This is the middle article and look at the other teams in the NFC South. On Monday, I took a look at the Atlanta Falcons. Today, I take an in-depth view of last season's division champ, the Carolina Panthers.
In the offseason, Carolina has undergone some changes, as former Defensive Coordinator Mike Trgovac left to join the Green Bay Packers defensive staff. Other members of the coaching staff are gone as well, meaning there will be some fresh ideas and attitudes that could take some time to take effect.
Of course, the other two big stories out of Carolina are the contract disputes between the Panthers and DE Julius Peppers, and the long-term deal rewarded to Jake Delhomme. Let's look to see how Carolina looks position-by-position, and compare them to the New Orleans Saints.
Over the past three seasons, Carolina is 5-1 versus the Saints. Much of this is due to John Fox's understanding Sean Payton's offense and being able to come up with a game plan, both on offense and defense, that would give him the best chance to win. Look for that to change this year.
QB Jake Delhomme
Delhomme, being a Cajun himself, seems to play his best football versus the Saints. Even if he doesn't, it appears he definitely doesn't do very well against Arizona. His playoff performance against the Cardinals may have been the worst of any playoff game by a quarterback ever.
Despite that pathetic showing, the Panthers rewarded Delhomme with a five-year deal earlier this offseason. The bad news for Panther fans is that Delhomme can continue his uneven play as he is pretty much the assured starter for the next few seasons.
The good news is that contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed, meaning his next five interception performance at home in the playoffs could have him headed out of town.
The contradiction in Delhomme's play is that the Panthers only ask him to be a game manager, but he is a gunslinger by nature. Some games he gets away with it, such as when he can lob up a jump ball on three Saints defenders and Steve Smith still comes up with it.
I think those days are over. I expect us to be a little more like Arizona was against him in the playoffs.
That being said, I would expect Gregg Williams to make Delhomme beat him, and not Carolina's vaunted running game.
RB DeAngelo Williams
Williams burst onto the scene last year, both as a fantasy stud and touchdown machine.
He runs with great power, and is always a breakaway threat. He was also a good receiver out of the backfield, although Carolina doesn't throw a ton to their backs. When they did, it was usually to Williams, and he took advantage by scoring two touchdowns through the air.
The fact that Williams shared some of his success with rookie Jonathan Stewart shows that the O-Line was extremely good a season ago.
RB Jonathan Stewart
Many thought drafting Stewart was a sign the team was not happy with Williams. Instead, it seems obvious that pick was meant to form one of the best running back duos in the entire NFL.
Stewart is similar to Williams in that he has great power, but also great explosion. He had 836 yards rushing in a rookie season where he had a few injuries, and played alongside a Pro Bowler.
Look for Stewart to be more of a threat out of the backfield and a more complete back in 2009. This will allow the Panthers to create matchup problems by playing the two in the backfield together.
LT Jordan Gross
One offseason move that went under the radar was the Panthers re-signing Jordan Gross to a long term contract. This creates continuity on the offensive line, perhaps the most important position on the offense other than QB.
Gross is a Pro Bowler who excels in the run game. He does a good job protecting Jake Delhomme's blindside. He is the anchor and identity of that physical and aggressive offensive line. If he were to get injured and miss a serious amount of time, it would hurt the Panthers offensive continuity.
RT Jeff Otah
The rookie from Pittsburgh was a clog at the right tackle position a season ago. He does have the ability to move over to the left side if Gross were to get hurt, but he is more suited for the right side. He can be a dominant right tackle for the next ten years.
Having these two bookend tackles are a big reason the Panthers running game is so good. And it also has a lot to do with why Delhomme is able to stand in the pocket and lob the ball up for Smith, among eight guys.
C Ryan Kalil
The former Trojan has become the Panthers long-term answer at the center position. He is smart and moves well in space, making him the ideal fit for the Panthers zone- blocking scheme.
The trio of Gross, Otah, and Kalil is young and can lead this unit for easily the next ten years. They will be good this year, and as Duke Robinson moves in at one of the guard positions, this will become one of the best offensive lines in the game. Stopping the run will be difficult for years to come against Carolina.
