Is a strong running game the key to the Panthers’ success or do other intangibles outweigh the two-headed monster in the backfield?
There are many make or break players that must have a comeback, or breakout, season in order for the Panthers to succeed. If Jake Delhomme can gather his ability from the 2004 season and if young defenders Everette Brown, Charles Godfrey, and Richard Marshall come together and develop into the system, the Carolina Panthers have a chance to win the NFC South or at least become a Wild Card team.
Last year, coming off of Tommy John surgery, Jake Delhomme had a season full of highs and lows. Within the NFC Divisional game alone, Delhomme threw six interceptions which led to the Panthers defeat against the Cardinals.
Although Delhomme had a lackluster performance, the Panthers did not make any moves to replace him—he is the best quarterback on the roster. In the past Delhomme possessed the ability to lead the team when the run game failed. This season he must depend on a steady run game to open up the field for his arm.
There is not a steady backup behind Delhomme as Matt Moore and Josh McCown will battle for the top back up slot. Moore doesn’t have the experience like McCown; however he has been in the Panthers’ system and may have a slight advantage talent wise.
The Panthers have bought into the recent trend of an offense consisting of two thoroughbred running backs. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined their talents and set league records.
The combo can improve on those record numbers as Stewart has had an offseason to familiarize himself with the system. Williams has great instincts/vision and is also one of the quickest backs who can run between the tackles, while Stewart uses his bowling ball running style to get to the second level. Behind a zone blocking line and a great lead blocking fullback in Brad Hoover, Williams and Stewart should continue their success.
The Panthers also added two more pieces to their running game—fullback Tony Fiammetta and running back Mike Goodson. Fiammetta will most likely be groomed for Hoover’s position and Goodson brings versatility as an outside runner and out of the backfield receiver.
Steve Smith leads a group of receivers which has experience and youth. Smith is arguably one of the most talented receivers in the league as he has elite speed to beat coverage deep downfield.
Veteran Muhsin Muhammad not only runs solid crisp routes and gives Delhomme a large target, but he takes pressure off of Smith. Smith and Muhammad combined for almost 2,500 yards last season.
If Delhomme can be consistent throughout the season, the duo will once again have another impressive season. Dwayne Jarrett offers a solid third receiving option because of his good hands, and tight end Jeff King is a good in-line blocker for the run game and can also give Delhomme another big target for third down plays.
The Panthers offensive line may not be one of the most talented units on the team, but is one of the most important. Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross returns as a cornerstone to the unit and right tackle Jeff Otah will assist Gross in opening up lanes for the two iron horse running backs. Keydrick Vincent and Travelle Wharton will be influential in pieces within the offense because of their good run blocking technique.
The Panthers may have a good starting five offensive line, but the depth of the unit is limited because of the loss of Geoff Hangartner, Jeremy Bridges, and Frank Omiyale via free agency. Last year the Panthers spent two seventh round draft picks on are Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzy Bernadeau; both will be the top backups this season.
The group’s losses were key contributors to last year's successful run game. Therefore in order for the offense to succeed the starters must maintain their health.
Julius Peppers has been a consistent Pro Bowl pass rusher, last season he had 14.5 sacks. Outside of Peppers the team’s pass rush was vacant, therefore they moved up in the draft to get stud defensive end Everette Brown. The deal may have cost their first round selection of 2010, but Brown although undersized has the speed and quickness to get around many offensive tackles in the league.
Ma'ake Kemoeatu has a large frame and though not a great pass rusher he will plug the middle against the run.
Damione Lewis will start at the other defensive tackle as the weakest member of the D-line. If he can polish his technique and come off of offseason surgery, he may serve his role and assist off of Kemoeatu’s double team blocks.
Darwin Walker and Tyler Brayton will have their roles reduced this season, but give the unit solid backups. The success of the unit will depend on the development of Everette Brown as an NFL pass rusher.
Led by middle linebacker Jon Beason, the linebacking corps is the defensive unit which contains the most depth. Beason has the athletic ability which allows him to play from sideline to sideline and aggressively delivering a strong blow.
Thomas Davis and Na’il Diggs partner with Beason with similar athletic traits and great tackling skills. Though Diggs is entering his 10th season, he is an experienced backer which can assist in developing the younger backups. Davis can cause many impact plays such as sacks and turnovers.
Landon Johnson is the most quality backup on the roster. However, Donte Curry, Dan Conner, and James Anderson can all be used in multiple sub-packages.
Last season, the secondary was average ranking 21st in interceptions partly because of the inexperience of Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas with only 14 combined seasons.
Lucas left the team via free agency leaving the reigns to Gamble in leadership and experience. Gamble has great speed and led the team in tackles last season, but still gives up many big plays.
Chris Harris will start with Charles Godfrey at the safety position, both are talented young safeties but have room for improvement. Harris uses his aggressiveness to deliver punishing blows to ball carriers and as a rookie Godfey turned in many impressive performances.
Richard Marshall, last season’s nickel cornerback, will take the place of Ken Lucas opposite of Chris Gamble. Second round selection Sherrod Martin of Troy will take over at Marshall’s nickel position, however if Martin struggles C.J. Wilson or Dante Wesley could take over his duties.
Placekicker John Kasay and kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd return to the team as Kasay only missed one field goal last season inside of 50 yards, and Lloyd had 30 touchbacks setting an NFL record. These two pieces are vital in scoring and field position and will assist the team greatly.
The weakness of this unit is in the return game which Mark Jones was lost to the Titans via free agency. Ryne Robinson will likely take Jones position which is not a total decrease in skill because of his agility.