Carolina Panthers 2008 Season Preview

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IAugust 3, 2008

Every Carolina Panthers fan knows that the Panthers were a huge disappointment last season.  They finished 7-9, tied for second in the NFC South—maybe the worst division in the NFL last year.   

In 2007 the Panthers had major problems on both sides of the ball. 

Starter and team leader/catalyst Jake Delhomme hurt his elbow in early October and missed the rest of the season after having Tommy John surgery.  After that the quarterback situation was in shambles. 

Backups David Carr and Matt Moore shared snaps with has-been Vinny Testaverde, whom out of desperation the Panthers pulled out of retirement halfway through the season.  But none of them could get much of anything going, and Carr just downright sucked—he was so bad that I remember watching the first drive or two of his first start for us and thinking, "Oh crap, we're gonna get slaughtered in the rest of the our games..." 

More than anything Delhomme's absence marred team chemistry.  Steve Smith, the Panthers' best receiver—and probably their best player—and Jake Delhomme have a unique bond with one another, and Delhomme is a natural leader.  Delhomme had the ability to keep everyone on offense on the same page, and he had an extraordinary sixth sense for anticipating Smith's actions.  Panthers fans have seen Delhomme and Smith hook up for some outstanding plays in the past—those two are a spectacle to behold.  But without that chemistry or leadership on the field, the Panthers' attack floundered. 

With the passing game proving ineffective, greater importance was put on the running game.  But that didn't work out: Starter DeShaun Foster was completely ineffective, amassing 876 yards and three touchdowns while starting all sixteen regular season games.   

In addition, the coaching staff was particularly stubborn about sticking with Foster throughout the year (even though he showed week in and week out that he was not cut out for the job) over his understudy, DeAngelo Williams—an elusive slasher with breakaway speed who had shown flashes of brilliance in the past.  This myopic view had Panthers fans—including this Panthers fan—calling for the coaches' heads for much of the season and kept the Panthers' offense at even more of a stand-still. 

But that's just the offense—the defense certainly had problems of their own. 

The defensive line has been the definition of the Carolina Panthers since I've been a fan of the team.  But they sure didn't perform like the heart of a team should last year.  The D-Line put no pressure whatsoever on opposing quarterbacks, giving them the ability to take as much time as they wanted to find open receivers. 

And the most important defensive lineman, Julius Peppers, had—by far—the worst year of his career in 2007.  He only recorded 2.5 sacks, his worst total since 2003, when he registered 7 sacks.   

Also Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac always had the secondary playing way off the line of scrimmage, which provided opposing quarterbacks with a huge space occupied only by three linebackers to work with. 

With a prolific passing attack, opposing teams could also work the run in more easily, which would make their playcalling unpredictable and also keep our defense on the field for extremely long periods of time on end—which obviously would have exhausted the players and made them that much less effective. 

Really the only bright spots on the Panthers' roster in 2007 were rookie linebacker Jon Beason and safety Chris Harris.  Last year Beason totaled 140 tackles—of which 106 were solo.  Harris compiled 96 tackles in 15 games last year as well as eight forced fumbles. 

But there is reason for lots of optimism heading into 2008.

As I mentioned earlier, Jake Delhomme underwent Tommy John surgery to fix his elbow early in 2007, and everyone says he's doing better than ever.  If Delhomme can return to old form—or, better yet, be even better than his old form—this year, the Panthers certainly have a fighting chance to do something special.

To help the quarterback situation even more, Carolinareleased the train wreck known also known as David Carr.  Vinny Testaverde crawled back to retirement.  Matt Moore, who played exceptionally well late last year when he was finally given a chance, and Brett Basanez, who was placed on the IR in late August due to a wrist injury suffered early in training camp—he missed the rest of the year—however, have been retained to back up Delhomme.   

But a superstar quarterback isn't much without good receivers.  Of course everyone knows that the Panthers have superstar wideout Steve Smith, on whom they can always rely.  By the way, please don't comment on Smith's off-the-field issues that have resurfaced in the past few days.  Smith has proven himself to be a great guy in the past few years—besides, everyone screws up once in awhile.  The last time he acted out like this was 2002—six years ago.  Let's deal with this and move on.   

But the glaring issue with last year's wideouts is that there was no true No.2 receiver.  There was Steve Smith, and then no one.  That allowed other teams to double- and sometimes even triple-team Smith.  So there may as well as have been no passable receivers on the field.  Even Peyton Manning wouldn't be able to get anything done without decent receivers.

To address this obvious flaw, the Panthers went out and signed former Panther Muhsin Muhammad, who was a vital part of Carolina's run to the Super Bowl in 2003 as a complement to Smith.  Granted, Muhammad is a fairly old 35, but he is still a serviceable third receiver.  He also has history with Delhomme and Smith, and it'll be fun to reunite them for the first time since 2005, when Muhammad jumped ship for the Bears because they offered him more money than we did.     

But the more notable signing was DJ Hackett, who had played for the Seahawks since his first year in the NFL in 2004.  Hackett has plenty of potential and talent, but he is injury-prone—he hasn't made it through a full season yet, and last year he played in only six games.  But on the bright side, he only missed five games combined in 2005 and '06.  If Hackett can stay healthy, he could definitely be the legit No.2 receiver to complement Smith that the Panthers have been searching for. 