WR Steve Smith
Smith is a diminutive punk to anyone who doesn't consider themselves a Panther fan. To those viewing him from the inside, he is an incredibly gifted receiver who uses speed, intelligence, and an aggressive attitude to make plays.
He is a winner who will push and shove to get open. Kind of like Kobe Bryant, it is probably better not to get Smith fired up, as he will step his game up—unless of course you can get him out of the game completely.
Despite his lack of size, he often is able to go up against defenders and make the tough catch, a la Larry Fitzgerald or Randy Moss. And Saints fans take heart, he does it against other teams as well.
Carolina is the only team in the division who doesn't start a marquee name tight end. Instead, they rely on Jeff King and Dante Rosario to make an occasional play, but they are used mostly in the running game to open holes for Williams and Stewart.
Both are dangerous and must be covered, but defenses don't need to worry about them too much.
DT Maake Kemoeatu
It seems like this guy was just a rookie a year ago, but he's already been in the league for eight seasons. He is big, physical, and a pain to block, especially in the run game.
He regularly requires double teams, enabling the linebackers more space to operate and make tackles. His presence also helps Peppers rush the passer.
DE Julius Peppers
Will he or won't he be a Panther in 2009? Most think he will, as it would be too costly not to play.
He is a guy who seems to turn his motor on and off when he feels like doing so. I don't think this is the type of player most teams are looking for, despite his level of talent.
He would be wise to sign his franchise tender and play this season. Then in 2010 he can be a free agent and get paid many millions by Daniel Snyder and the Redskins.
The fact the Panthers drafted Everette Brown in the second round shows the Panthers are ready to move on if necessary. Brown plays with a tremendous motor, has a plethora of pass rush moves, and when he adds some bulk and strength will be good at playing the run.
Expect this to be Peppers last season in teal and silver (or whatever color they consider themselves to be).
MLB Jon Beason
Beason is heading into his third season from Miami (Fla.), and has already made the Pro Bowl. Despite his youth, he is the leader of the unit. He is a tackling machine as he recorded 138 a season ago. He also had three interceptions.
This proves that he is good in coverage, and that is his primary responsibility because he lacks the size and explosiveness to rush the passer.
Beason has likely reached his ceiling as a player, but it's a pretty good place to be if he can maintain this for the next ten years.
OLB Thomas Davis
Davis is a former safety who moved to linebacker because of his ability to play effectively near the line of scrimmage and his lack of range.
Interestingly enough, Davis had 3.5 sacks a year ago, but zero interceptions. He is a good linebacker, and a force to be reckoned with for any blocker.
He can be very aggressive, meaning you can run misdirection plays against him, or trap him in the running game, which will often lead to big plays. Of course, the Panthers know this and try to arrange their schemes to hide his deficiencies.
S Chris Harris
Harris had a bit of a breakout season last year. He provided a much needed answer at the safety position, and is one of the more athletic and rangy players at the "strong safety" position--which of course, no longer exists.
His ability to effectively play the run, and also maintain deep position against the pass, make him a solid player, and a guy any defense wouldn't mind having.
CB Richard Marshall
Marshall is in his fourth season out of Fresno State. It appears the Panthers are going to give him the opportunity to start alongside Chris Gamble.
As a nickelback, he has been a very effective player. He has the size to play against big, tall receivers on the outside, but could struggle against some of the speed and overall athleticism he will face on a weekly basis.
CB Chris Gamble
According to nfl.com, Gamble is a free agent. Thankfully for Carolina he is under contract for the next few years. He is a playmaker, who opposing offenses have learned to try to avoid.
He will get beat on short and intermediate routes, and his large number of tackles would seem to indicate that he gives up a lot of receptions. But he doesn't get beat deep very often and makes plays. That's not a bad combination.
With the ordeal being caused by Julius Peppers, this is clearly a team that is still looking to finalize its roster. They have some questions they must answer before September 13th.
If they answer them correctly, which to me would mean bringing all three of those players back, then I say the Panthers have a much better chance of having another successful season. If they are unable to make that happen, I would look for 2009 to be a little more stressful on the already white hair of John Fox.