For the Panthers, 2008 started out with a certain amount of uncertainty. From questions arising about Jake Delhomme's recovery from Tommy John surgery, to the uncertainty of DeAngelo Williams' future, and the big chance taken in the draft of trading away 2009's first round draft pick to the Eagles in order to move up to pick offensive lineman, Jeff Otah.
All those questions were answered last season, when the Panthers went undefeated at home, went 12-4 in the regular season, and boasted a top-three rushing attack.
In the offseason, the Panthers lost one starter, defensive back Ken Lucas. That's all! This season, the Panthers return 21-of-22 of last year's starting players, including Julius Peppers. While the Panthers weren't able to secure a long term deal with Peppers, it is all but assured that Pep will play just as hard this season as he did last year, considering he's playing for a new contract for the second year in a row.
What if Peppers takes a mental break at any point of this season? Well, the Panthers took that and Peppers' uncertain long-term future with Carolina into consideration in the draft this year, trading away next year's first round pick (notice a trend here) to snag Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. A move that on paper, and from looking at film from Brown's years with the Seminoles, could pay dividends right away.
Carolina looked to sure up the defense this year, as their second pick in the second round came from Troy, in Sherrod Martin, a man who will play at the nickel position and can also be utilized as a safety, his primary position in college.
In an effort to add some depth and help solidify the defensive line, the Panthers drafted Corvey Irvin out of Georgia. While Irvin was inconsistent at Georgia, he harbors the raw talent and is a big man up front. With a little work, he could develop into a solid run stopper and pass blocker.
In the fourth round, the Panthers went with Mike Goodson. He has potential as a third running back, slot receiver, and as a kickoff or punt return specialist. He's fast, shifty, and has great vision on the field. He took some impressive hits at Texas A&M, but he always tried to get as much out of a run, even when he was wrapped up with a defender.
In the fifth round, Carolina took a look at the lack of depth on the offensive line and took Duke Robinson out of Oklahoma. With the departures of Frank Omiyale, Geoff Hangartner, and Jeremy Bridges, the lack of depth on the O-line was a critical issue that needed to be addressed. While Robinson won't be able to fill the void of three offensive linemen, drafting him was a move in the right direction.
Carolina's final draft selection was Captain Munnerlyn in the seventh round out of the University of South Carolina. Munnerlyn adds another piece to the defense, but more importantly to the special teams return gameplan puzzle.
After the Panthers let Mark Jones go, Munnerlyn becomes another candidate as the new return man for the Panthers, and he's up against some good competition with Ryne Robinson, Mike Goodson, and Larry Beavers competing against him.
On the offensive side of the ball, Carolina failed to address the depth at quarterback, or lack thereof.
Backing up Delhomme is Josh McCown, a quarterback who, when under intense pressure, folds like a lawnchair. However, when given time, and with the strength and size of the Panthers offensive line, he can make some good plays. But with the schedule of opponents the Panthers are faced with, blitzing defenses are like water: They will look for the path of least resistance. And if any of the big boys up front go down, so will McCown.
What about Matt Moore? He seemed to do pretty well a couple years ago, until he sustained an injury, at being a game manager and made some smart decisions. My problem with him is he takes too long in the pocket, and again, with blitzing defenses, the more time spent holding onto the ball in the pocket means more time for the defense to make a play on the quarterback.
I'm not too thrilled with the lack of proven, experienced depth at the quarterback position. But with the lack of salary cap space for this year, it's understandable that Carolina will have to work with what's there.
In light of salary cap complications, the Panthers also went ahead and re-signed Delhomme to a five year contract extension. Five years was not exactly what I had expected, although I was both comfortable and happy knowing Delhomme will remain in Carolina for the remainder of his career.
In the end, Delhomme is not a bad option as the starting quarterback; he's the longest-tenured starting QB for Carolina, the winningest quarterback in team history, and he has an uncanny ability to keep himself together when the game is on the line.
As a leader, Delhomme is one of the best. As a quarterback, well...fans, the coaching staff, and the talking head "experts" must remember that Delhomme has never been a flashy quarterback. He's always been a game manager, which isn't bad, so long as Carolina has the running game around him, and the big offensive line to protect him.