And if that wasn't enough, word at Panthers training camp is that there is a wideout named Travis Taylor who is surprising everyone with his talent.  While details on him are hard to come by, he could make the final roster, or at least be a great practice squad addition—if the rumors about him are true and he continues to perform at a high level at camp. 

To make the running game more effective, the Panthers drafted power running back Jonathan Stewart in April's NFL Draft.  Stewart fits the system head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson want to employ much better than DeShaun Foster did at his best.  Plus DeAngelo Williams should be a nice change of pace from Stewart by bringing an elusive running style to the table.  While Williams is currently listed as the starter on the depth chart, I expect Stewart to get the majority of the carries this year.   

Lastly, the offensive line has seen a major overhaul.  The Panthers' offensive focus this year will be smash-mouth football, to pound the ball on the ground.  To help accommodate this change in strategy, Carolinadrafted massive offensive tackle Jeff Otah, who weighs 330 lbs, with the 19th pick in the NFL Draft.  Also projected to start are Keydrick Vincent (RG), Ryan Kalil (C), Travelle Wharton (LG), and Jordan Gross (LT).  Gross is currently slapped with the franchise tag. 

The defense has also been upgraded, but not as much as the offense. 

The young linebacker corps, the heart of last year's defense, is more seasoned now.  This is also the area where the Panthers upgraded the most in the offseason.  Jon Beason was a force last season, and he should dominate even more in 2008.  Landon Johnson, who had 109 tackles last season for the Bengals, was signed in March to a three-year deal.  Thomas Davis has been good—but not great—the last two seasons, compiling 88 tackles and 4.5 sacks.  But hopefully he can break out this season.  If he does, the Panthers will have an insane trio of linebackers.

There is also plenty of depth at linebacker.  A lot is expected of third-round draft pick Dan Connor.  Adam Seward is the third-string middle linebacker, and he is a viable option in a worst case scenario.  Na'il Diggs was decent in 2007, amassing 58 tackles and 3.5 sacks.      

The secondary and defensive line, however, have not improved much. 

Of course, Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas will start at cornerback once again this season.  And there is some depth to the position.  Gamble's understudy, Richard Marshall, had 89 tackles and three interceptions last year.  Lucas' backup, Dante Wesley, only had two tackles—and no interceptions—in '07.  And he only played in two games.

But I can't figure out why Charles Godfrey, a third-round pick in this year's draft, is not at least the top backup—he's only the third-string understudy to Lucas.  But I still see Godfrey getting considerable playing time at the start of the season—Ken Lucas will be out for awhile with his broken nose, and I don't think Dante Wesley, who has never had more than 20 tackles—or even intercepted a pass in his career—in a season will be able to get the job done.  I expect Godfrey to get the chance to show what he can do early in the season.

As for the safeties, Chris Harris is the only guy who stands out to me—he made 96 tackles and picked off one pass.  While his stats are up-and-down, his presence as big hitter is definitely there—he forced 8 fumbles last season. 

I particularly remember one hit he delivered last year in the season opener against the Rams.  Marc Bulger attempted a pass to Isaac Bruce, and Harris went in and absolutely cleaned Bruce's clock, knocking his helmet off.  I don't remember what happened to the ball, but I'm sure it got knocked free.  This guy is a force.

However, the other safety, Nate Salley, is only a third-year player who has not even come close to proving he belongs in the NFL.  In 2006 he only registered four tackles in eight games.  And he didn't even play last year.  Is this guy really a candidate to start?!  Moreover, is he good enough to start over six-year veteran Terrence Holt?  In his best season, Holt had 76 tackles with three interceptions.  Granted, that was in 2006 with the Lions, but isn't that still much better than Salley?

The defensive line has taken two steps back from the already-pathetic line it was last year by losing Kris Jenkins to the Jets via trade and Mike Rucker to retirement.  This group of defensive lineman is mostly inexperienced, ineffective, or both.  

End Charles Johnson is only in his second year and played little last year. 

Tackle Damione Lewis has had a mostly dysmal seven-year career—his best season was 2004, when he totaled 36 tackles and five sacks for the Rams.  That must be the reason we signed him the following offseason.  Since then he's slowly gotten worse.

The other tackle, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, was signed after the 2005 season.  He has mostly been a disappointment.  When he first came to the Panthers, it was promised that he would be a prolific run stopper, especially when paired with behemoth Kris Jenkins.  But that notion has only proved somewhat true.  Last year was his more productive year with the Panthers, but he still only recorded 46 tackles.  I've always considered Kemo a gigantic blob in the middle of the defensive line who is good for nothing but just being in the way.

Star Julius Peppers has been a force on the defensive line for his whole career—except for last year—in 2007 Peppers had an absolutely horrid season, totaling a mere 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks.  But word from Panthers training camp is that Peppers is back and better than ever.  Jordan Gross, who plays opposite Peppers in practice, says that everything is harder to do against Peppers this season.  Peppers worked extremely hard in the offseason to bring himself back to form.  If he does return to his old self, he will certainly be the best defensive player that the Panthers can put on the field, and perhaps one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

With all this said, the Panthers have by no means sat back and done nothing this offseason, unlike the most recent ones proceeding this year.  They have made upgrades, and I see this team likely finishing between 10-6 and 12-4.  They have made the necessary adjustments to be good.  This will be a great year for us, Panthers fans.  If nothing else, I guarantee—barring significant injuries, of course—that the 2008 Carolina Panthers will be better than the 2007 Carolina Panthers.