Fueled by an abysmal six turnover performance by quarterback Jake Delhomme (five interceptions, one fumble), Carolina saw its season come to the most bitter of ends.
An offseason of shoring up its defense through the draft, inking new deals with cornerstones Delhomme and Jordan Gross, and the return of 21 of their 22 starters, the Panthers are primed for another run at the NFC South and a deep playoff run.
The run-powered offense remains intact with one of the most productive 1-2 running back tandems in the league.
DeAngelo Williams had a breakout season in 2008, making the most of his opportunity to become the starter. Williams finished with 1,515 yards rushing (third in the NFL) on 273 carries and 18 touchdowns, tops for all running backs.
Maybe even more impressive was that Williams had no fumbles all season. He also had 121 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
2008 rookie Jonathan Stewart also did a lot of damage piling up yards and points for the Panthers rushing attack, finishing with 836 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The two combined for 152.3 rush yards per game, third best in the league.
Delhomme had a productive year coming off “Tommy John” surgery, throwing for 3,288 yards and 15 touchdowns against 12 interceptions with an 84.7 passer rating, spearheading the offense to an average of 25.9 points a game.
All-Pro Steve Smith (1,421 yards, six touchdowns) and Muhsin Muhammad (923 yards, five touchdowns) will again be the primary targets for Delhomme, with Dwayne Jarrett, Dante Rosario, and Jeff King.
The offensive line, anchored at left tackle by Jordan Gross and on the right side by Jeff Otah, will provide plenty of running lanes for Williams and Stewart, as will Brad Hoover, a powerful fullback. Keydrick Vincent, Ryan Kalil, and Travelle Wharton should also retain their starting jobs in the trenches.
The defense, which hemorrhaged points during the second half of the season a year ago, has some question marks.
Julius Peppers, an all-pro defensive end who led the Panthers with 14.5 sacks last year, has expressed his desire to be traded after the team designated him their franchise player.
Peppers has yet to sign the franchise tender of $16.68 million and did not participate in the team’s most recent mini-camp and does not plan to attend any OTA’s (organized team activities). He can continue to sit out until the sixth week of the season. If the Panthers trade him, they will receive two first round draft picks as compensation.
Carolina helped address the potential Peppers pitfall through the draft when it traded a first round pick in 2010 to select Florida State defensive end Everette Brown with the 43rd overall pick in the second round.
Brown, who led the ACC with 13.5 sacks and 21 ½ tackles for loss last year, would be a great bookend rusher for the defense if Peppers comes back.
Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu return and are the primary run-stuffers at defensive tackle.
The team also drafted Corey Irvin of Georgia to give the defensive line some depth.
The linebacker corps is solid and will be anchored by Jon Beason, who recorded a team-high 138 tackles last year, and Thomas Davis, who had 113 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a team-high nine tackles for loss.
The secondary will see a new starter after the team released Ken Lucas in the offseason.
Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall will most likely assume the starting jobs at cornerback, and Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey are slotted in as the starting safeties.
Carolina used its other second round pick on Sherrod Martin of Troy, a speedy cornerback who tied a NCAA record with three interceptions in one quarter during a 65-0 pasting of Alcorn State last year. He is expected to compete for a starting role and give the team some depth.
Carolina’s defense ranked 18thin the league last year and will turn to new coordinator Ron Meeks to right the ship.
Meeks comes over from the Indianapolis Colts, where he spent the last seven seasons. During the 2007 season, the Colts defense was tops in the league in scoring defense and third in total defense.
He is credited with being the mastermind behind the Colts figuring out how to play defense during their run to the Super Bowl championship in 2006 when they had been one of the most enigmatic units throughout the regular season.
The Panthers will need all the help they can get in trying to re-produce its 12-4 campaign from a season ago.
The NFL schedule-makers have given the Panthers the second toughest schedule for the 2009 season, with the 16 opponents it will face having a combined record of 123-84-1. Buffalo (7-9) is the only team on the schedule that had a losing record last year.
Also, the bye week will come after their third game. That will mean 13 games in 13 weeks, and one of those (November 19 against Miami) will come just four days after hosting division rival Atlanta on November 15.