if Peppers' teammates are as quick to bury the hatchet as they claim they will be following Peppers' offseason circus.
Only a small portion of Meeks' new defensive strategy was unveiled during OTAs, but the whole package will start to take shape in Spartanburg. Now that Peppers is in the mix on the defensive line, it's safe to say the first team has been established on defense--for now.
It will be interesting to see if any new position battles form after the in's and out's of Meeks' system are introduced.
It could be that there is that "system guy" sitting on the Panthers bench.
With a guy with the type of passion and energy that Meeks has leading the troops, I wouldn't be too surprised to see a starter from the 2008 team riding the pine come showtime if he's outperformed at camp.
John Fox will have a host of new coaches on his staff, and their integration into the Carolina Panthers "family" will be cruicial to the team's success in 2009.
New quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer has already made some changes to Jake Delhomme's offseason workout routine, and it is likely that some changes will be made in regards to how training camp is run.
The new coaches mixed in with the usual crop of new players will provide some communications challenges, but that is what training camp is for—working out the kinks when it doesn't count so that there won't be any when it does count.
The Panthers will be returning 21 of 22 starters from last season's squad but will have a heap of new faces on the second team.
Cap issues as well as the team's success in 2008 were contributing factors in watching most of the Panthers' talented reserves earn free agent contracts or become cap casualties.
Most noticeable will be the lack of depth on the offensive line—a quality that saved grace for the Panthers in 2008. Rookie Duke Robinson (pictured) will lead the second team offensive line, as well as Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzy Bernadeau, a couple of seventh round picks in 2008 who saw little or no game action last year.
It is imperative that these guys grasp the concepts quickly and thoroughly so that they can step up and fill in effectively should the need arise.
The defensive second team will be welcoming a few new faces as well. Dan Connor will be at full strength behind Jon Beason at middle linebacker a year after blowing his knee out in a preseason game and missing his entire rookie campaign.
Rookie cornerback Sherrod Martin could see immediate action as the team's third cornerback after Richard Marshall was promoted to starter following the release of veteran Ken Lucas.
On the defensive line, Charles Johnson will likely at least begin the season behind Tyler Brayton at left defensive end, while rookie Corvey Irvin and Nick Hayden will back up Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis at the tackle positions.
It is likely that the team will move Brayton inside at most times rather than use Hayden, barring a major improvement from the youngster at camp.
For those of you who feel like it's time Jake Delhomme received his walking papers, silence. You've had an entire offseason to voice your displeasures with the guy and now it's time for a little reality.
Jake Delhomme will be the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback in 2009, barring injury.
As if the five-year extension didn't speak for itself, Panthers' front office personnel have spent the entire offseason voicing their support for Delhomme as have his teammates.
There is no use speculating whether or not Jake will be able to put that playoff debacle behind him; he already has. Delhomme's emphasis will be on improving the offense and winning games, not dwelling on last year.
Given the rest of the Panthers' options at quarterback (McCown, Moore, Cantwell), don't expect any kind of serious surprise competition at camp.
It is one thing to guarantee you will be ready to play by training camp, and another to actually be ready.
Not that there is any reason to believe otherwise, but keep an eye on Jonathan Stewart and Jon Beason as they get back to full speed on the field.
Stewart is nursing an injured toe and Beason is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Both should be ready to go, but it's worth paying attention to, seeing as how losing either of these guys would put a major dent in the Panthers' 2009 postseason dreams.
Hear that, Dwayne? Your days are numbered here in Carolina if you don't step up.
It would be a welcome sign to see Jarrett step up and prove his critics here in Carolina wrong, but I wouldn't bet on it.
I still personally believe that Jarrett is on pace for a breakout year but if I am mistaken, this conversation likely won't be taking place this time next year.
Jarrett's biggest mistake is that he was so good in college—leaving a lot to be desired after his troubled transition to the NFL.
If he can tap into the raw talent that he possesses somewhere deep down, then the Panthers will have a legitimate receiving corps to pair with their dynamic ground game. It's about time that Steve Smith got a break from filling up half of the Panthers highlight reel every offseason.
Here in the south, the name Jarrett is directly linked to racing, and if Dwayne hopes to change that, he better be thinking up ideas in a hurry.