I do agree with most that the Panthers must be instrumental in finding his eventual successor, as I don't see one on the current roster.
The receiver position is nothing to be upset about, really. Certainly Steve Smith is an overlooked playmaking threat by the experts, and Muhsin Muhammad is considered old by NFL standards, but as long as they can stay healthy, the Panthers have what I consider their best receiving duo in team history.
Add Dwayne Jarrett into the mix at the slot receiver position, and the Panthers have a talented enough receiving corps (provided Jarrett steps up to the plate this year) that has the ability to spread the field against opposing defenses.
The tight ends are serviceable. Out of the three veterans, Jeff King and Gary Barnidge show the most promise. As much as I love that game winning catch against the Chargers that Dante Rosario snatched out of the air, he disappears too often. He's not good at blocking, and his performance ebbs and slows. Yes, slows. Very inconsistent.
Jeff King might move slow, but he has decent hands, and has great blocking skills. I haven't seen much of Barnidge during the regular season, but I hope to see more of him this season, as I feel he has the potential to be a possession tight end with the speed of a receiver.
In the backfield, the Panthers drafted Syracuse fullback Tony Fiammetta in the fourth round. This move really shouldn't come as a shock to the majority of Panthers fans, though when it happened, I too was thinking, why fix something that's not broken? Then I started thinking about how long Brad Hoover has been a Panther, and the realization was at some point, they will need to find his successor.
Fiammetta is raw and rough around the edges, but after playing some special teams and watching Hoover, the master at the fullback position, Fiammetta will have an idea of what's expected of him. He's big-bodied, and can hit the gaps pretty hard. My biggest concern over him right now, is his ball handling skills and he needs to become a little more aware of his footing.
For the second year, the Panthers return one of the best running duos in the league, aptly named "Double Trouble." DeAngelo Williams had a fire lit under his feet on draft day, when the Panthers took Jonathan Stewart to be his replacement and No. 1 running back.
As fate would have it, a series of excellent events transpired, as Williams put up Pro Bowl caliber numbers, and the rookie Stewart, almost broke 1,000 yards rushing. Other than the potential for injury, there is nothing to really be concerned with in the Panthers' running game.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are a couple of question marks, but a lot of depth. The defensive backs, Julius Peppers, and the defensive line's run-stopping ability are questionable.
Jon Beason, who plays behind the defensive line as a linebacker, has performed solidly for the Panthers, statistically finishing second overall amongst the linebackers in the NFL, in his first two years on the Panthers defense.
However, his counterparts on the defensive line, while they are a force to be reckoned with, will have to penetrate some good offensive lines, especially in the NFC East, to make plays on the quarterback and to effectively be the first line of defense on opposing teams' running games.
Second year man Dan Connor has recovered well from a torn ACL sustained last year in the preseason, and should contribute greatly on special teams. But if new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks likes what he sees from Connor, there is potential that he could see some time in the starting lineup.
In the backfield, the Panthers are pretty well set at the safety position with Charles Godfrey and Chris Harris. Godfrey and Harris are both hard hitting and have big playmaking capabilities. With Harris, comes something else that isn't learned on the football field: Leadership.
The defensive backs look good, too. I was a little uncomfortable with the Panthers releasing Ken Lucas, but not totally against their decision, either. I've always liked Chris Gamble, and I've been eagerly awaiting the day that he would be given the opportunity to come out of Lucas' shadow on the depth chart.
That day is finally here, and he will be the the closest to a shutdown corner that the Panthers have had. He's fast, nimble, and has great hands. All big playmaking qualities.
Starting opposite Gamble will be Richard Marshall. Marshall is another solid threat at the corner position who brings big play capability with him, as well.
All-in-all, the Panthers look pretty well set to make a run at the playoffs and to repeat as division champions. However, Atlanta and New Orleans will be in the thick of that race as well, so the NFC South will be quite competitive, yet again.
I predict Carolina to finish with no less than 10 wins and decent potential to win the division in '09.
The Panthers start their training camp in Spartanburg, SC on the second of August. Practices are open to the public.
Carolina opens the preseason with a trip to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants on Monday August 17 at 8 p.m.
Fan Fest will be Saturday August 8 at 11 a.m. at Bank of America Stadium.